Protected areas (PAs) are a prominent approach to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem services. A critical question for safeguarding these resources is how PA governance processes and management structures influence their effectiveness. We conduct an impact evaluation of 12 PAs in three Central American countries to assess how processes in management restrictions, management capacity, and decentralization affect the annual change in the satellite-derived Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). NDVI varies with greenness that relates to plant production, biomass, and important ecosystem functions related to biodiversity and ecosystem services such as water quality and carbon storage. Any loss of vegetation cover in the form of deforestation or degradation would show up as a decrease in NDVI values over time and gains in vegetation cover and regeneration as an increase in NDVI values. Management restriction categories are based on international classifications of strict versus multiple-use PAs, and capacity and decentralization categories are based on key informant interviews of PA managers. We use matching to create a counterfactual of non-protected observations and a matching estimator and regression to estimate treatment effects of each sub-sample. On average, strict and multiple-use PAs have a significant and positive effect on NDVI compared to non-protected land uses. Both high and low decentralized PAs also positively affect NDVI. High capacity PAs have a positive and significant effect on NDVI, while low capacity PAs have a negative effect on NDVI. Our findings advance knowledge on how governance and management influence PA effectiveness and suggest that capacity may be more important than governance type or management restrictions in maintaining and enhancing NDVI. This paper also provides a guide for future studies to incorporate measures of PA governance and management into impact evaluations.
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