No data? No worries! Using social media to identify inequality in access to nature’s benefits in Chile

Experiencing nature with a visit to a natural park provides important cultural ecosystem services that can potentially improve pro-environmental behaviours and attitudes. So, understanding the accessibility of protected areas and the way in which different visitors interact with them is a key factor in reducing inequality in access and help inform management and planning of natural areas.

To measure who was visiting what protected areas, we developed a novel social media database of visits to public protected areas in the Chilean biodiversity hotspot using social media photographs. We then assessed the inequality of access using their home locations and socio-economic data. For example, Flickr users share geo-located photographs, this information can be used to calculate people’s visits to unpopulated areas and provide insights into landscape preferences. We determined the home locations of 3816 visitors who shared Flickr images and identified 2944 of these visitors with home locations in Chile.

The study area covers part of the Chilean biodiversity hotspot between Valparaiso and Araucania regions, encompassing about 148,000 km2. This region holds both the greatest plant richness and endemism in Chile and the most populated areas.

We found that just 20 per cent of the population make up 87 per cent of visits to protected areas – and the larger, more biodiverse protected areas were the most visited and provided most cultural ecosystem services.

We reveal that inequality in accessibility to cultural ecosystem services from protected areas is very high, with the majority of visits arising from a small proportion of the population. For example, people with lower incomes tend to visit protected areas close to home, while wealthier people tend to travel further

This case study has important implications for policy in providing information on the distribution and spatial flows of people to protected areas. Conservation of natural ecosystems, cultural ecosystem services and the delivery of recreational benefits are explicit objectives of the Chilean protected area system policy. By getting information on the current movement of people to protected areas, we highlight the need to expand the protected area network, especially in lower income areas, to reduce inequality in access. This should help increase the benefits from cultural ecosystem services provided by nature to people, and possibly improve pro-environmental behaviour.

Figure. Total annual photo-user-days (PUD) for the 65 protected areas of the Chilean biodiversity hotspot, with a close-up view for four protected areas (displayed at a 500m grid resolution).

For more information read the paper:

Martinez-Harms MJ, Bryan BA, Wood SA, Fisher DM, Law E, Rhodes JR, Dobbs C, Biggs D, Wilson KA. 2018. Inequality in access to cultural ecosystem services from protected areas in the Chilean biodiversity hotspot. Science of The Total Environment 636:1128-1138.