Protected areas (PAs), a cornerstone of biodiversity conservation, are effective ways to mitigate the losses of biodiversity and habitat [1
] and have long been considered significant tools for maintaining habitat integrity, species’ diversity, and representative samples of the biotopes [2
]. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines these areas as geographical spaces with clear demarcations determined by legal or other effective means, which are recognized, dedicated, and managed to achieve long-term nature conservation with related ecosystem services and cultural values [6
]. PAs currently cover more than 15% of the world’s land surface [7
]. Some concerns have arisen that PAs should contribute to sustaining their local communities’ livelihoods [8
]. However, commercial interests, such as mines, dams, roads, and tourism, might put pressure on those PAs [11
China’s total PA area currently comprises 21.02% of its territory (land area: 15.61%; marine area: 5.41%) [12
]. Many scholars have researched China’s PAs, such as Xu [13
], who pointed out that PAs have various objectives and criteria for success depending on their goals [4
]. For example, PAs variously focus on conserving ecosystems and species, protecting threatened species, ecosystem services, and cultural or social factors [3
]. The effective management of PAs may lead to success [10
]. Karanth [17
] reported that conservation success is strongly dependent on the relationships between residents and management. Furthermore, positive relationships between PAs and their local communities may improve conservation outcomes [18
], as Holmes [19
] indicated, that local people can refuse cooperation with management officials if they do not support the PAs. Moreover, Tessema [20
] concluded that PA–community relationships are of great significance to the conservation of wild life. Consequently, the human–PA relationship is very important [21
] and is a significant predictor of a PA’s success [22
]. Redpath [23
] indicated that this relationship is a highly debated issue because local support does not exert a strong influence on the conservation of wildlife in PAs. Other scholars agree [24
]; however, the wellbeing of a PA’s local community should be considered because it is important to the success of wildlife conservation [24
]. As was also stated by Jonathan, appropriate management, including allowing more local participants into management occupations and granting access to resources, would increase local satisfaction. This should lead to a more harmonious relationship between the PAs and their local communities.
Zhongnanshan Mountain, famous throughout China and around the world for its geological and geographical significance, is located in the midsection of the Qinling Mountains. Some scholars have focused their research on this region. For example, Yang et al. [26
] conducted research on the regional geological setting, evolution, and strata of the Qinling Zhongnanshan UNESCO Global Geopark (QZUGG), and concluded that the area has distinctive, perhaps unique, features compared to the geosites in other global geoparks. Tie [27
] discussed protections and ways to develop the area’s tourism. However, no studies have described or analyzed the relationship between the management of the Geopark and its local residents. During the field work and preliminary interviews with some local residents, it appeared that the PA–community relationship was tense. Local people seemed dissatisfied with the Geopark’s management. Therefore, this study investigated the local community in and around the Geopark, in terms of residents’ employment, occupations, financial situations, and the extent to which the local residents were satisfied with the QZUGG.
Our research shows that there were few respondents younger than 30 years (Table A1
). Some respondents explained that young adults could earn relatively more money for their families as migrant workers. These rural migrant workers (people working outside of where there were born) tend to be young adults who work at home only during planting and harvest seasons [29
]. These statements support Chinese government data on the increase in migrant workers in Shaanxi Province [30
]. Teye et al. [31
] suggested that people with high educational attainment have more positive attitudes, than less educated people regarding tourism development. Education increases awareness and understanding of environmental and political issues [32
]. Educated people tend to be better informed on matters, than their less educated counterparts [33
]. However, about 70% of the sample had no more than a middle school education (Table A1
). Low educational attainment might relate to low satisfaction and negative perspectives, as a result of a lack of understanding the benefits and other positive aspects of geoparks. These respondents may also have had an insufficient understanding of the Geopark itself.
It is interesting that, although more than 90% of the respondents were born in their communities (Table A1
), and although several reported more than 20 years of residence there (Table A3
), many of them were unaware that they lived in a geopark. This might be related to their low educational attainment or to the GGN’s failure to disseminate and communicate information to the public. In a study conducted in India and Nepal, it was indicated that most local residents knew that they were living in PAs [17
]. The main way through which respondents became aware that they lived in a geopark was learning about it from a village committee or other government agency. Before the establishment of the Geopark, each of the scenic spots was either a National Geopark or a National Forest Park. However, it seemed that information regarding this Geopark was not publicized among local residents. It appears that government agencies have an important role in the development and conservation of such areas [34
]. Consequently, we suggest that disseminating educational information to PAs’ local communities should be enhanced to raise collective awareness and understanding of the Geopark.
