A child sits on a tree stump in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Achmad Ibrahim for the Center for International Forestry Research)

The United States is celebrating the centennial of its National Park Service, kicking off a proud “second century of stewardship and engaging communities through recreation, conservation, and historic preservation programs.”

The idea of engaging the population to protect nature works well in countries with effective democracy and low levels of inequality. Elsewhere in the world, nature conservation efforts don’t always have the same effects.

In new research published in Ecological Economics, I show that international campaigns for nature conservation in countries with higher levels of inequality and less effective democracy tend to get entangled with the vested interests of leaders and officials. This ends up wasting many of the resources directed toward conservation efforts — and has a serious impact on indigenous and other forest-dependent communities.

The world is adding more and more ‘protected’ land

Countries have been meeting or exceeding global targets for protected areas set by the World Parks Congress since the 1960s. Protected lands nearly doubled from 1980 to 2000 (from 8.7 to 16.1 million square kilometers) — and increased to 32 million square kilometers by 2014.

Despite rapid economic growth in some of the largest forested countries since 1990, most countries in the world have seen significant increases in protected land, while none has witnessed a net reduction of the area under protection.

This significant expansion of protected lands isn’t what it seems

My research shows that the rather unexpected expansion of protected areas is a product of political and economic inequalities. To demonstrate these relationships, I use standard measures of economic inequality (national Gini coefficients) and the strength of democratic freedoms (Freedom House index) and account for relevant geographic, demographic and economic variables for a statistically robust analysis of protected area designation in a sample of 135 countries. Additionally, my research draws on scholarship about protected area policies.

Here’s what happens: Stable democracies with relatively equitable societies (such as France, Germany and Spain) are likely to find it easier to develop a political consensus and policy measures needed to protect land. But the “democratic dividend” diminishes consistently with increasing income inequality.

For instance, despite being among the strongest democracies in the world, United States is able to protect only 13 percent of its national territory, below the international average of 15.48 percent. This is because well-functioning democratic institutions afford opportunities for relatively poor communities that depend on farming and other land-based activities to protest government policies for setting aside large areas of land exclusively for the goals of nature conservation.

Why do undemocratic countries set aside more land?

And here’s the real surprise: Countries with poor democratic institutions and high levels of economic inequality (such as the Republic of Congo, Namibia and Zambia) set aside a larger percentage of territory as protected area. In these countries, governments can afford to dismiss land and forest rights of indigenous and other forest-dependent people who have customarily used these lands.

Researchers at the ESRC STEPS Centre of the Institute of Development Studies, Land Deal Politics Initiative, and the International Institute for Environment and Development refer to the phenomenon of locking away land and natural resources in the name of environmental protection as “green-grabbing.” It’s not so clear that these lands are truly “protected,” however.

Green-grabbing can set up new conflicts, as people push back to regain control of the land. But the failure of democratic institutions and lack of political accountability means many governments can overlook these conflicts without facing political consequences.

Why do politicians from developing countries care so much about protected areas? To answer this question, in an Ecological Economics article and in a book in press I synthesize a vast amount of research on policies and programs of nature conservation in the global South. I found that politicians serve a number of political and economic interests by setting aside protected areas.

Meeting global protection targets nets political capital

First, heads of state try to meet global protected area targets to earn goodwill among the international community — then use this goodwill to deflect global criticism on other matters. For instance, former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari “turned to environmental protection” to boost his support following a sullied presidential election in 1988.

In India, then-prime minister Indira Gandhi earned significant political capital via her enthusiastic support of Project Tiger and other conservation initiatives. Such political capital helped Gandhi blunt international criticism of the human rights abuses that resulted from her suspension of the constitution (1975-1977).

. . . and international funding

Second, protected areas get a lion’s share of international conservation funds. Leading fundraisers in 2014 include the Nature Conservancy ($949 million), WWF International ($700 million), Wildlife Conservation Society ($253 million) and Conservation International ($152 million).

Conservation funds become a source of corruption for politicians and high-ranking government officials, even as the foot soldiers of wildlife conservation remain underpaid. And governments also get to control extractive activities in the land they bring under central control.

And by designating large land areas as under government conservation, in some countries the government actually gets the upper hand against political insurgencies. More recently, scholars have examined instances of “war by conservationin which “global security concerns, specifically the U.S.-led War on Terror and Counterinsurgency” seem to be the primary goal while “conservation is relegated to a position of secondary importance.”

So, paradoxically, the world’s acreage of legally designated protected areas has expanded, yet we see “catastrophic declines in wilderness areas around the world over the last 20 years.” This means that setting global targets for the continued expansion of legally protected areas has been mostly ineffective.

What’s a better way to protect nature?

There’s a logic flaw in proposals to expand the protected area network, such as renowned biologist E.O. Wilson’s advocacy of setting aside “half the planet in reserve, or more.” Instead of chasing ever-larger targets, effectively protecting the lands already under “protection” might be a better option.

Policymakers could create incentives for governments to plow back substantive shares of conservation funds into local development, engage directly with citizen groups and open up nature conservation policies for greater scrutiny. This will aid transparency in policymaking and implementation and is likely to improve accountability among government agencies and officials vested with the task of environmental protection. Environmental conservation efforts — and the protected areas themselves — would benefit from effectively functioning democratic institutions.

Prakash Kashwan is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, and the author of forthcoming “Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico (Oxford University Press, 2017).