New study maps evidence of conservation impacts on human well-being

By Debra Levey Larson
U of I News Bureau

URBANA – Thousands of reports are produced every year assessing the effects of different conservation policies and programs, but much of this valuable information is never read. Researchers from the University of Illinois and five other institutions collaborated to highlight the merits of a new technique—creation of evidence maps— to ensure research findings are more visible and accessible. The article appears in Nature today.

“Evidence maps are emerging as a powerful new tool to visually distill a huge amount of information on what works and what doesn’t in a particular field,  says Daniel Miller, assistant professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at U of I.  “We believe the evidence map we’ve created on the effects of nature conservation on human well-beings is the first application of this tool to conservation and sustainable development issues.”

The team of experts from the Science for Nature and People (SNAP) partnership, Conservation International, UCLA, the University of Exeter Medical School, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of Illinois worked together to develop the evidence map. It compiles information on policy impacts within existing studies, synthesizes key trends, and highlights areas in need of further work.

The researchers found that human health concerns and cultural values are among the least-studied impacts of conservation on people. They located and categorized more than 1,000 primary research studies that document relationships between nature conservation policies and programs and human well-being including economic and material outcomes, health, education, culture and social relations. They used this information to create an interactive tool that easily aggregates these data, confirms well-studied linkages, and highlights prominent gaps.

The team found that although over 25 percent of studies examined the link between protected areas and economic well-being, fewer than 2 percent evaluated impacts on human health.

“Evidence maps like the one we’ve created can provide vital input to help guide research and policy by showing both well-studied areas where knowledge synthesis is warranted and gaps where primary research is needed,” Miller says. His research at Illinois focuses on understanding the links between different natural resource governance strategies like national parks and socio-economic and ecological outcomes, particularly in forest environments across the developing world.

“Demonstrating this tool is especially timely as the international community grapples with how best to achieve the recently launched sustainable development goals.”

Organizations like the World Bank, where Miller used to work before joining the faculty at Illinois, are already seeing the value of the information synthesized in this study. The Bank is planning to use the evidence on forest biomes and poverty links to better inform its investment decisions.

Making this evidence map available to other researchers and decision makers opens the door to a better understanding of the effects of conservation impacts on other areas of sustainability such as renewable energy and food security. The SNAP working group that produced this map has received funding to continue this effort in a second phase that will explore these and other potential issues.

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