Biodiversity management has traditionally followed two contradictory approaches. One champions ecosystem protection through rigorous law enforcement and exclusion of humans. The other promotes community-based sustainable use of natural resources. Participatory conservation, a major paradigm shift, nowadays strongly guides the concept of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves (BRs). In this paper, the rationale for community participation, and the perception of its effectiveness among BR managers are analysed. Within the World Network of BRs (553 sites in 107 countries) diverse participatory approaches are being tried to advance community-based natural resource management (CBNRM). Data from two parallel surveys, involving managers from 276 BRs worldwide, reveal how far this participation paradigm shift has really occurred, and its influence on managers’ self-evaluated effectiveness. There is substantial regional disparity, although in general BR managers endorse inclusive conservation, despite critical implementation hurdles. The process of participatory conservation carries new dangers for effective biosphere reserve management, when the aspirations of communities and other stakeholders do not ‘fit’ with a predetermined interpretation of sustainable development.
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