It can be inferred from the data that the respondents were highly dependent on the Geopark for their livelihoods. A large share of the respondents worked full-time jobs related to the Geopark (Table A3
), suggesting that they no longer farmed or had other occupations. Furthermore, almost 40% of the respondents relied on the Geopark for their entire family’s income (Table A5
). Almost one-half of the household members (on average) had jobs related to the Geopark, indicating the Geopark’s positive function for providing job opportunities and support to its local residents. However, these were mostly food catering and accommodation service jobs in or near the entrance to the Geopark. Few jobs were posted for which local people qualified, and, during the interviews, only two local people reported being directly hired by the Geopark. It is clear that the Geopark does not offer sufficient job opportunities for the local people, which could alienate the local residents from the Geopark and impede their understanding and perception of the Geopark.
It is reasonable for employment contractors to seek the people with the best work experience and education to fill a particular job opening; however, they should consider hiring local residents as it would lead to more efficient management of the PA, particularly regarding conflict with the local people [35
]. Bookbinder [36
] argued that employment of the local people can make them view the PAs in a positive way and discourage them from collecting firewood or poaching wildlife, which will in turn make the management of the PA easier and more effective. Furthermore, when more land is needed to expand the geopark or when new rules are implemented for management purposes, it would be helpful to have local people on the payroll because the extent of the local people’s understanding and awareness of geopark activities depends on their level of engagement with the geopark [37
]. Karanth [17
] also pointed out that constructive engagement with local residents would support long-term success of conservation. A profit-sharing or bonus scheme might help to secure local people’s financial interests [38
] and increase their satisfaction with the Geopark, which is crucial to QZUGG’s success. Previous studies have emphasized the need to increase job opportunities for local residents [39
], which would significantly strengthen the human–geopark relationship.
Directly benefitting the local people might be key to avoiding conflicts between them and the PAs, as the benefits to the locals can be substantial, such as tourism-generated income [41
]. Understanding the local people’s benefits related to the Geopark is essential for striking a balance between conservation goals and local communities’ needs [11
]. However, only a small number of local households received compensation, and not many appeared satisfied with it. In addition to a one-time monetary payment, four respondents received wheat flour every year, one received rooms as additional compensation, and another received additional money every year. This seems to be an unequal, perhaps inappropriate, compensation scheme (or even a non-existent compensation scheme). In another developing country (Nepal), researchers indicated uneven benefit distribution which was largely restricted to people living close to tourism centers [43
One reason for the failure to implement a reasonable compensation scheme might be the complexity of the top-down management system. The eight QZUGG scenic spots (Table 1
) are managed by different government agencies (The Ministry of Forestry, Water Conservancy Bureau, Tourist Administration, and Bureau of Land Resources), although they are centrally managed by a QZUGG management office in Xi’an City. Negotiations and agreements for compensation might have been made with some, but not other, residents. Otherwise, it seems that there should have been more local residents in our sample to have been compensated. A close examination of the incomes of those 50 people reveals that almost one-half of them earned all of their income from Geopark-related employment (Table A6
). Because the Geopark’s tourism business is seasonal, annual incomes must be rapidly ensured and generated during those months when the tourists visit. These circumstances help to explain the unhappy or angry respondents during the interviews, and it is not difficult to understand their dissatisfaction with the Geopark’s management officials.
To increase the local residents’ levels of satisfaction, good management is fundamental [38
]. The combined efforts of eight scenic spots in applying for UNESCO Global Geopark status have created a contradiction. The integrity of a UNESCO Global Geopark requires unified action and conservation. However, these eight spots conduct tourism activities, development, and business independent of each other, and unification is difficult. This might create problems, such as unclear themes of the individual scenic spots because of variations in design and construction standards, as well as a lack of effective communication among them. These problems may reduce the numbers of visitors, which, in turn, may negatively affect local residents’ incomes.
The complex top-down management system of multiple administrative agencies adds inefficiency regarding the implementation of new policies or new management schemes. Therefore, efforts should be made to reform the system to be more unified. It is essential that policymakers and managers understand PAs and their status quo [3
] as the basis of future activities. The QZUGG central management office should perform a thorough assessment of the four scenic spots toward achieving a balanced tourism resource distribution. Furthermore, an online communication platform should be established to improve cooperation.