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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Critique of fortress conservation

Variable relationship:

As a model for protected area-based conservation, fortress conservation (as described in the theory entitled Centralized Conservation) is defined in the Sage encyclopedia of Environment and Society (Robbins 2007; see also Brockington 2002) as the following:

"Fortress conservation is a conservation model based on the belief that biodiversity protection is best achieved by creating protected areas where ecosystems can function in isolation from human disturbance. Fortress, or protectionist, conservation assumes that local people use natural resources in irrational and destructive ways, and as a result cause biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. Protected areas following the fortress model can be characterized by three principles: local people dependent on the natural resource base are excluded; enforcement is implemented by park rangers patrolling the boundaries, using a “fines and fences” approach to ensure compliance; and only tourism, safari hunting, and scientific research are considered as appropriate uses within protected areas. Because local people are labeled as criminals, poachers, and squatters on lands they have occupied for decades or centuries, they tend to be antagonistic toward fortress-style conservation initiatives and less likely to support the conservation goals."

In the language of sesmad variables, fortress conservation occurs when you have a highly centralized (Centralization) protected area (Policy Instrument) that creates a protected area (Policy Instrument) that strictly prohibits user access (PA IUCN Strict Zones; User-commons Proximity), with monitoring and strong sanctions by the government (External Monitoring; External Sanctions).

Critics of this approach (Brockington 2002; Wilshusen et al. 2002) have emphasized that these processes are done without including local users in important decisions (Participation in PA Sitting, Participation in Rule Making). This can cause former local resource users to become “conservation refugees” with few livelihood alternatives (Livelihood Alternatives) and few incentives to comply with PA rules (Compliance), and who experience a drastic decline in welfare (User Group Well-being Change). States, meanwhile, rarely have the monitoring and enforcement capacity to control large swaths of land without local support (much less with local antagonism), hence leading to so-called “paper parks”, where conservation areas exist only in a legal document (Stolton and Dudley 1999; Ostrom and Nagendra 2006). Hence, if and when a government or NGO can effectively control the boundaries of a protected area, the outcome can be that degradation simply shifts to the outside of the protected area, in what is termed “spillover effects” or leakage (Leakage) (Forcada et al. 2009). The final result is that the condition of the commons is predicted to decline (Commons Condition Trend).

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
CentralizationUnderlying independent variableThe approach of forest conservation has taken place within highly centralized governance systems.Highly centralized
Participation in PA sitingUnderlying independent variableThe designation of the protected area is done without the consultation of local user groups.Low
PA IUCN strict zonesUnderlying independent variableThe PA falls into the following IUCN category: Ia: Category Ia are strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values.100%
Policy instrumentUnderlying independent variableFortress conservation applies to protected area-based governance systems.Protected area
User-commons proximityProximate independent variableAs a result of the implementation of the PA, local users groups are pushed out of the commons to ensure that they don't over-use it.No
External monitoringProximate independent variableCentralized agencies monitor for infractions of PA rulesYes
Cultural services conditionProximate independent variableAs a result of being pushed out of the commons and culturally important sites on which they depend, local user groups shall experience substantial declines in their sense of identity or community cohesion.Improved
Livelihood alternativesProximate independent variableThe removal of local user groups is exacerbated by the general absence of livelihood alternatives.Cannot access alternatives
Participation in rule makingProximate independent variableFollowing the designation of the protected area, local users are given little chance to participate politically in the rules regarding the use of natural resources within its boundaries.Low
External sanctionsProximate independent variableCentralized agencies sanction infractions of PA rulesYes
ComplianceIntermediate outcomeCompliance is predicted to be low.Low
User group well-being changeIntermediate outcomeAs a result of being marginalized and pushed out of the commons on which they depend, local user groups with few livelihood alternatives frequently experience substantial declines in their well-being.Worsened
LeakageIntermediate outcomeUsers that are banned from using the reosurce within the conservation area shall over-exploit neighboring areas that would not be over-exploited otherwiseYes leakage of costs
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeAs a result of negative human well-being and lack of participation and voice of people, non-compliance is a problem, resulting in failure of the fortress conservation approach.Remained the same or worsened.

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Failure of centralized controlrelated
Ecological effectiveness of MPAscontradictory
Crowding out from external sanctioningrelated
Local livelihood and protected areascontains
Crowding in and participationcontains
Centralized conservationcontradictory
Political decentralization and fitrelated
Centralization and corruptionrelated
Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM)related
Bans and perverse incentivesrelated

Related Studies


Brockington, Dan. 2002. Fortress conservation: the preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania: Indiana University Press.


Robbins, Paul. 2007. Encyclopedia of Environment and Society. 5 vols, Thousand Oaks. CA: Sage Publications.


Stolton, Sue, and Nigel Dudley. 1999. “A Preliminary Survey of Management Status and Threats in Forest Protected Areas.” Parks 9 (2): 27–33.


Wilshusen, Peter R, Steven R Brechin, Crystal L Fortwangler, and Patrick C West. 2002. “Reinventing a Square Wheel: Critique of a Resurgent‘ Protection Paradigm’ in International Biodiversity Conservation.” Society &Natural Resources 15 (1): 17–40.


Ostrom, Elinor, and Harini Nagendra. 2006. “Insights on Linking Forests, Trees, and People from the Air, on the Ground, and in the Laboratory.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (51): 19224–19231.


Forcada, Aitor, Carlos Valle, Patrick Bonhomme, Géraldine Criquet, Gwenaël Cadiou, Philippe Lenfant, and José L Sánchez-Lizaso. 2009. “Effects of Habitat on Spillover from Marine Protected Areas to Artisanal Fisheries.” Marine Ecology Progress Series 379: 197–211.