Assessing social impacts of protected and conserved areas (SAPA)

IIED has developed and is now rolling out a relatively simple, low-cost tool for assessing the positive and negative social impacts of protected or conserved areas.

April 2013 - ongoing
Francesca Booker

Researcher (biodiversity), Natural Resources

Conservation, communities and equity
A programme of work showing how IIED is building capacity to understand and implement equitable conservation and enhance community voice in conservation policymaking
Identifying social impacts at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya

Identifying social impacts at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya (Photo: Phil Franks, IIED)

Social assessment for protected and conserved areas (SAPA) is one of three tools for stakeholders and rightsholders to themselves assess the social impacts, governance and equity of their conservation efforts. 

The other two tools are governance assessment for protected and conserved areas (GAPA) and site-level assessment of governance and equity (SAGE). Guidance is available on which tool to use in which contexts. This page explores SAPA in more detail.


There has been debate about the positive and negative social impacts – ‘benefits and costs’ – of protected areas (PAs) for many years. The picture is complicated by very different PA contexts, the use of very different methods to assess impact, and reference to different standards.

The principles that PAs should strive to reduce poverty – and certainly not make it worse – and that their benefits and costs should be equitably shared, were endorsed by the World Parks Congress in 2003. This emphasis was further elaborated in the programme of work on PAs of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that was approved in 2004, and which included a specific call for the assessment of benefits and costs of PAs (activity 2.1).

What is IIED doing?

Responding to this need, IIED developed SAPA. Its first phase began in 2008 as a collaborative initiative of IIED, IUCN and a number of conservation and development NGOs, and included a review of around 30 methodologies and tools that have been used – or could be used – to assess social impacts of PAs.

SAPA’s second phase started in 2013 with funding from the UK government’s Darwin Initiative and UK aid and in collaboration with Fauna & Flora International, the Wildlife Conservation Society and UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Drawing on elements of the existing methodologies, we developed and tested the SAPA methodology at 10 PAs in six different countries in Africa. Our research report 'Understanding the social impacts of protected areas: a community perspective' presents the results from the first four sites.

The SAPA methodology is designed to help PA managers and other key stakeholder groups increase and more equitably share positive impacts, and reduce the negative impacts. It can be used at any type of PA – those owned/managed by communities, the private sector or the state – and uses a multi-stakeholder approach to ensure that the key stakeholders lead assessment, interpretation of the results and development of recommendations for action.

This approach also serves to enhance the accuracy, credibility and legitimacy of the results. We published our first edition methodology manual for SAPA facilitators in 2016, along with a manual for conducting the SAPA household survey using the Open Data Kit (ODK), and two additional tools to be used in conjunction with ODK. These are a SAPA household survey template for ODK (download from Dropbox), and a SAPA impact analysis tool (Excel .xls file).

Enhancing equity and effectiveness

The current third phase of the SAPA initiative focuses on roll-out: supporting a growing number of PA sites to use the methodology, in collaboration with international agencies and donors that are recommending the use of SAPA in their PA-support projects.

We launched this with the publication of the second edition of the methodology manual for SAPA facilitators in 2018, which includes some significant improvements. In particular, drawing on our experience of developing a dedicated governance assessment methodology, we have expanded and strengthened the section on governance so that SAPA can be used to assess the protected area governance and equity as well as social impact.

We have also extended the use of SAPA to conserved areas that are not formally PAs and provided more detailed guidance on how to increase the uptake of the ideas for action generated by SAPA.

With further funding from the UK government’s Darwin Initiative, we coordinated the 'Enhancing the equity and effectiveness of protected area conservation' project. This used the second edition SAPA methodology to institutionalise social impact, governance and equity assessment and action planning at seven protected areas in Kenya and Uganda. To date, this means we have  supported SAPA at 23 sites in 9 African countries.

Within the current CBD Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-20, Aichi Target 11 calls for ‘equitable management’ of PAs by 2020, and with the Sustainable Development Goals giving strong emphasis to issues of equity and equality, equity is likely to remain a key issue in the CBD’s post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

Equity is important for instrumental as well as moral reasons because a sense of unfairness can fuel resentment that can be significant motivation for poaching and other illegal activities. But progress towards delivering more equitable management is limited, with few people understanding the meaning of equity in a conservation context or having a means to assess it. The SAPA methodology provides a practical solution. 

Get in touch

Contact us to tell us where you are using SAPA, to get technical guidance on using SAPA, and to find out about regional experts in your area. We’d love to hear from you. Email Francesca Booker ([email protected]).