Human well-being impacts of terrestrial protected areas (systematic review)


Establishing Protected Areas (PAs) is among the most common conservation interventions. Protecting areas from the threats posed by human activity will by definition inhibit some human actions. However, adverse impacts could be balanced by maintaining ecosystem services or introducing new livelihood options. Consequently there is an ongoing debate on whether the net impact of PAs on human well-being at local or regional scales is positive or negative. We report here on a systematic review of evidence for impacts on human well-being arising from the establishment and maintenance of terrestrial PAs.


Following an a priori protocol, systematic searches were conducted for evidence of impacts of PAs post 1992. After article title screening, the review was divided into two separate processes; a qualitative synthesis of explanations and meaning of impact and a review of quantitative evidence of impact. Abstracts and full texts were assessed using inclusion criteria and conceptual models of potential impacts. Relevant studies were critically appraised and data extracted and sorted according to type of impact reported. No quantitative synthesis was possible with the evidence available. Two narrative syntheses were produced and their outputs compared in a metasynthesis.


The qualitative evidence review mapped 306 articles and synthesised 34 that were scored as high quality. The quantitative evidence review critically appraised 79 studies and included 14 of low/medium susceptibility to bias. The meta-synthesis reveals that a range of factors can lead to reports of positive and negative impacts of PA establishment, and therefore might enable hypothesis generation regarding cause and effect relationships, but resulting hypotheses cannot be tested with the current available evidence.


The evidence base provides a range of possible pathways of impact, both positive and negative, of PAs on human well-being but provides very little support for decision making on how to maximise positive impacts. The nature of the research reported to date forms a diverse and fragmented body of evidence unsuitable for the purpose of informing policy formation on how to achieve win-win outcomes for biodiversity and human well-being. To better assess the impacts of PAs on human well-being we make recommendations for improving research study design and reporting.


National Park, Reserve, Community, Governance, Conservation, Poverty, Development, Biodiversity, Systematic review


Protected areas (PAs) are globally considered as one of the primary methods to conserve biodiversity and other Global Environmental Benefits (GEBs). The amount of land placed under some kind of protection has been growing steadily at the global scale, a fact highlighted by the recent Global Biodiversity Outlook 2010 as one of the very few positive achievements over the past years to protect the Earth‟s biological and genetic resources, and help to maintain ecosystemprocesses. PAs are diverse in their governance and objectives and defy simple definition. Types of PAs have been categorised by the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) of International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and used to classify entries in the World Database of Protected Areas ( PAs range from strict conservation to various degrees of human use and occupation. The extent to which designation of protected areas is actually translated into protection and effective management varies substantially depending on many factors.

In parallel, there has been considerable debate on whether, apart from their effects on GEBs, the net impact of PAs on human well-being at local or regional scales are positive or negative (Ferraro et al. 2011). The review fully acknowledges that the establishment of some protected areas (WCPA categories 1-4) has never had as its focus social and human development as will be considered in this review.

However, considering the significant proportion of global biodiversity funding that is devoted to PAs, enhancing understanding of the causal relationships between protected area management and local community welfare is important, as it may help advance both the conservation agenda that is achieved through protected areas while improving the targeted opportunities that exist to simultaneously enhance socio-economic development.

Thus, lessons that may be extracted from this review can inform future investment decisions, and therefore is highly relevant for international governmental and non-governmental organisations.

The relationships between terrestrial protected areas and human well being are likely to be complex and time dependent. Individual protected areas have often been subject to many changes over time in their status and management. Any one of these changes could have effects on human well-being. Prior to protective status being formalised, biodiversity may have been protected spontaneously by particular populations or it may have been used unsustainably. The management approaches implemented by indigenous and local communities would have well- being costs and benefits. The subsequent establishment and governance of protection status may have taken these management approaches and lifestyles into account, or it may have changed them thereby bringing other costs and benefits compared with the previous management approaches. This is all likely to be very site specific and culturally dependent and thus must be understood within specific contexts.

It will often be hard to attribute a given effect to a single identifiable cause. The impact of the existence of a PA, at any point in time, will integrate both its current status and management and those in the past. Common examples would be where an area is initially allocated one level of protection status, e.g. “Forest Reserve”; the protection status of the same area is subsequently changed, e.g. to “National Park”; the amount and type of protection management activities change greatly over time, e.g. due to political and resource changes in government institutions, securing of external funding, inputs by non-government institutions, enactment of new policies (e.g. encompassing some form of participatory management) and changes in levels of ecotourism and how ecotourism is managed.

Thus, investigating the relationship between protected areas and well-being needs to take into account:

a)  Context and lifestyles of local and indigenous communities before protection status was established.

b)  Whether the establishment or governance of protection status considers the circumstances and lifestyle of local and indigenous communities.

c)  Whether circumstances and lifestyles change as a consequence of protection status.

d)  Whether the creation of a protected area generates incentives for human populations to

settle in and around the area in search for new opportunities.

e)  What well-being benefits were realized by populations not living within the geographic influence of the protected area.

This review will employ two approaches to synthesis; a quantitative synthesis of causal relationships and associations, and a framework synthesis of people‟s views (see section 3.6). At the outset of the review the following broad questions were posed and these have been used to guide development of specific inclusion criteria (below):

Livelihood strategies

Were communities/people affected positively or negatively? Did the establishment or change in status of the PA or management activities within the PA generate or decrease specific production opportunities (e.g. more demand for labour, herding activities and associated products no longer viable, new demand for particular food handicraft or services or products, etc.).? Did the PA influence (i.e. increase or decrease) migration generally, and of particular social groups? Has this differentially impacted (positively or negatively) the most vulnerable groups in local communities (e.g. women, children, poorest sectors of community).

Social capital

Did the establishment and management of the PA contribute to the development/strengthening of social networks? Did it positively or negatively impact education and capacity building, e.g. by generating or decreasing opportunities for formal and/or informal education? Has PA establishment differentially affected more vulnerable groups (e.g. women, children, poorest sectors within local communities) in a positive or negative way?


Did the PA foster the empowerment of local communities and any particular social groups? Were new organizations/institutional arrangements created that represent the interests of communities and any particular social groups? Have these organizations developed activities aiming at improving their livelihoods (e.g., legislation to support local livelihoods, land tenure, co-management of local resources, other social benefits)?

Human rights

Whilst recognising that the scope of human rights is very broad, in this review we will focus on the following question; were the rights of all local stakeholders, affected either positively or negatively by the PA? Consider e.g. rights to education, adequate access to food, clothing, health, choices.

Access to ecosystem goods and services and natural resources essential for well-being

Did the PA have any positive or negative impact on the access to ecosystem services and natural resources? For example were there changes in the cost (in terms of money, level of effort, or time) in obtaining firewood, clean water, and other resources/services? Was access to culturally significant places (e.g. sacred grounds) affected? Did self-sufficiency in food (by locally cultivating, hunting, raising animals, gathering) or access to medicinal plants change? Has this been a consequence of the direct impact of the PA through legal prohibition of access or indirect as a consequence of changes in infrastructure and-or institutions? Have any of these positive or negative impacts been disproportionably high or low on particular sectors of society?