What are the impacts of activities undertaken in UNESCO biosphere reserves on socio-economic wellbeing in Southeast Asia? A systematic review


UNESCO biosphere reserves (BRs) have historically aimed to play a crucial role in contributing to sustainable development by bringing about win–win outcomes for both biodiversity and socio-economic development. However, recent studies show the need for a more thorough understanding of how conservation activities impact on and are affected by socio-economic development.


We built this systematic review on a systematic map by Eales et al. [14] adding studies from further academic database and grey literature searches specifically designed for this systematic review. Because studies were not sufficiently homogeneous in their outcomes to warrant a valid meta-analysis, we used narrative synthesis to explore the studies’ findings.


We assessed 10,053 titles and abstracts from database searches and Google Scholar. 343 articles were screened at full text and 16 studies were included in our review. Of the 16 studies, 3 were assessed as having overall high validity, 8 having moderate validity and 3 having low validity of evidence. 2 studies did not provide sufficient information for validity categorisation (unclear validity). Effects on economic living standards, reported in 11 studies, were in both desired and undesired directions, though most high validity studies reported no significant difference, and most others did not test for significance. Most studies reported that BR interventions were associated with positive impacts on material living standards. In general, studies reported good relations between local people and local enforcement/government following interventions in BRs. BR interventions may both reduce or cause social conflict, though the higher validity studies showed results in the desired direction. In one study, there was a positive impact on population family planning outcomes, when a reproductive health intervention was implemented with conservation efforts. There was no clear impact in either direction regarding education. Across two studies the overall message is positive for the subjective wellbeing of local people.


With 727 BRs worldwide, the BR model has been accepted and developed as an approach to facilitate the implementation of the UN’s SDGs. However, our work shows that interventions implemented in UNESCO BRs can bring about impacts in quite diverse ways: positive, negative, unchanged, and may often present both positive and negative impacts in the same situation. This reconfirms that the expected win–win outcomes of UNESCO BR model in terms of biodiversity and socio-economic development should be more carefully considered. We suggest some main points for consideration, particularly when developing management mechanisms for UNESCO biosphere reserves and/or managing activities in biosphere reserves. We also highlight the need for further research to explore the socio-economic impacts of the UNESCO biosphere reserves in Southeast Asia, especially on the domains of freedom of choice and action, security and safety, and culture and spirituality. Moreover, it is vital to have research projects that measure long-term impacts of biosphere reserves, which have been lacking in previous work. Finally, the potential impact of external factors should be considered in programme and monitoring design.


Conservation, Livelihood, Sustainable development, Biodiversity, Economic development


UNESCO biosphere reserves have historically hoped to play a crucial role in contributing to sustainable development by bringing about win-win outcomes for both biodiversity and socio-economic development. However, recent studies show of the need for a more thorough understanding of the interaction between conservation and socio-economics. Moreover, the nexus between conservation intervention and human development has been facing sizeable challenges due to the conflicting interests induced by rapid social and environmental challenges, such as climate change. This, therefore, raises the need for a deeper understanding of the relationship between natural conservation and socio-economic development. In this systematic review, we will enrich the understanding on the relationship between natural conservation and socio-economic development through examining the impacts of UNESCO biosphere reserves on socio-economic well-being in South East Asia countries.


This systematic review stems from a systematic map by Eales et al (2020) to examine the impact of marine management and conservation interventions on human well-being in South East Asia. The systematic map documents multiple types of intervention and outcome and provides an overview on the topic. Building from the systematic map, this systematic review will be more focused on the intervention of UNESCO biosphere reserves and socio-economic outcomes, and will cover both terrestrial and marine UNESCO reserves. We will include any relevant studies identified by the systematic map. We will also conduct further searches in the English language and any other languages within the capability of the review team to include both academic papers and grey literature. Study screening will be conducted in two steps: title and abstract, and full-text. Selected studies (decisions based on pre-defined inclusion criteria) will be assessed for validity based on critical appraisal checklists. We will extract relevant information such as study site/area/year of designation, population, intervention, study design, type of study, outcome measurements and factors affecting the outcomes. A narrative synthesis will be conducted to investigate which aspects of socio-economic wellbeing have been affected by UNESCO biosphere reserves. We will undertake a quantitative synthesis if the available data is suitable.