Piloting Social Assessment of Protected Areas: some initial reflections

The World Parks Congress (WPC) is held once in 10 years and it's almost time for the next one. As expectations build for the event, it's a good time to consider our early experience with the Social Assessment of Protected Areas (SAPA) initiative.  

Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya is home to four of the seven northern white rhino left in the world. The park is using SAPA as part of its community programme (Photo: Guy Lemal)

SAPA is an approach to assessing the social impacts of protected areas at a local level. In other words, it's a way to assess both the benefits that local communities see as being derived from the protected area and any associated projects, as well as the negative impacts (costs) such as reduced access to resources and crop damage by wildlife.

SAPA is a relatively simple, low-cost approach primarily aimed at managers of protected areas — state, private or community — to help them improve policy and practice. Using SAPA increases both the participation of people the protected area affects and the accountability of those who manage the area, and helps build consensus among those involved about reducing poverty and avoiding harm.

With funding from the Darwin Initiative and DfID, we are working with partners in Kenya, Gabon, Liberia and The Gambia to test the approach in six protected areas: four terrestrial and two marine.    

World Parks Congress calls for social assessment

The 2014 World Parks Congress, the biggest global learning event of the conservation world, is now just two months away. Its top goals are to:

  • Communicate the vital role of protected areas in conserving nature while delivering essential ecosystem services
  • Ensure that protected areas fall within goals of economic and community well-being, and
  • Demonstrate how this can be achieved in practice.

There will be examples from a myriad different contexts of how protected areas can and are contributing to human well-being, with less focus on the negative impacts but with a growing willingness to explore the darker side as well.

The last congress in 2003 recommended that protected areas should help reduce poverty at the local level and, at the very minimum, must not contribute to or worsen poverty. To what extent have we achieved this?

Challenges to assessing the current situation

Although there has been major progress on protected area governance to empower indigenous people and local communities, and major investments in various forms of "benefit sharing", relatively little progress has been made in gaining a complete picture of the social impacts of protected areas. 

Evaluating how impacts are distributed among communities living within and around protected areas, and between these communities and other key stakeholders, is crucial but has been just as patchy. In many cases, there is still little or no recognition of negative impacts. And when it's all added up, is it any fairer, or does averaging hide a persistent disconnect between the benefits and burdens of conservation?

Answering these questions remains a challenge because there is no systematic approach to assessment, apart from expensive methods for which you need a PhD level researcher and at least US$50,000. 

Rapid methods based more on participatory rural appraisal techniques and simple surveys that are commonly used in the development world show promise for conservation. But they face an uphill struggle in proving their worth versus methods that are more rigorous in terms of conventional research design criteria. These rigorous methods are undoubtedly more precise, but do they actually get us closer to the truth than participatory methods? This is the classic question of precision versus accuracy.  

SAPA directly addresses these questions with an approach that is designed to be used by protected area management and other stakeholders at that level. This is itself a work in progress and so learning from the experience of piloting is as important as the results.

SAPA: piloting begins

In March 2014 we started work at Ol Pejeta Conservancy (OPC), in northern Kenya, and in May at Monte De Cristal National Park (MdC), in Gabon.

The two are very different. OPC is a private protected area (owned and managed by a trust) with high levels of tourism and other funding that allow for a substantial community programme. The overall picture is one of generally supportive local communities who feel that benefits outweigh negative impacts.

However, the analysis of the distribution of impacts across different social groups is likely to reveal that the general picture is hiding important differences within and between communities. Fortunately these are differences that OPC can address, and in this way SAPA can really help OPC promote greater equity in conservation as well as make an overall contribution to local development efforts.

Monte De Cristal national park is a very different story. It is one of many state-owned and managed national parks in Gabon established to conserve important tracts of the forests of the Congo Basin.

The national protected area authority, Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN), is now making a major investment in community engagement, but it is early days and at present the overall picture of social impacts is clearly negative. Restricted access to resources is an important concern but the social impact issue seems to be dominated by the problems caused by crop-raiding elephants – notoriously difficult to address.

SAPA will help ANPN identify the people whose well-being is most vulnerable to the human-wildlife conflict and who should be given priority in mitigation measures. SAPA can also help address resource access issues that currently worsen tensions between the park and the community.   

SAPA: learning from the process

As outlined in our SAPA flyer, the SAPA process has five phases as follows:  

  1. Preparation
  2. Objectives and context
  3. Scoping and indicators
  4. Assessment, and
  5. Action and communication.

Both Gabon and Kenya are midway through the assessment phase. Fieldwork at each site consisted of focus group discussions to identify the different types of social impacts of protected areas on communities. This was followed by a simple household survey (taking about 30 minutes) to explore these in more depth, including how the impacts are distributed within the community according to criteria such as wealth, ethnicity and gender.

The assessment will conclude with more focus group discussions to validate the results from the survey and explore specific issues in more detail. Just as it began with a stakeholder workshop to define the objectives and key questions, the process will end with a meeting of the same stakeholders to discuss and synthesise findings, and recommend actions to enhance positive impacts and reduce negative ones.   

Look out for the next SAPA blog (just before the World Parks Congress in November 2014), which will include reflections on initial results from the two pilot sites.

Phil Franks (phil.franks@iied.org) is a senior researcher within IIED's Natural Resources Group.


SAPA is funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative.