Last updated: February 16, 2024

Protected and Conserved Areas (PCAs) are crucial for preserving the planet's biodiversity and ensuring sustainable futures. Globally, they play an irreplaceable role in abating the rapid loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. However, they bring unique challenges and complexities.

Here we explain the importance of PCAs, the dilemmas they present, and how we at WWF International approach and engage with them. We also provide case studies, both to highlight the benefits of PCAs, and to illustrate their complexities and how these can be addressed together with other stakeholders, from governments to local communities.
PCAs and why they matter
For millennia people have been protecting, managing and restoring unique places across the planet. Such efforts are often collectively known as ‘area-based conservation.' Today, there are many different approaches to area-based conservation being applied in places across the globe, from high mountains to coral reefs and everywhere in between.

As the planet’s vital signs continue to suffer under deepening global challenges, a number of scientists, Indigenous organizations, and national governments have called for increased area-based conservation around the world. Through the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) 196 countries have committed to a shared goal of conserving thirty percent of Earth’s lands and waters by the year 2030 – commonly called ‘30x30’. Rising to this extraordinary challenge with the urgency required while striving to operate to the highest standards is a fundamental cornerstone for WWF.

Protected and Conserved Areas (PCAs) are one of the most effective tools for preventing loss of natural ecosystems and species, as well as to achieve long-term sustainable development. In some regions, PCAs can support economic development (e.g., through supporting sustainable tourism) while playing a critical role in promoting the sustainable use of resources. PCAs also have a major role to play in climate resilience, both by storing and sequestering carbon.
Challenges facing PCAs
While PCAs are vital to conservation, they are complex and bring a range of challenges, especially since they are often insufficiently resourced.  Common problems include land encroachment, poaching, poorly controlled tourism, threats from invasive alien species, disputes with or amongst local communities and Indigenous Peoples, and escalating human-wildlife conflict. PCAs can also suffer from inadequate governance or fail to recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples or local communities, and all of these factors can lead to viability and sustainability challenges. In some cases, the geopolitical characteristics of the location further complicate matters especially in cases where a PCA is located in a fragile or conflicted situation.

Risk mitigation is an ongoing process and adaptive management is an auspicious and important concept in the context of PCAs given often fast evolving local contexts. WWF is committed to listening, learning and reflecting on how PCAs need to be improved and to play an active role in engaging all key stakeholders as we do so.
How WWF International works with others in PCAs

WWF-International has provided assistance to PCAs in a range of ways including having supported their establishment, partnering with the national and local institutions that oversee them and sometimes, following invitation of the local government, having taken an active role in co-management. The current means of engagement for WWF International ranges from providing financial and/or technical support to a government and other stakeholders in the management of a PCA, to engaging in a co-implementation or co-management role with the government [1]. There are also other PCA management models not included in WWF International’s approach, but implemented by other organizations, including ownership and delegated management.

Each management engagement model brings with it unique challenges and opportunities to the various stakeholders involved, including to WWF International. We believe that the best way to address these dilemmas is to have clearly defined expectations and standards for all parties involved, and to ensure these are adhered to.

We recognize that short-term and fragmented project funding cycles compound all the challenges of effective PCA management which requires long-term investment horizons to achieve sustainable conservation impact. Short-term constraints cannot be overcome without bringing together everyone that can make a difference from a systemic and long-term perspective. This is why we work with a diverse range of partners who each have their distinct knowledge, expertise and commitment, and their own unique role to play.

The partners that WWF works with to support PCA initiatives include government agencies; global, regional and local civil society organizations; Indigenous Peoples and local communities; non-Indigenous farmers, fishers, ranchers, and foresters; and private landholders, among others.

Engaging all stakeholders means addressing the barriers to participation faced by some groups in society, including local communities. Conservation will only be sustainable if it is owned by, and benefits, local people. That’s why Indigenous Peoples and local communities must be at the centre of action on climate and nature.

