Science Advances

Evaluating the impacts of protected areas on human well-being across the developing world

R. Naidoo1,2,*, D. Gerkey3, D. Hole4, A. Pfaff5, A. M. Ellis6, C. D. Golden7, D. Herrera8, K. Johnson9,†, M. Mulligan10, T. H. Ricketts11 and B. Fisher11


Protected areas (PAs) are fundamental for biodiversity conservation, yet their impacts on nearby residents are contested. We synthesized environmental and socioeconomic conditions of >87,000 children in >60,000 households situated either near or far from >600 PAs within 34 developing countries. We used quasi-experimental hierarchical regression to isolate the impact of living near a PA on several aspects of human well-being. Households near PAs with tourism also had higher wealth levels (by 17%) and a lower likelihood of poverty (by 16%) than similar households living far from PAs. Children under 5 years old living near multiple-use PAs with tourism also had higher height-for-age scores (by 10%) and were less likely to be stunted (by 13%) than similar children living far from PAs. For the largest and most comprehensive socioeconomic-environmental dataset yet assembled, we found no evidence of negative PA impacts and consistent statistical evidence to suggest PAs can positively affect human well-being.


The world has committed, through the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), to halt biodiversity loss and increase protected area (PA) coverage (Aichi Target 11 and SDG 15) and to reduce multidimensional poverty by half by 2030 (SDG 1.2) (1, 2). It is crucial to determine whether these goals are synergistic or antagonistic. Recent calls to evaluate interactions between SDGs have highlighted that achieving one goal in isolation may actually have negative consequences for sustainable development foci of other goals (3). Therefore, is the expansion of the world’s PA network—a cornerstone of biodiversity conservation strategies (46)—likely to enhance the prospects of achieving global goals around poverty alleviation and human health or to hamper them?

Whether conservation activities benefit or harm people living near PAs has been debated extensively (7, 8). The empirical foundation for the debate has been shaped by research using different methodologies across varying temporal and spatial scales (913), making it difficult to derive general insights. A recent meta-analysis of 1043 studies concluded that empirical evidence for impacts of PAs on human well-being remains thin: Only 8% of studies examining impacts on material living standards and 1% of studies analyzing impacts on health used rigorous, quantitative methods and data (14, 15). In addition, a separate systematic review found that the few studies that used comparable, quantitative approaches produced a mix of positive and negative outcomes that were highly dependent on context and methodology, making it virtually impossible to detect any global patterns in PA impacts on human well-being (16). To detect these patterns, we need data on PAs, environmental conditions, and indicators of well-being that are sufficiently fine-grained to reflect complex dynamics at local scales but that are consistent and comprehensive enough to enable analyses at global scales. We also require an analytical approach that can disentangle the many, complex factors that shape multidimensional human well-being, allowing the independent impacts of PAs to be revealed.


Our results demonstrate that for a truly widespread dataset, going far beyond the spatial scope of previous studies, there is empirical evidence that PAs can positively affect human well-being in developing countries. We suggest that there are at least four possible pathways or mechanisms (31) through which this could be occurring. PAs with documented tourist visits (~15% of all PAs in our dataset), regardless of management class, had strong positive impacts on household wealth outcomes. This suggests firstly that such PAs may improve household wealth by generating income or other material benefits via tourism-related employment or affiliated markets that can then be spent on household assets (Fig. 2, pathway ADH). Second, multiple-use PAs where tourism has been documented also resulted in increased height-for-age scores and reduced likelihood of stunting among children. The tourism component of this impact may reflect increased household income that is being spent, in part, on additional food, medicine, or medical clinic visits that improve children’s health (Fig. 2, pathway ADG). These tourism-related pathways for PA impacts provide further evidence that the impacts of nature-based tourism can be positive for people and for wildlife (3235).

The third pathway through which PAs affect human well-being was unrelated to tourism. The likelihood of being poor was reduced in households living near multiple-use PAs (IUCN categories V and VI, ~1/3 of all PAs in our database), as compared to similar households living further than 10 km from a PA. This suggests that multiple-use PAs lead to improved environmental conditions experienced by nearby households and that their accessibility—unlike categories I to IV PAs—then allows people to benefit from a greater abundance of useful plants and animals via harvest and sales at markets, resulting in income that can be spent on household assets (Fig. 2, pathway BFH). Last, tourism alone did not improve children’s health outcomes; improvements were seen only in combination with proximity to multiple-use PAs. This suggests a role for improved environmental conditions to positively affect health via pathways BE and BFG (Fig. 2), as has been documented elsewhere (36), although the fact that benefits are seen only at multiple-use PAs suggests that an increased availability of natural resources, rather than enhanced air or water quality, drives the positive impacts. More generally, the synthetic relationships described here across multiple countries can motivate further field studies that test mechanisms for PA impacts in specific countries and PAs; data from such additional empirical research will also strengthen the global evidence base used to assess PA–human well-being relationships.

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