Balance means making environmental decisions that foster ecosystem health, treat people fairly, and make economic sense. Global environmental trends show that we have yet to find this balance. Environmental governance still relies on government institutions whose missions and structures are ill-matched to the task of managing ecosystems and don’t always acknowledge the importance of public participation or the need for equity. Private sector performance is likewise driven by short-term economic goals that often conflict with the long-term needs of the environment. Public transparency and accountability can help resolve this conflict, but are relatively new imperatives for most companies.
How do we move toward a better balance? At least five steps must define our drive for better environmental governance.
Adopt environmental management approaches that respect ecosystems
To match human needs with Earth’s biological capacities, governance structures must adapt to the innate constraints of living systems. Ecosystems are the planet’s primary biological units-the sources of all the environmental goods and services we rely on for life, and the ultimate foundations of the global economy. They must therefore become the ultimate points of reference for our environmental decisions. Such an ecosystem-level focus defines what we can call an “ecosystem approach” to environmental management (Young 2002:55).
An ecosystem approach includes explicit consideration of people’s needs for food, shelter, employment, and all the varied economic and spiritual benefits we derive from nature. To accomplish this, social and economic goals must be integrated with biological information about the functions and limitations of ecosystems. Our environmental governance must provide the mechanism to negotiate this difficult integration-by giving each stakeholder a voice without losing track of what the ecosystem itself is saying about its capacity for alteration and human use. This means creating a forum where ecosystem science and monitoring can influence management goals and inform public input into environmental decisions. It demands an equal role for social science-tracking the social outcomes of decisions in order to maintain a focus on equity.
Making ecosystems the fundamental units of environmental management will require innovative approaches. One such approach is to promote decentralized management of natural resources, so that local stakeholders take a primary role in governing the ecosystems around them. Larger, regional associations-such as river basin authorities linking users across many jurisdictions-may also be useful. In practice, a variety of new institutional and economic arrangements will be needed to connect people with the ecosystems they depend on, to the benefit of both.<?p>
In Quito, Ecuador, for example, city water users pay a small fee into a special fund used to protect the watershed in the Antisana Reserve-the source of the city’s water supply. This arrangement allows city residents to see themselves as stakeholders in a distant ecosystem who have decided to help manage and pay for the vital service the ecosystem renders. A similar plan, where downstream users elect to pay for upstream services, is being considered to help manage the watershed that feeds Panama City and the Panama Canal Authority (Zurita 2002).
On a much larger scale, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor project links local community planning efforts with management of protected areas in the seven Central American countries along the corridor route. The project seeks to find economic uses of the land that will also help maintain its ecological richness-activities such as low-intensity agriculture and forestry. The plan effectively combines regional ecosystem-based goals with a decentralized, community-based approach to landscape management.
Restoration of the Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast of the United States demonstrates that managing a regional resource in a complex social setting can require a battery of governance innovations, such as new partnerships among government agencies and community organizations, new economic incentives, and a new role for science. The Chesapeake’s enormous watershed spans 4 states and over 1,600 individual communities. With the help of a citizens’ advisory board and a panel of science advisors, state agencies and the federal government have forged a common set of Bay restoration goals and biological benchmarks to measure their progress across all jurisdictions. Each state has pursued its own regulatory approach to this Chesapeake Bay Compact, as the regional agreement is called. These approaches include tax incentives, land use restrictions, and harvest limits on fish and shellfish. Meanwhile, a number of local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have played important roles in helping farmers, fishermen, and Bay communities embrace the effort and actually carry out much of the restoration work (WRI et al. 1996:74; Chesapeake Bay Program 2003).
These examples suggest the governance innovations possible with an ecosystem approach to environmental management. In some cases, adopting ecosystem-level management practices will mean reconfiguring existing agencies or creating new institutions and relationships that better reflect ecosystem realities. This need not mean wholesale abandonment of the centralized model of most state agencies, which will continue to fulfill important coordinating, monitoring, or oversight functions. But it does imply more flexibility to assign discretionary powers to other levels in order to match management structures to ecosystems.
