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Buffer Zones

Areas designated for additional protection of a conservation area


Buffer zones are areas created to enhance the protection of a conservation area, often peripheral to it, inside or outside. Within Buffer zones, certain legal and/or customary restrictions are placed upon resource use and/or is managed to reduce the negative impacts of restrictions on the neighbouring communities. A buffer zone can also be one of the protected area categories (e.g. category V or VI of IUCN Protected Area) or a classification scheme (e.g. NATURA 2000) depending on the conservation objective.The term buffer zone gained international prominence mainly through UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Programme in 1979.1 Subsequently, the objectives of the buffer zone approach evolved from a solely geographically delineated area with resource use restrictions to incorporation of development activities particularly by the Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) in 1980s.2 Several buffer zone definitions have been proposed since then emphasising either conservation or both conservation and development objectives. Buffer zones are an important part of conservation strategies for a wide variety of sites of biodiversity importance, in particular for World Heritage Sites, Biosphere Reserves and IUCN Protected areas categories.


Supported by

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), World Heritage Convention, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme


Year of creation


Not applicable



A variety of spatial patterns and arrangements for buffer zones exist, all following the same principle, but applied under completely different conditions (ecological, political, economic, etc). Hence, a wide diversity can be observed in the criteria for their creation and management. There are five aspects that are commonly considered in their creation. These are:3

  • Size: determined based on factors such as the objectives for creation of buffer zone, availability of land, traditional land use systems, threats and opportunities.
  • Ecology: buffer zones vary depending on their focus on the landscape, habitat and/or species conservation, each of which demands a different approach for their creation.
  • Economy: this involves appraisals such as cost-benefit analysis, time frame and discount rate, to assess economic viability of establishing a buffer zone.
  • Legislation: several international treaties and conventions (e.g. Convention on Biological Diversity, World Heritage Convention) and national level guidelines for protected areas (e.g. Nepal) recommend creation of buffer zones.
  • Social and institutional: creation of buffer zones also involves consideration of issues such as traditional rights of local communities, type of development activities to minimize negative impacts of conservation, local organisations to manage buffer zones and land tenure.


There are various approaches in buffer zone management depending on the type and objectives of the conservation area for which it is created. For instance, activities in the buffer zones around some protected areas or World Heritage Sites are recommended to be regulated so as to protect the core zone. In the Biosphere Reserves and ICDPs, socio-economic developments of local communities play a crucial role. A buffer zone can also be managed as an area for research to develop approaches for sustainable use of resources, for ecosystem restoration, education and training, as well as carefully designed tourism and recreation activities. The degree of legal protection to buffer zone varies. At present, only in a few countries do the protected area management authorities have the legal authority, jurisdiction and mandate to establish and manage buffer zones. In most cases where the buffer zones are outside the protected area, they fall under the institutional control and jurisdiction of authorities other than those responsible for management of the protected area.


Business relevance:

Legal and compliance – Buffer zones often do not have any legal protection, although this varies with the objective for which they were established. A few countries (e.g. Nepal, Ghana) have developed policies and legal instruments facilitating development and implementation of buffer zone approaches.3 The World Heritage Convention requires that any modification in the buffer zone area subsequent to inscription of a property on the World Heritage List should be approved by the World Heritage Committee.4

Biodiversity – Buffer zones are not sites of biodiversity conservation themselves, but their establishment provides an additional layer of protection to existing areas of biodiversity importance, and they are often fundamental to achieving conservation of those areas.

Socio-cultural – Buffer zones are important areas for traditional practices, cultural values, rights and involvement of local/indigenous communities in protection, use and management around protected areas. For instance, among different approaches of buffer zone creation, the Social buffer zone uses the culture and sense of identity of indigenous or other population groups, and local organisations, to form a barrier, control and monitoring system between a conservation area and its surroundings.4



Not applicable



  1. UNESCO (1996) Biosphere reserves: The Seville Strategy and the Statutory Framework of the World Network. UNESCO, Paris, France.
  2. Wells, M., & Brandon, K. (1993) The Principles and Practice of Buffer Zones and Local Participation in Biodiversity Conservation. Ambio, 22(2-3), 157- 162
  3. Ebregt, A. & Greve, P. De (2000) Buffer Zones and their Management : Policy and Best Practices for Terrestrial Ecosystems in Developing Countries, National Reference Centre for Nature Management; International Agricultural Centre, Wageningen,the Netherlands.
  4. Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention.
  5. Oliver, M. & Giovanna, P. (eds) (2008) World Heritage and Buffer Zones, International Expert Meeting on World Heritage and Buffer Zones Davos, Switzerland, 11-14 March, Davos, Switzerland.


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