Protected Areas

Governance, equity and rights

Mangrove on Pemba Island - Tanzania

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.  

To get started with the basics of governance, download the Governance primer in English, en français and en español.

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. 


We have been carrying out system and site level governance assessments by utilising our own Governance of Protected Areas: From understanding to action – Volume 20 of the IUCN Best Practice in Protected Areas Guidelines Series.   In Part 1, it offers concepts and tools to understand the four main protected area governance types and the set of principles of good governance recognised by the IUCN, on the basis of examples from all over the world. In Part 2, it offers practical guidance for those willing to embark on the process of assessing, evaluating and improving governance for their systems of protected areas or for individual protected area sites. 

Download the guidelines:

Download the annexes in ​English, en Français, en Español


Our projects:

The Global Support Initiative for ICCAs         

The Protected Areas Solutions project   

The Stabilizing Land Use Project (with the Forest Programme)            

The Integrated Land Use for Biodiversity and Climate Change (with the Environmental Law Centre).     


[1] Graham et al, Governance principles for protected areas in the 21st century, a discussion paper, Institute on Governance in collaboration with Parks Canada and Canadian International Development Agency, Ottawa, 2003


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