Posts Tagged ‘governance’

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.

New Project with Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society

Georgina Cundill and I are heading up a new project recently endorsed as a Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group that will focus on collaborative governance and management in support of resilience-based ecosystem stewardship:

For those not familiar with PECS, it is a new initiative in the ICSU’s set of programmes on global change.  Its aims are “to integrate research on the stewardship of social—ecological systems, the services they generate and the relationships among natural capital, human wellbeing, livelihoods, inequality and poverty.”

George and I are very excited for this opportunity and look forward to combining insights from field work in the US, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Sweden, and several other locales around the globe.  More to follow on these projects in the coming months.

New publication on transboundary conservation

Just a quick note to highlight a recent publication of mine in Conservation and Society that is now available online at:  The title is “Governance in transboundary conservation: How institutional structure and path dependence matter“.

I’ll write more in the coming week about some of the specific findings.  In the meantime, enjoy!!

New Transboundary Conservation Guidelines

A few weeks ago a group of transboundary conservation specialists met in Thayatal National Park in Northern Austria.  Thayatal National Park, on the Thaya River along the old Iron Curtain, is part of a transboundary protected area with its neighbor, Podyji National Park, in the Czech Republic. We gathered to craft a new IUCN (World Conservation Union) Best Practice Guideline on transboundary conservation in the 21st Century.  Our mission included revising prior recommendations last revised in 2001 as well as begin to take a more holistic view of transboundary conservation and extend this beyond past notions of conservation = national park-style protected areas.

The project brings together a nice blend of scholars, NGO representatives,  conservation practitioners and park officials from around the globe.  We had 20 participants from 17 different countries discussing a range of issues from management and governance to diverse types/styles of transboundary conservation (formal protected areas, mixed land use types, informal collaborations at international and sub-national scales, etc).  Participants gave talks on case studies covering transboundary conservation projects from around the globe.  We also managed to hammer out a first draft of key terms in the field.  In the coming months we will draft a book on that builds on state of the art knowledge on the subject for a launch at the World Parks Congress next year in Sydney.  I will follow up with a post on developments as the guidelines get closer to approval.

The final day included a nice excursion of rafting along the Thaya River and hiking back through the park.

Czech Castle near Thayatal NP

Czech Castle near Thayatal NP

The Thaya River
The Thaya River

Optimism in Sustainability and Environmental Studies

In all of my courses, I strive to focus on positive signs for sustainability and improvements in both the human condition and in the state of the planet.  The field is packed with naysayers and doomsday predictions, many of whom, I think, may prove to be correct for their concern.  In spite of this, I am optimistic.  The apocalyptic forecasts often (but clearly not always) lead to adaptation and changing behaviors.  This is the reflexivity that social scientists often discuss (and struggle with in our research) – the dynamic and introspective nature of many of the systems that we study.  In my policy classes, we often discuss the oft-cited example of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone-depleting Substances and how the international community effectively mitigated a serious problem (the Ozone Hole) and made it a non-issue.  In my Workshop course, student groups have looked at a number of local sustainability challenges and have taken concrete steps to resolve the problems on a local-scale (the “Think globally, act locally” idea put into practice).  With this in mind, I was quite curious to read a couple of books written with a similar optimistic mindset – “The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley and “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.  For now, I want to focus on some of Ridley’s writing.

As I hope the preceding paragraph makes clear, I’m fully supportive, indeed, overly eager, for writing that looks at positive signs for humanity and sustainability.  Ridley does a great job at highlighting many of the ways that the human condition has improved over the years.  For this reason alone, it’s a worthwhile read.  A marked contrast to the eloquent yet pessimistic writing of many resilience/sustainability/environmental writers.  But there are a number of caveats to my recommendation.  First, as I stated above, the “pessimists” are 1) not wrong as often as Ridley makes it seem and 2) their clarion calls often lead to changes (and hence, often making their own predictions wrong).  Second, Ridley, as expected from a former editor of “The Economist” advocates a neoliberal agenda.  For those not familiar with the academic jargon, this means he is a strong advocate of international trade, the market as the main solution to many dilemmas, small government, and commodification of many goods not currently in the market.  If this is or isn’t your cup of tea, you have been forewarned.  If it is, enjoy.

