Research Article: The role of property rights in shaping the effectiveness of protected areas and resisting forest loss in the Yucatan Peninsula

Date Published: May 8, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Daniela A. Miteva, Peter W. Ellis, Edward A. Ellis, Bronson W. Griscom, Laura C. Schneider.


The impact of different types of land tenure in areas with high biodiversity and threats of deforestation remains poorly understood. We apply rigorous quasi-experimental methods and detailed geospatial data to assess the role of tenure regimes—communally held lands (specifically, ejidos), private property, and their impact on the effectiveness of protected areas, in reducing forest loss in a biodiversity hotspot- the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. We find evidence that, while protected areas are effective on average, their impact depends on the underlying type of tenure regime and forest, proxied by biomass levels and biome. Protecting communally held land may reduce deforestation, specifically the loss of medium- and high-biomass forests, compared to forests under private property regimes. Our results have important policy implications for the conservation and climate change mitigation efforts on the Yucatan. However, the high variance in forest loss rates among ejidos indicates that other characteristics of ejidos may be central to understanding community-based forest conservation opportunities.

Partial Text

There has been a recent push in the literature towards rigorous impact evaluations of interventions, coupled with a strong emphasis on how performance varies by context, specifically the underlying tenure regimes that create different incentives for conservation and land use clearing (e.g., [1–5]). However, still very little is known about the heterogeneity of interventions based on the context (e.g., [2, 3, 5]). We address this gap by examining how a common conservation intervention—protected areas, has varying impacts depending on the underlying property rights and the profitability of forests. We focus on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, an area with high biodiversity and importance for climate change mitigation (www. Accessed July 19, 2017), but also high threats of forest conversion (e.g.,[6]).

Our study is the first to provide large-scale rigorous evidence of the impact of common and private forest tenure regimes and their interactions with protected areas in a biodiversity hotspot like the Yucatan peninsula. Our results indicate that protected areas in the Yucatan peninsula are generally an effective conservation strategy that can also contribute to climate change mitigation. Our estimates of conservation effectiveness of protected areas are smaller than those of previous studies (e.g., [10, 11]). There are two possible explanations for the observed patterns. First, we use a different forest loss data source than Pfaff et al. [10]; our cutoff to define forests is lower than the one used in Sims & Alix-Garcia [11], who also use a different sample unit (locality) instead of pixels, although robustness checks with higher cutoffs indicated similar patterns. Given the largely insignificant impacts of protection at low levels of biomass in our study area, a lower cutoff to define forests suggests that we are likely underestimating the impact of formal protected areas. Second, our analysis does not differentiate between the different types of protected areas. Most protected areas on the Yucatan peninsula are biosphere reserves (48,380km2), followed by mixed use (10,637km2) and strict protected areas (9,826.1km2). Of the private properties spanned by a protected area, 55% are under a mixed use, followed by biosphere reserves (31%) and strict protected areas (13%). Of the ejidos spanned by a protected area, 70% are under a biosphere reserve, 18% are under a mixed use, and 12% are under a strict protected area. While previous studies have suggested that the impact of protection might depend on the category of the protected area (e.g., [5, 10, 11]), we do not explicitly test for heterogeneity based on protected area category. The reasons are (1) the relatively small sample sizes in this study precluded us from explicitly testing this hypothesis and (2) digression from the scope of the article that aiming to establish the average impacts of protection interacted with tenure regimes and type of forest. Examining the interaction of the different types of protected areas and tenure regimes is an interesting venue for future research.