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Protected areas


Protected Areas

IUCN defines a protected area as: A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values. The definition is expanded by six management categories (one with a sub-division), summarized below.

  • Ia Strict nature reserve: Strictly protected for biodiversity and also possibly geological/ geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values
  • Ib Wilderness area: Usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, protected and managed to preserve their natural condition
  • II National park: Large natural or near-natural areas protecting large-scale ecological processes with characteristic species and ecosystems, which also have environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities
  • III Natural monument or feature: Areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, marine cavern, geological feature such as a cave, or a living feature such as an ancient grove
  • IV Habitat/species management area: Areas to protect particular species or habitats, where management reflects this priority. Many will need regular, active interventions to meet the needs of particular species or habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category
  • V Protected landscape or seascape: Where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced a distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values
  • VI Protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources: Areas which conserve ecosystems, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems.

Generally large, mainly in a natural condition, with a proportion under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non-industrial natural resource use compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims

Protected and conserved areas are the foundation of biodiversity conservation. They safeguard nature and cultural resources, improve livelihoods and drive sustainable development. 

IUCN works to establish best practices and standards that maximise the effectiveness of protected and conserved areas and advances justice and equity in conservation, including the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. 

In its work on protected areas and conserved areas, IUCN focusses on three key areas:

  • Achieving quality for successful and valuable protected areas
  • Enhancing justice for fair, just and inclusive protected areas
  • Contributing protected area solutions to development challenges

Governance, equity and rights
Protected areas have long been one of the cornerstones for nature conservation.  They protect biodiversity – the variety of living things on earth – they restore degraded landscapes and they provide a place for people to reconnect with nature.  Yet, protected areas are also the context in nature conservation that have caused human rights concerns, recent reports from the UN Special Rapporteurs in particular on Indigenous Peoples rights, have highlighted the breadth and seriousness of these issues, particularly with regard to indigenous peoples and local communities who have strong cultural and livelihood links to their natural surroundings. 

In order to engage with this topic, and to also achieve the mission of the IUCN – namely the vision of a just world that values and conserves nature, the governance of protected and conserved areas has emerged as a key point of analysis.   Governance is about decision making, its’ Greek root means “to steer”.  The IUCN definition takes a dynamic perspective: it’s the “interactions among structures, processes and traditions that determine how power and responsibilities are exercised, how decisions are taken and how citizens and other stakeholders have their say”.[1]  Simply put this means it is about who makes decisions, how the decisions are made and how appropriate, adaptive and fair those decisions are.  Governance is commonly discussed in two dimensions, governance diversity (or governance type) and governance quality.  

Governance diversity, addresses a few key concerns: Who has the main authority and responsibility for the area in question?  Who should be held accountable for its conservation results?  The IUCN and the CBD recognises four broad governance types for protected areas:

  • Type A: Governance by government (at various levels)

  • Type B: Shared governance by diverse rights holders and stakeholders together

  • Type C: Governance by private entities (often land owners)

  • Type D: Governance by indigenous peoples and/or local communities (at times referred to as ICCAs or territories of life)

Soon, however, other concerns emerge: How are decisions made about the protected area? What norms are applied when making decisions? Which values, principles and approaches guide those decisions?  Are all relevant rightsholders and stakeholders involved?  With these questions, we begin to build a sense of “governance quality” -- at times referred to as good governance”.  This is when the decision makers act in an open, fair and transparent way, can be held accountable, and their decisions are inclusive, effective, efficient, participatory, consensus-oriented and follow the rule of law.  

The strategy of the Global Protected Areas Programme is to:

  • support innovative types of governance for protected and conserved areas to be acknowledged in national legislation or via other effective means…

  • to seek equity and effectiveness in conservation while expanding coverage, intensifying restoration

  • to learn about and engage with indigenous & traditional ecological knowledge, skills and institutions

One approach for achieving these objectives is carry out governance assessment and evaluations together with our partners in various countries around the world. 

Capacity development

Capacity development touches upon all aspects of IUCN's Global Protected Areas Programme. Below you will find links to the BIOPAMA page, the massive open online courses (MOOC) that the Programme on African Protected Areas and Conservation (PAPACO) organises, and the PA Law course, as well as to the numerous publications by IUCN and the WCPA that contribute to protected area capacity development.

The establishment of protected areas and protected area systems does not guarantee that their objectives are achieved. To fulfil their purpose, protected areas must be managed effectively, requiring appropriate institutional and governance arrangements and competent professionals providing a range of skills at site and system levels, including for the marine and freshwater environments. The global analysis of management effectiveness assessments yields the insight that a large proportion of designated protected areas are inadequately managed. Since its inception, IUCN has produced a large volume of highly regarded protected area standards, such as the IUCN Protected Area Categories and Governance Types, and many supporting capacity development resource materials and training programmes.

Yet, there remains a poor linkage between (i) the production of resource materials, (ii) the education and training of competent professionals and (iii) the achievement of certified high standards of PA management effectiveness and (iv) the measurement of conservation outcomes. For national governments to meet targets and goals for effective management, a focus on all of these elements is required.

Working in close association with IUCN WCPA, UN agencies, convention secretariats, including the CBD and the World Heritage Convention, , and partner organizations, the GPAP and WHP will develop a comprehensive capacity development program of activities involving IUCN Regional Programmes, Commissions and Members. The core rationale for this would be to support capacity-building for the implementation of the CBD’s Programme of Work on Protected Areas and the achievement of Aichi Target 11 (although there are several Aichi Targets that depend on the achievement of protected area conservation goals).