ChloeKinga Dedi SAdhurib JulianCliftonc aSolimar International bIndonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) cUniversity of Western Australia

Received 15 September 2021, Revised 15 April 2022, Accepted 15 April 2022, Available online 6 May 2022.


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced coastal communities around the world to re-evaluate their approaches to marine conservation and marine protected area (MPA) management. Initial studies have called for the need for improved social-ecological resilience of MPAs to improve the adaptive capacity of communities and ecosystems to respond to future crises. However, as posed by Armitage and Johnson (2006), it is critical that MPA managers ask the question “for what and for whom are we trying to promote resilience?” in designing more resilient MPAs for a post-pandemic world. Based on a systematic literature review of marine reserve impacts and supported by fieldwork conducted in the Wakatobi National Park in Indonesia over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, this study examines what opportunities for transformations in MPA management and governance have emerged, and how MPAs can focus on incorporating principles of equitable resilience as they build back from the pandemic. The findings demonstrate how equitable resilience can be undermined when the voices and interests of local communities are sidelined in favour of powerful interest groups such as tourism or NGOs. Ultimately, the paper concludes that planning for resilience in MPAs must synchronize with local realities to better realize the potential for system transformation and a reimagining of MPA capacity to better serve local communities.


equitable resiliencemarine protected areasWakatobi National Parktransformative adaptationCOVID-19co-management

1. Introduction

The concept of resilience has been widely applied since its original characterisation as “the capacity to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Folke et al., 2005). It has been used to examine the responses of both human and natural systems to change, disruption, and shocks. The term “social-ecological resilience” has been increasingly employed to holistically capture changes and impacts in and around protected areas (Jones, Qiu 2013). Whilst critiqued by some for its “depoliticised language”, neglecting the role of macro-scale economic or environmental drivers of change (Hayward, 2013), resilience has served as a “boundary object” unifying otherwise disparate disciplines in seeking to understand or manage complex systems (Baggio et al., 2015).

The ongoing disruption to economic, social, and environmental systems worldwide associated with the COVID-19 pandemic represents a transformative event or “rupture” (King et al., 2021) exceeding the capacity of systems to adapt and absorb its impacts. This unprecedented disruption has led to resilience being re-conceptualised beyond Folke et al.’s (2005) emphasis on “absorbing change” to one which envisages new policies, institutions and practices being adopted and transformed to address inequalities in power and failures in development policy. “Equitable resilience” has been described as resilience which recognises structural issues such as vulnerability, access to power and resources, and how circumstances must change in order to avoid an imbalance of power in the future (Matin et al., 2018). This interpretation is congruent with the more nuanced understanding of resilience in a post- COVID-19 context, emphasising the need to empower stakeholders to identify trade-offs and priorities in governance decisions and enabling adaptation to arise through individual choices rather than de facto institutional processes (Schlosberg et al., 2017).

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the fragility of many global industries as their abrupt cessation undermined the social-ecological resilience of the destinations in which they operated. Destinations dependent on the tourism industry in particular were affected, with data indicating that international tourism numbers averaged 72-73% below those of the pre-pandemic period for the 24 months ending December 2021 (WTO, 2022). The impacts of international travel restrictions on visitor revenues accruing to protected areas has been significant, leading in some cases to a cessation of essential management activities along with staff redundancies and wide-ranging economic impacts in local communities dependent on tourism-related income (Waithaka et al., 2021).

Given the importance of tourism for the financing of protected areas, it is critical to examine its place within the future of Marine Protected Area (MPA) management. Beyond financing, tourism can alter the social and ecological underpinnings of an MPA, thus affecting social-ecological resilience (King et al., 2021). There is an urgent need to ensure that principles of equitable resilience are embedded in “build back better” strategies. This study will provide a review of such initiatives and illustrate their potential with reference to a case study MPA in eastern Indonesia. It asks: “How has COVID-19 impacted the social-ecological resilience of MPAs worldwide? What implications and opportunities has it had for equitable resilience in MPAs?”

2. Materials and Methods

This paper uses a combination of methodologies to achieve two objectives: 1) To compare and examine emerging findings of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the social-ecological resilience of MPAs around the world through a systematic literature review; and 2) To illustrate the resulting challenges and opportunities for achieving equitable resilience by examining a case study from an MPA in Indonesia. The two specific methodologies are described below.