PCAs with people at the forefront of conservation
WWF International views people as being at the forefront of our area-based conservation work. Irrespective of the role that we play in the management of a PCA or in support of a locally-led area-based conservation initiative, our collective conservation efforts equally prioritize conserving nature, and sustaining nature’s contributions to people by enabling access to natural resources that are critical for livelihoods. We view each landscape and seascape as an interlinked collective of the local environment, biodiversity, ecosystem services, human livelihoods, and culture. All of these are intrinsically linked and together they define a place and its needs.

Our approach to supporting PCAs can also serve as a platform for embedding safeguards, inclusive approaches to governance, and human-rights-based approaches in place-based activities. In particular, we are committed to enhancing the participation of Indigenous People and local communities, and ensuring that PCAs contribute to sustainable livelihoods and local and national sustainable development. 
Rights-based approach
Positive outcomes for both people and nature depend on firmly integrating human rights into conservation practices.  WWF cannot guarantee human rights violations will never happen in the places where we work. The protection of human rights is a government responsibility. But as a non-governmental organization (NGO) operating within these contexts, we also have a responsibility and an unequivocal role to play in creating stronger enabling conditions for human rights; advocating communities co-lead the design, delivery, and monitoring of conservation programmes; and influencing governments so that they fulfill their duty to protect the rights of their citizens. 

We seek to accomplish this by respecting the participation and consultation rights of rights-holders in the context of the activities. Effective area-based conservation requires inclusive and rights-based approaches that respect and draw upon a mix of knowledge systems. Indigenous Peoples and local communities should be recognized and respected as stewards of their lands, waters, and resources, participating and/or leading in decision-making on issues that affect them. Likewise, women and marginalized people should play a meaningful role in decision-making and share in benefits such as natural resource livelihood activities. From conception to design to governance, area-based conservation must be inclusive, respond to local aspirations and challenges, and promote equitable natural resource governance.

We have designed and implemented measures to more consistently integrate human rights into our conservation work, as we seek to deliver better and lasting conservation results benefiting people and nature. We have strengthened our environmental and social safeguards, a mandatory set of actions to better engage communities, identify and manage risks, and ensure consistency in our work across landscapes, including the establishment of grievance mechanisms through which stakeholders can raise concerns and seek resolution.
Grievance mechanisms
Grievance Mechanisms are a fundamental pillar of stakeholder engagement and an essential part of implementing WWF’s area-based activities. They provide a transparent and trusted way for individuals and communities who may be adversely impacted by the activities to voice their grievances and seek resolution. 

There is a need to ensure that any grievance mechanism that is established is fit for purpose with the local context.  WWF’s revised 2023 Safeguard on Grievance Mechanisms specifies eight effectiveness criteria that need to be in place: legitimate, accessible, predictable, equitable, transparent, rights-compatible, a source of continuous learning, and based on an ongoing dialogue and meaningful consultation.

WWF is committed to continually strengthening our accountability by ensuring that mechanisms are established in all the places where we work to enable individuals and communities who may be adversely impacted to raise their grievances and have them addressed in a timely and effective way that resolves conflicts through collaborative problem-solving, improves mutual understanding and strengthens accountability.
The opportunities before us

Although PCAs are by their nature complex and challenging, they have a vital role in achieving the 30x30 goal of conserving 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and waters by 2030. We are committed to listen, learn and reflect on how PCAs need to be improved and to play an active role in engaging all key stakeholders as we do so.

The below case studies describe our work in PCAs in practice, as WWF International. They highlight the value of PCAs for conservation, and illustrate some of the challenges we face as well as our efforts to address these in line with our values


Ntokou Pikounda National Park

The Silowana Complex

The Solomon Islands

Footnote pertaining to text above:

  1. While the specifics of any formal co-management arrangement for a PCA will vary based on the underlying agreement, the current model of co-management engagement by WWF International with its government partners is one of collaborating and working side by side as separate legal entities with their own staffing structures. In arrangements where the management of a PCA includes law enforcement activities, the government partner employing the law enforcement staff will therefore retain responsibility for its own staff and all law enforcement activities.