Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) Toolbox

Protected Areas

This module is intended for forest managers, practitioners, policymakers, and others who want to know more about the planning and management of protected areas and about their uses, benefits, governance, challenges and potential.
This module provides both basic and more detailed information on the planning and management of protected areas, with forest-specific considerations where appropriate. It also provides links to tools and case studies to showcase the various aspects of sustainable management of protected areas, including those where a significant portion of the area is natural forest.

Protected areas contributes to SDGs:

Protected areas are essential to the conservation of biodiversity. They safeguard nature and cultural resources and contribute to livelihoods, particularly at the local level. There are over 238 563 designated protected areas worldwide, equivalent to 14.9 percent of the earth’s land surface, varying in their extension, level of protection and type of management (IUCN, 2018).

Forest protected areas are a subset of all protected areas in which a significant portion of the area is forest; this may be the whole or only a part of the protected area

Currently, around 17 percent of the world’s natural forests are located within legally established protected areas (FAO, 2015). Considering that the area of forest within protected areas has increased by 200 million ha since 1990, particularly in the tropics, forest protected areas are now considered to be the cornerstone of any national or international strategy to conserve forest ecosystems, combat the loss of biodiversity and to secure the sustainable provision of ecosystem services. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize protected areas as a key strategy for the conservation of biodiversity and for sustainable development in the targets they contain; for example, SDG 14: Life below water, and SDG 15: Life on land. Other SDGs provide opportunities to highlight the contribution of protected areas to human welfare and wellbeing including poverty alleviation (SDG 3: Good health and well-being), food and water security (SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation), sustainable cities (SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities) and climate change strategies (SDG13: Climate action) and others. A summary of how protected areas contribute towards meeting the SDGs can be found here.

As the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity 2011–2020 comes to an end, and as attention turns towards the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, protected areas are expected to continue to play a pivotal role in the conservation of biodiversity and to secure the sustainable provision of benefits for people and the planet.



Although the modern form of protected areas is relatively recent, from the late nineteenth century, the idea of conserving natural areas to maintain their value has existed for centuries. Examples of these are sacred sites, hunting reserves and community forests. The first national park was established in the United States of America in the 1870s, and the modern protected-area concept spread worldwide in the twentieth century.

As the number of protected areas grew, both their objectives and the forms they took became more diverse, as did the way they were described. For example, in North America, the first protected areas were mainly meant to preserve scenery; in Africa, the concern was with game parks; and in Europe, the main aim was to protect landscapes.

To make sense of this diversity, regardless of the objectives, governance or management of protected areas, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has provided a definition of protected areas as:

    "A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values (IUCN 2008)"

Benefits and values of protected areas

Benefits and values of protected areas

The benefits of protected areas extend beyond their immediate environment and time. In addition to conserving nature, protected areas are crucial for securing the long-term delivery of ecosystem services. They provide numerous benefits including the conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture, provision of medicines and health benefits, provision of water, recreation and tourism, and for acting as a buffer against disaster. Increasingly, there is acknowledgement of the wider socioeconomic values of these natural ecosystems and of the ecosystem services they can provide.

Protected areas can play an important role in poverty alleviation and food security through income- generating activities for people residing in or living near protected areas (see FAO Report on Protected areas, people and food security). Protected areas and their associated development can directly benefit communities by providing access to infrastructure, employment opportunities and other services.  

Figure 1 outlines the various ecosystem services provided by protected areas.

(i.e. service necessarily for provision of all other ecosystem services)

Ecosystem process maintenance (soil formation, nutrient cycling, primary production, etc.)
Lifecycle maintenance (nursery habitats, seeds dispersal, species interaction, etc.)
Biodiversity maintenance and protection (genetic, species, and habitat diversity)


(i.e. ecosystem’s ability to provide resources)

Food provisioning

Water provisioning

Provision of raw material (timber, wood, fuel, fibre)

Provision of medicinal resources / biochemical (natural medicines, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, etc.)

Provision of ornamental resources

Provision of genetic resources


(i.e. ecosystem’s beneficial regulatory processes)

Climate regulation

Natural hazard regulation

Purification and detoxification of water, air and soil

Water / waterflow regulation

Erosion and soil fertility regulation


Pest and disease regulation


(i.e. ecosystem’s non-material benefits)

Opportunities for recreation and tourism

Aesthetic values

Inspiration for the arts

Information for education and research

Spiritual and religious experience

Cultural identity and heritage

Mental wellbeing and health

Peace and stability

Figure 1. Main ecosystem services and related goods from protected areas (Worboys et al., 2015).

Forest protected areas in particular play many important roles including as a provider of habitat, shelter, food and genetic materials, and as a buffer against disaster. They deliver stable supplies of many goods and environmental services. At the global level, forest protected areas provide a substantial proportion of the drinking water for one-third of the world’s 100 largest cities (See Running Pure Report).

The role of protected areas, especially forest protected areas, in mitigating and adapting to climate change has increasingly been recognized over the last few years. Protected areas not only store and sequester carbon (i.e. the global network of protected areas stores at least 15 percent of terrestrial carbon), but also enable species to adapt to changing climate patterns by providing refuges and migration corridors. Protected areas also protect people from sudden climate events and reduce their vulnerability to weather-induced problems such as floods and droughts (UNEP-WCMC, 2016).

Conversely, degraded or damaged forests can lead to less stored carbon, and the loss of the important services provided by forests contributes to climate change and to reduced adaptive capacity. For further information on the link between protected areas and climate change, and for information on why protected areas should be included in climate change strategies, see WWF Forest and Climate learning session and Amazon Vision- Protected Areas: Natural Solutions to Climate Change.  

A wider cultural perspective is also necessary to understand the importance of protected areas. For many communities, protected areas are sites of spiritual importance, and are intimately related to the beliefs and practices of indigenous traditions. For other communities, these sites represent places for inspiration and are symbols of identity. Iconic protected areas are deeply connected to the cultural and historical values of communities and are important to a country’s heritage.

Other effective area-based conservation measures

Other effective area-based conservation measures

Although efforts have focused mainly on providing guidance on protected areas, the international community increasingly refers to “protected and conserved areas” to recognize that many areas outside the network of national and regional protected areas also contribute to the effective in-situ conservation of biodiversity and to securing the livelihoods of people. Aichi Target 11 of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 states that conservation will be achieved through “effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area based conservation measures.”

In November 2018, Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Decision 14/8, adopted the following definition of other effective area-based conservation measures (OECM):

    "Other effective area-based conservation measure" means "a geographically defined area other than a Protected Area, which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem functions and services and where applicable, cultural, spiritual, socio–economic, and other locally relevant values".

While protected areas must have a primary conservation objective, this is not necessary for OECMs. OECMs may be managed with many different objectives in mind, but they must deliver effective conservation. More information on OECMS can be found here.