2.1. Literature review

The systematic review assessed published literature on marine reserves since the COVID-19 pandemic began in order to analyse procedural and substantive changes and outcomes in park management. The Scopus database was used to conduct an electronic literature search in May 2021, limited to peer-reviewed articles written in English. Search terms were selected after a series of tests to demonstrate adequate sensitivity of search parameters (Collaboration for Environmental Evidence, 2018). The following keyword combinations were searched using Boolean operators:

TITLE-ABS-KEY(“marine reserve” OR “marine protected area” OR “MPA” OR “national park”) AND TITLE-ABS-KEY(“COVID-19” OR “coronavirus” OR “COVID” OR “pandemic”) AND PUBYEAR > 2019 AND SRCTYPE(j) AND LANGUAGE(english)

The review included predefined inclusion criteria, keyword searches in research databases, and data extraction and analysis following a PICO structure (Populations, Interventions, Comparators, Outcomes)(van den Bosch & Ode Sang, 2017). The PICO structure was utilized to define the populations, interventions, comparators, and outcomes to be included or excluded from the review, which can be viewed in detail in Supplementary Materials 1 (van den Bosch & Sang 2017). The screening for inclusion in the subsequent analysis process can be seen in the PRISMA (Moher et al. 2009) flow diagram in Fig. 1; ultimately ten articles were included in full thematic analysis. The first author conducted this analysis using the software NVivo, which included attaching thematic codes to statements, passages, and phrases in the literature, used to reorganize data to enhance analysis (Fereday and Muir-Cochrane, 2006, Westoby et al., 2020). A summary table of NVivo codes is included in Supplementary Material 2; studies analyzed in the final review are included in Supplementary Material 3.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1. PRISMA Flow Diagram for Systematic Reviews.

Content analysis was then used to sort these thematic codes under four core domains as identified by Gill et al. (2017) and later adapted into a framework by Phua et al. (2021). These domains include: 1) appropriateness of management activities (procedural effectiveness); 2) justice or fairness of management (procedural equity); 3) achievement of desired MPA outcomes (substantive effectiveness); and 4) distribution of MPA costs and benefits (substantive equity). This framework was chosen due to its focus on both social equity and MPA effectiveness, both critical aspects of long-term and equitable social-ecological resilience of MPAs. Equitable resilience requires “starting from people’s own perception of their position within their human-environmental system” (Matin et al., 2018), and changes in social-ecological systems must account for societal perceptions of equity, fairness, and efficacy of MPAs. The findings demonstrate how equitable resilience can be strengthened when local voices are better incorporated into transparent governance structures.

Primary data collection

A series of semi structured interviews were carried out in person (n=42) from October 2019 to March 2020, and remotely via Zoom (n=15) in April 2021 with respondents in the Wakatobi National Park (WNP) located in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia (Fig. 2). The WNP encompasses 13,900 km2 of land and sea across four major islands and is home to some 100,000 people (von Heland et al., 2014). The WNP was officially designated in 1996 and has experienced a range of management initiatives, including being identified as a “platform site” within the broader Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security (CTI-CFF) (Clifton, 2013). The WNP has seen considerable involvement from NGOs and outside donor agencies, in addition to its inclusion in the government’s so-termed “10 New Bali’s” strategy prioritizing tourism development in the region (Borrello, 2020). With these activities fundamentally altered throughout COVID-19, the WNP is an important case study in illuminating opportunities for enhancing resilience in “building back better” (Pomeroy & Berkes, 1997; Ehler, 2013).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2. Location map of Wakatobi Marine Park, Southeast Sulawesi (dotted line represents park boundaries).

Respondents were selected through a process of purposive and snowball sampling techniques, and semi-structured interviews explored aspects of livelihoods, perceptions of MPA management, and the impact of tourism on the WNP. The first author undertook all interviews which were conducted in Indonesian and lasted from 30 to 60 minutes. The first author also employed participant observation, residing on the islands of Tomia and Hoga for six months from October 2019 to March 2020. Two focus group discussions with a variety of stakeholders were also conducted. Remote interviews in April 2021 focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on livelihoods and MPA management. Respondents were aged from 18 to 65, with occupations ranged from fishermen to National Park officials to guest house owners. Notes were made during and after each interview which were then coded for subsequent analysis using the themes identified via the literature review. In the results, interview quotes from the October 2019 to March 2020 period are presented as “IC#” and the April 2021 period as “Respondent #”.

3. Results

A description of key themes identified through the literature review is presented, followed by detailed illustration using primary material from the WNP. These are organized into four MPA management topics as proposed by Gill et al. (2017) and adapted by Phua et al. (2021): 1) appropriateness of management activities (procedural effectiveness); 2) justice or fairness of management (procedural equity); 3) achievement of desired MPA outcomes (substantive effectiveness); and 4) distribution of MPA costs and benefits (substantive equity).