Private protected areas as institutional innovation in nature conservation: an empirical study on their emergence and assessment of their social and ecological fit

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Private Protected Areas (PPAs) are increasingly considered a promising complement topublic-run protected areas. Their rapid proliferation worldwide and increased adoption as policy tools, have made the PPA phenomenon one of the most important in current nature protection strategies. Nevertheless, there has been little scholarly attention paid to their emergence and the implications of their implementation, especially in Europe. This dissertation explores the genesis of PPAs as innovative institutional arrangements for conservation policies and investigates their suitability for enhancing nature conservation without neglecting social issues. To begin with, an investigation into PPAs used as policy tools in European countries, showed that PPA institutional models resemble public-private partnerships that differ among countries: in the roles of public actors as regulators and facilitators for the involvement of private actors, and in the distinct typology of the latter. Hence, in countries that have centered their conservation policy on public-run protected areas and top-down approaches, PPA adoption appears to be an emblematic result of a change in governance towards voluntary approaches and partnerships with non-state actors. The research focus then shifts to Portugal, where PPA adoption clashes with the centralized top-down institutional heritage. A diachronic analysis on non-state actors’ involvement in the establishment and management of protected areas revealed that the privately governed protected areas are not a recent model within the national system of conserved areas. However, the novelty of the current model lies in its emergence against a backdrop of conservation governance rescaling and restructuring and the professionalization of NGOs, which has resulted in access to international funding for conservation. The subsequent research line aims to question the suitability of PPAs to protect nature in a socially just way, challenging a dichotomous viewpoint, alternatively presenting PPAs as a panacea or rejecting them altogether as neoliberal techniques. To do so, we developed a multicriteria assessment framework, which draws on the concepts of social and ecological institutional fit and is underpinned by a socio-ecological system approach. This framework is applied to the case of the Faia Brava natural reserve. Our findings suggest that the current Portuguese PPA institutional model, is unable to avoid the (re)production of some of the drawbacks and social issues usually associated with topdown regulations in public-run protected areas, nor to elude the risk of advancing a neoliberal conservation. The main issues to be addressed include the risk of allowing a concentration of land to be placed into the hands of private actors without guarantee of long-term protection; the lack of recognition criteria aimed to target the most endangered sites; the lack of public funding that would avoid a tendency towards nature commodification. Alongside the development of the socio-ecological assessment tool, this dissertation provides new insights into the debate on the government to governance shift in nature conservation, with empirical contributions regarding the institutional arrangements and practices of PPAs. An additional key contribution, with respect to the overarching research approach, is a reflection on the meta-theoretical bases offered by Critical Realism, to advance our understanding of policy change and socio-ecological systems.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Universidade NOVA de Lisboa
  • Ferreira dos Santos, Rui, Advisor
  • Mourato, João, Supervisor, External person
Award date5 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 5 Apr 2021


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