Sustainability, Governance and the Navajo Nation

In the last few weeks I’ve had the wonderful good fortune of working with representatives of the Navajo Nation on governance.  One of the School of Sustainability’s doctoral students, Edward Dee, a member of the Navajo Nation, approached me about a meeting on the proposed Navajo Decentralization Plan and the incorporation of sustainability concepts in their Intra-tribal Consultation Policy.

My starting point drew on my previous work in southern Africa on transboundary conservation and the challenges of interactions between national agencies while simultaneously working between local communities and national governments.  This becomes particularly challenging when land claims and the settlement of indigenous rights are involved.  While limited in the comparisons that are appropriate between the cases, I believe that the Navajo Nation faces similar constraints both between Navajo chapters and between tribal and federal land, particularly when facing transboundary environmental problems such as water conservation, fire management, and biodiversity threats.

In thinking about environmental policy and sustainability, I stress three main points – the need for collaborative, nested, and adaptive institutional arrangements (or rules and operating procedures).  Because sustainability challenges are often ‘wicked’ in that they have no single, right answer (incomplete, inconsistent, and changing requirements) and because they generally involve multiple stakeholder groups, effective governance requires collaboration.  Effective governance requires legitimacy.  Collaboration and broader levels of participation are ways to build legitimacy in rule-making.

Sustainability challenges are also multi-scalar and cross many political boundaries and land use/land tenure borders.  Building on ideas of polycentricity and institutional fit, governance systems should try to manage to the scale of the problem.  As sustainability challenges are often comprised from multiple problems, governance will often need to be nested to address multiple problems at multiple scales.

Finally, sustainability challenges occur in dynamic, complex systems filled with uncertainty and surprise,  nonlinearity and  threshold effects.  As a result, there is no such thing as an optimal set of rules/laws/policies.  Instead, governance arrangements need to be adaptive to deal with the unknown and be able to confront a dynamic environment.

These ideas are obviously quite vague in details.  I look forward to working with representatives from the Navajo Nation on how to operationalize the concepts.

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