PECS #25: Social and ecological success of participation in protected areas

Protected areas are key to conserving ecosystems and safeguarding biodiversity worldwide. Involving local stakeholders in decision-making in protected areas has the potential to contribute not only to the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems, but also to human well-being and environmental equity. However, sound and in-depth evidence on the relationship between participatory approaches and protected area effectiveness is piecemeal. Moreover, the specific features of participation linked to social and ecological protected area success are still poorly understood. This study aims at investigating how participation in protected area decision-making is related to desired social and ecological outcomes. To this end, this work applied a systematic literature review approach to synthesize existing scientific knowledge on this topic. The review comprised 52 empirical case studies examining social and ecological outcomes of protected areas in which local stakeholders were involved in the decision-making process. The study found that participation is related to success in many ways, and determined pathways through which participation contributes to desired social and ecological outcomes. Based on these findings and prevailing literature, eleven features of participation related to positive social and ecological protected area outcomes emerged: 1. Genuine devolution of power to the local level; 2. Involvement of diverse actors and multiple perspectives through fair and inclusive processes; 3. Strong networks and high levels of cooperation; 4. Knowledge integration and co-production; 5. Recognition and integration of local institutions, management systems, rules, values, and customs; 6. Strong and robust local institutions and effective management systems; 7. Alternative income opportunities; 8. Provision and fair distribution of local benefits; 9. Local initiative and support; 10. Rights-based approach to conservation; 11. Long-term external support. Even though the degree and form of participation requires adjustment to specific local contexts, this overview of features provides a sound evidence base on the relation between participatory decision-making and social and ecological effectiveness in protected areas. This information can be used to design more effective participatory conservation interventions in protected areas that meet both biodiversity conservation and human well-being. 

Jule Huber completed her Master in Sustainability Science (M.Sc.) at Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany. Her research focuses on conservation, environmental justice, social-ecological systems, and participatory governance. In her Master thesis, she examined the link between local participation in protected area decision-making and social and ecological protected area outcomes. She determined pathways through which participatory decision-making is associated with beneficial outcomes. During her Master she has worked as a student assistant in several research projects in the fields of conservation, environmental justice, and governance. In 2022, she will start her PhD on biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, Germany.

Jens Newig is full professor and head of the Institute of Sustainability Governance at Leuphana University, Lüneburg. With a broad research interest in governance processes from local decision-making to global telecoupling, much of his research focused on the link between participatory or collaborative governance, and environmental outcomes. He has led several research projects on this theme, and was awarded a grant by the European Research Council (ERC) that produced a meta-analysis of case studies on the outcomes of participatory environmental decision-making processes.

Jacqueline Loos is an assistant professor for the sustainable use of natural resources at the Faculty of Sustainability at Leuphana University and currently leads the interdisciplinary research project “Wildlife, Values, Justice: reconciling sustainability in African protected areas” (funded by the Robert-Bosch Foundation). As a landscape sustainability researcher, she is interested in the social and ecological effectiveness of conservation arrangements, with a particular focus on participatory and collaborative governance.