Establishing effective networks of protected areas (PAs) is one of the major goals of conservation strategies worldwide. However, the success of PAs in promoting biodiversity conservation depends on their integration to local and regional contexts, reducing and mitigating human impacts originating from buffer zones. Community perceptions affect interactions between residents and PAs, and thereby conservation effectiveness. Research at Tocantins state (northern Brazilian Cerrado), aimed to analyse local community perceptions of four PAs, discussing how different factors may influence these. Perceptions were assessed through standardized interviews applied to PA employees and 275 local inhabitants. There was modest community participation in PA establishment and management. Residents were aware of the PAs’ existence, but were unfamiliar with their goals. Length of residency and occupation of inhabitants influenced their PA perceptions, shaping different people-park relations in each of the four studied PAs. Involvement of local residents in PA planning and management represents a central strategy to strengthen local support for PAs over the long term. In those areas that still have settlements inside their boundaries, community relocation should follow a careful participatory process to avoid significant changes in local perceptions and attitudes towards these PAs, crucial for conserving Brazilian biodiversity.