Incorporating the social-ecological approach in protected areas in the Anthropocene

We need to incorporate a social-ecological approach into protected areas in order to conserve unique landscapes, maintain biodiversity, secure the supply of ecosystem services, and face the distinct challenges of the Anthropocene.

Photo: Björn Christensen/Azote

Designating protected areas has been the key strategy for conserving ecosystems and maintaining biodiversity. However, biodiversity continues to decline and the changes and challenges seen today are occurring at an unprecedented scale, scope and speed. The original concept of a protected area is not sufficient to fulfill their original purpose. In a recent paper out in BioScience (Palomo et al 2014), the authors propose incorporating a social-ecological approach into the designing and management of protected areas in order to conserve unique landscapes, maintain biodiversity, secure the supply of ecosystem services, and face the distinct challenges of the Anthropocene. One of the authors is Berta Martín-López, from the PECS Scientific Committee.

The authors begin by reviewing the historical progression of the protected areas concept and the approaches used in the designation and management of them. The earliest protected areas were created using what the authors call the island approach. Yellowstone, for example, was established in 1872 with the intention of setting it apart to maintain the status quo and protect it from any human impact. This approach takes no consideration of the surrounding landscape or potential stakeholders. Throughout the years since the establishment of Yellowstone, new understanding of the importance of connectedness for species viability and diversity emerged leading to a network approach to protected areas. Strategies like ecological corridors were established. The landscape approach then arose in response to the impacts on protected areas stemming from beyond their boundaries. The landscape approach embeds protected areas into the broader ecological and socioeconomic context. The authors thoroughly outline the limitations of these approaches for protected areas and then introduce the social-ecological approach as a model equipped to mitigate many of those limitations.

The social-ecological approach to protected areas takes an adaptive method to management. Natural and societal changes are a part of the system. Multiple types of knowledge, scientific, technical, and local ecological, are important to managing for the intrinsic and instrumental values of a protected area. Taking a social-ecological approach recognizes that protected areas and the landscapes they are embedded in are multifunctional, meeting a diversity of demands and providing many services. Integrated landscape management is needed to manage the landscape as a whole. The authors recognize some continuing challenges for designing and managing protected areas, but conclude by reiterating that protected areas can be more aligned with the needs of people and society by using concepts such as ecosystem services; community-based management embeds the protected area into the social context that is managing, and benefiting from it; and that social-ecological approach incorporates drivers of change and their effects into the long-term planning and management of protected areas.

The full paper – Palomo I, Montes C, Martín-López B, González JA, García-Llorente M, Alcorlo P, Mora MRG Incorporating the Social–Ecological Approach in Protected Areas in the Anthropocene BioScience doi: 10.1093/biosci/bit033 – is available here:


Scientific Committee

BioScience, doi: 10.1093/biosci/bit033

YEAR: 2014