Institutional legacies explain the comparative efficacy of protected areas: Evidence from the Calakmul and Maya Biosphere Reserves of Mexico and Guatemala

Related GLP Member: Forrest Fleischman


  • Differential effectiveness of protected areas is the result of preexisting political and economic conditions.
  • Protected areas which have greater levels of economic and political equality may be more effective at nature conservation
  • Developing effective conservation plans requires understanding the historical development of local political institutions.


The effectiveness of protected areas at achieving nature conservation goals varies widely, but the reasons for this variation are understudied. We argue that an important, but often neglected, factor is the history of institutional development that pre-dates protected area establishment. Through a comparative analysis of pathways of institutional development in Calakmul and Maya Biosphere Reserves, internationally adjoining protected areas in Mexico and Guatemala, we demonstrate that differences in farmer and community-level conservation behavior between the two reserves are the result of differences in land tenure systems that pre-date reserve establishment. Differences in land tenure systems resulted in a lower population density, greater tenure security, and greater economic and political equality in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. All of these factors influenced farmers and communities in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve to have more favorable attitudes towards conservation, conserve more forest on both individual and community managed land, and to create more conservation reserves on both land types. These differences are rooted in the system of land distribution and political organization during the 1970s and 1980s, before protected area establishment, when both areas were agricultural frontiers. As a result of these political processes that pre-date reserve creation, farmers and communities in Calakmul hold more land and hold it more equitably, have less access to surplus labor for expanding commercial production, and have a political system that shares benefits from forest conservation more equitably when compared to Maya. Our work highlights the value of understanding historical political and institutional conditions in the design and development of effective protected areas. Protected areas located in areas with greater economic and political equality may be more effective at conserving nature.

From the authors

We examine why some protected areas are more effective than others. The few studies of this question that exist typically utilize the self-reports of protected area managers, and not surprisingly, find that protected area managers just need more money.

We utilize a historical institutional political economy approach to compare the adjoining Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (in Mexico) and Maya Biosphere Reserve (Guatemala). We find that farmers in Calakmul engage in much more conservation behavior than in Maya. We trace the reasons to the historical development of land tenure systems in the two regions. In particular, Mexico's history of granting communal land tenure increased levels of economic equality, tenurial security, and democratic participation prior to the establishment of the Biosphere Reserves. This resulted in much more favorable conditions for conservation in Mexico once the biosphere reserve was established. The implications are:

- Conservation may be more effective in locations where land tenure (and particularly communal land tenure) and democratic participation are stronger, and where economic inequality is lower. Note that this is in contrast to frequent conservation practice, in which conservation areas are designated in areas which are politically and economically marginal and efforts are made to undermine local political institutions and property rights in order to replace them with a pro-conservation regime. In the case of Calakmul, democratic participation and strong property rights have actually improved the conservation of natural resources.

- In designing protected areas, conservationists should take into account not only biophysical characteristics and economic costs and benefits, but also the likelihood that the existing institutions will be supportive of conservation practices. Conservationists may need training to analyze the implications of political institutions for conservation effectiveness.