In pursuit of its mission of connecting research, policy and practice to promote learning on approaches to land and natural resource governance, Equitable Earth Initiative is engaging in community protected areas, sustainable landscapes, and what have become known as “other effective area-based conservation measures” or OECMs. This is part of a series of posts in which we are sharing some of our thoughts on what these kinds of initiatives can contribute to sustainability and conservation.

Our current crisis

The interlinked crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and land degradation are generally treated as a series of discrete problems, each needing its own measures.  While specific actions to address specific environmental problems are needed, a piecemeal approach will never be enough, because these crises are all part of a larger, more fundamental crisis.  The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, recently expressed it in clear, stark tones:

To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken.

Dear friends,

Humanity is waging war on nature.i

In a previous post, we asserted that we, the human race, need to transform our relationship with nature, and that in order to do that we need to transform how we think about governance.  Governance itself needs to be transformed so that it can catalyze transformative change.

In further exploring ideas here on transformative governance, we make no attempt to lay out a fully formed theory or model of what this would entail.  Indeed, to do so at this stage would be premature, for reasons we’ll return to below.  Instead, here we just share a few initial thoughts on what transformative governance might entail and what it would mean in practice, particularly with respect to the worldwide biodiversity conservation efforts promoted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the place-based strategies that form one of the cornerstones of the CBD: protected areas, and what CBD jargon refers to as “other effective area-based conservation measures” or OECMs.


Principles for transformative governance and their implications for conservation

We have previously proposed some principles that we think should be at the heart of transformative governance:  interconnectedness, appreciation of the nobility of the human being, and justiceInterconnectedness, for example, involves recognizing both the oneness of the human race and our connections to and reliance on the natural world.  An implicit assumption in how governance at the level of national politics is typically structured is that the human race is a battlefield of competing social groups.  The conflict and polarizing influences embedded in our political systems spill over into society at large, affecting how collective decisions are made at the municipal and community level and sometimes even within voluntary groups and other civil society organizations, as well as shaping social identities that are defined in opposition to other, enemy groups.  This vision of society as being made up of different groups perpetually in competition and conflict with each other becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Governance systems founded on the principle of interconnectedness, however, would aim to foster a form of unity that embraces diversity while finding common ground and strengthening the ties that connect us human beings.

Sadly, in the realm of biodiversity conservation, conflict between parks agencies and other conservation authorities on the one hand, and indigenous peoples and local communities whose livelihoods are based on natural resources on the other, is all too common.  Such conflict sometimes results from communities being forcibly relocated in order to remove them from newly created parks and other kinds of protected areas, and often also from those communities being denied the right to harvest natural resources and access traditional sacred spaces in those protected areas.  In the war on poaching, moreover, communities living adjacent to national parks are frequently assumed, often without evidence, to be part of the problem.  What is most worrying is that this even happens to indigenous communities that have coexisted sustainably with nature for centuries.

Another principle that we propose be placed at the heart of efforts to foster transformative governance is community-driven development.  The word development itself has become suspect and has taken on a variety of cynical, shallow, and purely materialistic meanings.   For us, however, development is a process through which individuals learn and take action together in communities to become protagonists of their own advancement.  It is inextricably linked with the cultivation of individual and collective capabilities that enable people to realize their full potentiality as human beings.  The starting point for this kind of development is at the grassroots within communities, and it moves forward through the creation of communityCommunity is the expression in culture of interconnectedness and is an essential component of sustainable development.  Where societal forces of materialism and radical individualism have undermined community, community must be reanimated, and where they have corrupted people’s relationship with nature, it is first and foremost at the grassroots that this needs to be repaired.

In the sphere of conservation, national and international programs, institutions and policies have a role to play.  However, the need for a mode of development in which individuals and communities develop their potentialities in a context of strengthening healthy relationships among themselves and with nature suggests that place-based processes at the community level must play a primary role.  This has implications for place-based conservation actions such as the ways in which protected areas are created, governed and managed.  It implies, for instance, that protected areas should only be created when local communities are full partners.  This is not about mere “benefit-sharing” from conservation or about simply consulting these communities about decisions that are ultimately taken elsewhere.  We propose that transformative governance requires that indigenous and local communities who live in and adjacent to protected areas and OECMs should always have a seat at the table where the decisions about creating and governing these spaces are made.

Furthermore, when the principles of interconnectedness and community-driven development are considered together with the principle of justice, it becomes clear that conservation actors and governments must learn how to embrace cultural diversity and recognize the rights, the cultures, and the institutions of indigenous people.  A transformation in governance for sustainable development must include a transformation in the way that protected areas are created, as well as redressing wrongs that have been carried out in the name of conservation in the past.

Learning is another principle that we propose be at the heart of transformative governance.  Governance that is built around learning and that contributes to building unity while embracing diversity would need to foster widespread interchange of perspectives and ideas through dialogue and deliberation.  This goes far beyond elected officials seeking input from constituents; the aim rather should be that more and more people become active participants rather than mere constituents.

This is why we suggested above that it is impossible today for us or anyone else to sit and devise a full-fledged model of transformative governance.  Identifying what transformative governance is will itself require ongoing dialogue in deliberative spaces from the local to the global.  It will also require a change such that knowledge is not generated only through formal conservation science but also through learning processes that happen at the grassroots.  Indigenous peoples have a wealth of experience and knowledge on living in harmony with nature and conserving natural resource heritage, but far too little is being done to mobilize this knowledge or to continue generating new knowledge at the community level.  If policies and programs for conservation can recognize and empower indigenous peoples’ conservation efforts and facilitate cross-fertilization between such efforts around the world, it would transform how learning for effective conservation happens, which in turn will help to transform how conservation is done.


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