Assessing community-based conservation projects: A systematic review and multilevel analysis of attitudinal, behavioral, ecological, and economic outcomes


Community-based conservation (CBC) promotes the idea that long-term conservation success requires engaging with, and providing benefits for local communities. Though widespread, CBC projects are not always successful or free of controversy. With criticisms on all sides of the conservation debates, it is critical to have a better understanding of (1) whether CBC is an effective conservation tool, and (2) of the factors associated with the success or failure of CBC projects, and the scale at which these factors operate. Recent CBC reviews have typically examined only a single resource domain, have limited geographic scope, consider only one outcome, or ignore the nested nature of socioecological systems. To remedy these issues, we use a newly coded global comparative database of CBC projects identified by systematic review to evaluate success in four outcome domains (attitudes, behaviors, ecological, economic) and explore synergies and tradeoffs among these outcomes. We test hypotheses about how features of the national context (H-NC), project design (H-PD), and local community characteristics (H-CC) affect these four measures of success.


To add to a sample of 62 projects that we used from previous systematic reviews, we systematically searched the conservation literature using six terms in four online databases. To increase the number of projects for each country in order to conduct a multilevel analysis, we also conducted a secondary search using the Advancing Conservation in a Social Context online library. We coded projects for 65 pieces of information. We conducted bivariate analyses using two-dimensional contingency tables and proportional odds logistic regression and conducted multivariate analyses by fitting reduced form proportional odds logistic regression models that were selected using a forward stepwise AIC approach.


The primary and secondary searches produced 74 new projects to go along with the 62 projects from previous reviews for a total of 136 projects. The analyses suggest that project design, particularly capacity building in local communities, is critical in generating success across all outcomes. In addition, some community characteristics, such as tenure regimes and supportive cultural beliefs and institutions, are important for some aspects of project success. Surprisingly, there is less evidence that national context systematically influences project outcomes.


Our study supports the idea that conservation projects should be carefully designed to be effective and that some characteristics of local communities can facilitate success. That well-designed projects can prevail over disadvantages relating to the pre-existing national and local context is encouraging. As the evidence base on CBC grows, it will be useful to repeat this analysis with additional search terms, and consider additional variables related to national context to further evaluate the role of broader socio-political and economic contexts.


Community-based conservation, Conservation and development, Conservation evaluation, Conservation interventions, Socio-ecological systems, Community institutions, Evidence based conservation, Multi-level analysis


Since the 1980s, conservation efforts in developing countries have generally tried to incorporate the interests and views of local people, an approach called community- based conservation (CBC) (Western et al. 1994). Such strategies provide a mix of conservation and development objectives and employ a range of tactics, such as providing appropriate development opportunities, emphasizing local community involvement, awarding direct compensation, and encouraging tourism (Borgerhoff Mulder & Coppolillo 2005). Despite the prominence of such strategies, and strong arguments for and against their effectiveness (Chan et al. 2007), there have been few quantitative comparative evaluations of their successes and failures. Recent studies using satellite imagery have compared land use change among areas with different degrees and types of protection including strict protected areas, extractive reserves and indigenous reserves (Armenteras et al. 2009; Bray et al. 2008; Ellis & Porter-Bolland 2008; Nepstad et al. 2006). However, these studies provide no insight into the social, economic, and political mechanisms underlying the outcomes of different types of conservation interventions. These interventions require systematic evaluation to understand what factors predict success or failure. Two previous systematic reviews have studied the determinants of conservation success, focusing on the use of development as a conservation tool (Brooks et al. 2006a) and the effect of local cultural context and project engagement with local culture (Waylen et al. 2009). These reviews provide valuable insights into determinants of conservation success and the use of systematic reviews to understand CBC project outcomes. However, they have not tested for the influence of the broader socio-political institutional framework, such as support (or otherwise) for projects from national governments. A growing body of theory and anecdotal evidence suggests these factors can play a significant role in facilitating project success or failure (Smith et al. 2003).

Our proposed work is influenced by the systematic comparative work undertaken by the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University led by Elinor Ostrom as well as by efforts to systematically examine the effectiveness of different environmental management and policy initiatives through the Centre for Evidence Based Conservation (Sutherland et al. 2004). Ostrom and her associates argue for the need to collect standardized data (Ostrom 2007; Wollenberg et al. 2007) with which to examine the success of common property institutions (CPIs) and linked social- ecological systems (SESs) and this work has produced some remarkable comparative papers (Agrawal & Ostrom 2001; Poteete & Ostrom 2004; Ruttan 2006). This work generated some of the hypotheses introduced in Brooks et al (2006b) and is germinal to the work proposed here. Of particular relevance is Ostrom’s introduction of the framework of decomposable systems and nested structures as a tool for analyzing CPIs and SESs (Ostrom 2007; Ostrom & Schlager 1996). Our goal here is to employ this framework to understand the interaction between multiple factors and across multiple scales for existing programs devoted to linking conservation and development. Useful initial advances in this area (see work conducted by (Agrawal & Chhatre 2006), (Gibson et al. 2005), and (Gibson et al. 2007) and others at IFRI (International Forestry Resources and Institutions) suggest the utility of this approach, highlighting various sets of biophysical, economic and institutional considerations to be important in different contexts. We believe that it is now important to analyze more precisely the context itself, in particular the external socio-political context – features such as the effectivness of national institutions – within which the natural resource management scheme exists.

Here we set out a methodology to determine the degree to which national political, social, and economic factors are associated with the success of conservation interventions. As in the previous systematic reviews, we will use four measures of success in the analyses (ecological, economic, attitudinal and behavioural).

The review will be of value to policy makers and conservation practitioners by highlighting which features of an intervention and its institutional context have significant influence on outcomes. This review will not, of course, specify how the information is to be used, for this remains an issue for further research and ultimately the decision of policy makers. However, it could indicate how much attention, if any, should be given to the improving the conservation-supportiveness of high-level actors and institutions, versus other priorities for enabling conservation. For example, conservation/development organizations, bilateral donors, and governments could re- examine national level institutions and policy to ensure that they are supportive of community-level conservation efforts, while remaining cognizant of broader national goals as well as the desires of local peoples.