Now, instead of writing a rather formal review, I’d like to avoid a debate on many of the strengths (some of which I mentioned in the opening paragraph) and weaknesses (particularly a noted lack of understanding of tipping points, nonlinear systems, and thresholds, fat tailed distributions, and most surprisingly a lack of nuanced understanding of discount rates over long-time horizons).  I would like to draw attention to 3 areas that the book avoids, which may lead to Ridley’s overly smug findings:

  • The role of innovation and technological fixes
  • The challenge of inequality
  • The difference between governance and government as well as government failures as opposed to market failures

First, everything Ridley discusses presupposes innovation as a cure-all for many of today’s dilemmas.  While the pessimists often overlook society’s capacity to innovate for either adaptation or mitigation, the rational optimist presupposes  technological fixes to everything.  However, this overlooks the effects of timing between innovation and when its needed, and it ignores the repeated instances of innovation plateaus.  These plateaus have regularly occurred since the Acheulean tools of homo erectus and sometimes last a long, long time.  This also overlooks the role of innovation and technology as the cause of many of our current problems.  Ridley, for instance, cites the role of fossil fuels in improving our standard of living, but for some reason he doesn’t see innovation as an effective response to eliminating the “bads” of fossil fuels now.

Second, this rational optimism assumes that if everyone improves a little (the pareto frontier gets pushed out), that this is enough.  There is no mention of current levels of inequality or any place for redistribution.  If this doesn’t seem to be an issue, please read Stiglitz’s “The Price of Inequality” for an overview of why this could be important.

Third, for some reason, there is a noted focus on the various types of government failure (clearly an issue).  But there is little discussion of noted market failures and the role of government in addressing them.  Nor is there much understanding of the role of government in supporting market institutions (the rules that enable it), the securing of property rights (in spite of invoking de Soto’s work), or a legal system that helps grease the wheels of his market-based system.  In addition, there is no understanding of how governance (the ordering of interpersonal or intergroup relations) differs from formal government.  Governance occurs within all groups – in/through businesses, NGOs, civil society, within families, formal and informal groups, etc.

More to follow on “Abundance”.  For now, please enjoy.  And do think about the benefits from a positive outlook.

Research Ideas on Boundaries and Natural Resource Management

Compare these two images:


On the left is a photo of the South Africa-Mozambique border in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.  On the right is a classic border shot from the Sierra Club of the US-Mexico border wall.  In both cases, these fences are in the middle of regions with a great deal of transboundary conservation and collaborative environmental management.  In both cases, we have tremendous economic disparity driving illegal migration and law enforcement responses (US-Mexico difference in GDP/capita = 3333% and South Africa-Mozambique = 9750%).  In addition, the US and Mexico struggle with drugs and gun smuggling.  South Africa and Mozambique have smugglers, but they also face one of the worst outbreaks in rhino poaching in recent times.  ALL rhinos in the Mozambican section of the transboundary park have been slaughtered in the past year (see  See also this brilliant response by Biggs et al in Science:

In such environments, it may be questionable to see how transboundary conservation can work.  In fact, these are hardly the most trying cases.  See these efforts in the Korean DMZ ( or these in Israel-Palestine (  My own work over the past several years has focused on working across borders in conservation and environmental management in Southern Africa and along the US-Mexico border, the locations in the two photos.

My latest project, in conjunction with David Manuel-Navarrete of ASU’s School of Sustainability and Forrest Fleischman of Dartmouth College, compares theories of borders and boundaries from common-pool resource literature with that from geography and sustainability to try to understand and bring together ecological boundaries, social boundaries and social conceptions of the first two.  The hope is to better understand effective governance of natural resources and how we can build relationships and work across many types of boundaries.  In the process, we want to create new bridges and dismantle the barriers standing in the way.

Ultimately, I’d like to follow up some of this theoretical work with new case studies in both the US Southwest and in some of the new transboundary parks of southern Africa.  In particular, working with Bram Buscher, we’d like to look at the attempts to reconcile the cross-border challenges of the massif of a transboundary protected area known as KAZA – the Kanvango-Zambezi Transfrontier Park which spans some 300,000 square kilometers across Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Cross-scale Governance of Environmental Dilemmas – Part 1

I have been fortunate enough to be active in three separate endeavors to better understand the governance of natural resources across multiple scales and their interactions.  The project furthest along is the SES-MAD group (Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database).  This project started as an idea with Michael Cox (the lead and database developer) to write a paper that would scale up the main principles of common-pool resource management.  It would take concepts developed in the study of small-scale projects and see if the same variables necessary for sustainability at the local level were still appropriate at larger spatial scales.  So much for a paper.  The project team now has 14 members and has been working over the past 18 months to develop a database, train team members, and begin the coding of cases across a number of resource areas (protected areas, fisheries, forests, international rivers, and pollution).  The training, reliability checks, and database building efforts are complete, and we are actively researching cases to populate our study.

We have recently submitted a grant proposal and are working on a special feature for publication in the August issue of International Journal of the Commons.  We plan to add members to our research team in the coming year.  Please let me know if you’re interested.  We plan to work on this project for the foreseeable future.  

Over the next couple months, I’ll share some of the key findings already emerging from the early stages of the project.  I’ll also share some of the interesting findings on a few of the cases that I’ve been working on personally – notably the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.  Stay tuned…