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Navigating protected areas as social-ecological systems: integration pathways of French nature reserves


On a global scale, protected areas (PAs) are one of the main tools used for biodiversity conservation. However, accelerated biodiversity loss and lack of social acceptance of PAs call into question their ability to reach long-term biodiversity conservation objectives. To address this, conservation scientists and practitioners have moved from segregative to integrative models of PAs. When the segregative model sees PAs as human exclusion zones, the integrative model considers conservation and development projects and multiple partnerships with local stakeholders within and outside PAs. Given this paradigmatic evolution, a PA and its surrounding landscape are increasingly regarded as a single social-ecological system (SES). This development brings new challenges for conservationists: How should these complex and dynamic systems be managed, and how can their pathways be described and piloted? Using French nature reserves (NRs) as case studies, we propose a framework for analyzing the integration pathways of PAs within their social-ecological context. We identified the pathways of 10 NRs according to their degree of integration in the surrounding landscape (spatial), their management objectives (sectoral), and their governance systems (institutional). We analyzed these pathways using three metaphors associated with resilience thinking (adaptive cycle, adaptation, and transformation). We discussed how these 10 NRs have changed over time, revealing how practitioners anticipate future pathways and avoid undesirable states. Through an exploration of the totality of an SES’s spatial, sectoral, and institutional pathways, the framework we propose is a potential tool for identifying opportunities and constraints for long-term conservation actions.

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This study was realized through a CIFRE industrial research agreement. The authors thank Réserves Naturelles de France (RNF), the Agence Nationale de la Recherche et du Développement, the Regions Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Bretagne, the Fondation de France, the French Ministry of Research, and the French Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development. This work was also financed by the EU FP7 SCALES Project (“Securing the Conservation of Biodiversity Across Administrative Levels and Spatial, Temporal and Ecological Scales”; Project #226852, AA). We are particularly grateful to RNF and to the managers who welcomed us on the study sites (Chamber of Agriculture 13, Conservancy of Natural Areas of PACA and Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Asters, the Fédération of Catalan Nature Reserves, the municipality of Eyne, Séné, and Pleubian, the NGOs Bretagne Vivante, Petite Camargue Alsacienne and Chérine, the hunting association of Séné). Comments from two anonymous reviewers also helped to greatly improve the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Clara Therville.

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Editor:Nicolas Dendoncker.

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Therville, C., Mathevet, R., Bioret, F. et al. Navigating protected areas as social-ecological systems: integration pathways of French nature reserves. Reg Environ Change 18, 607–618 (2018).

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  • Adaptation
  • France
  • Protected area
  • Social-ecological system
  • Pathway
  • Transformation