A healthy park–people relationship depends essentially on the fair and sustainable maintenance of rural livelihood. When a protected area is designated, rural people may face restrictions on access to land and resource use. In Wuyishan of China, we analyzed the role of traditional tea cultivation during consistent protected area management to find ways to maintain the stability of this social-ecological system in the new national park era. Based on the social-ecological system meaning perception, we used an intensive social survey to investigate residents’ perception of the ecosystem in terms of tea cultivation and its interaction with conservation policies. Results showed that tea cultivation brought major household income and was associated with multiple cultural services. Protected area management affected land use, and conservation outcomes were more obvious to farmers than economic and social ones. We argue that the multi-functionality of the forest-tea system has the potential to benefit both the local people and the public through conservation-compatible activities at three levels: to regulate biophysical elements in the land plot, to link production and market at the mountain level, and to secure tenure and encourage community participation at the landscape level. This knowledge co-production approach revealed that to avoid a negative park–people relationship, traditional knowledge and people’s right to benefit must be respected.
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