Sound knowledge is also needed to support decision-making at the ecosystem level. In response, government agencies and other environmental management organizations could support data collection consistent with an ecosystem approach, or pool data from different organizations to get a comprehensive economic and environmental picture of the whole ecosystem.
Build the capacity for public participation
Reformulating our natural resource management to respect ecosystems requires vigilant application of the principles of access and participation. In this context, public participation means not only wide access to information and direct participation in decision-making, but also effective representation, judicial redress, and other mechanisms that enable meaningful, democratic environmental governance.
Managing ecosystems inevitably involves trade-offs among different ecosystem uses. For instance, a forest can be managed to maximize timber and pulp production through intensive harvesting, but only by trading off some of its potential to support biodiversity, agroforestry, or nature-based tourism. Public participation-at the appropriate level-provides the best means to negotiate such trade-offs equitably and to make sure the goals that drive the day-to-day actions of natural resource agencies reflect the priorities of the community of stakeholders.
Too often, however, government agencies, private businesses, NGOs, and the media fail to play their parts in promoting transparent and inclusive decision-making. Even where the political will is present, public participation is hampered by these institutions’ lack of capacity to supply relevant information, coordinate the public input process, and digest the results. At the same time, the public often doesn’t know its rights to environmental access or how to use them, and doesn’t understand the full context of the decisions that affect their lives. Both problems require attention.
A first step is to make sure that public institutions recognize, as part of their core missions, the need to build the capacity for public participation. That means committing staff and budget resources for training and outreach to ensure that opportunities for access are clear and straightforward. It also means committing to build basic environmental literacy among the public, as in South Africa, where the government incorporates environmental education programs into public school curricula and adult education programs (Petkova et al. 2002:107).
Decentralizing natural resource management is another way governments can empower citizens and increase public participation in the decisions that affect them most. Care must be taken however, to devolve power to local institutions in a way that actually benefits natural resources and favors democratization. That requires, first and foremost, that governments transfer authority only to those bodies that are accountable at the local level. But it also requires a commitment to strengthen local institutions by providing technical expertise, training in skills like land use planning and resource mapping, guidance in participatory methods at town meetings, and support for the inclusion of women and other underrepresented groups. Instituting minimum environmental standards to guide local resource decisions may also be necessary to make sure these actions do not compromise larger environmental goals.
One important way governments can build public capacity for participation in environmental decision-making is to provide good foundations for the growth and maturation of NGOs and other civil society groups. This means strengthening their rights of access to information through freedom of information laws, and recognizing their right to represent their members in whatever forum decisions are being made. It also requires recognizing-and funding-the ability of NGOs to respond quickly to community needs and provide services the government can’t efficiently provide. Empowering civil society groups as environmental stewards thus means more than just official tolerance-it implies active support for partnerships among these groups, government agencies, and businesses.
Nonetheless, as civil society groups gain in influence, they must practice the same good governance principles of transparency and accountability they demand of governments and businesses. These include openness about funding sources, operations, goals, and accomplishments. NGOs that purport to advocate in the public interest should take care to maintain contact with the communities they serve through public consultations, newsletters, and formal progress reports and financial statements that foster accountability. Only when NGOs are transparent and accountable to their constituencies can they effectively facilitate participation.
For the business community, facilitating public participation starts with support for and compliance with regulations governing information disclosure. Companies can go further by adopting corporate codes of conduct that recognize community interests, following clear environmental reporting processes that make data publicly available, and establishing community liaisons. As guardians of transparency, media companies should adopt their own ethical codes of conduct, report all their lobbying activities, and disclose commercial ties that could influence their editorial decisions.
Building capacity for more effective public participation is a critical first step toward better environmental governance, but not one that is sufficient in and of itself.
Recognize all affected stakeholders in environmental decisions
Who should have standing to influence decisions affecting an ecosystem or negotiate for rights to ecosystem goods and services? Traditionally, the parties with influence and access have been few, creating public tension, local resistance to decisions, and a grossly unequal distribution of burdens and rewards. A commitment to building the capacity for public participation must include broadening the definition of who the “affected public” is. Public acceptance of environmental management decisions-and greater fairness in those decisions-will only emerge if a broader approach to environmental standing takes root.
One useful model might be the “rights and risks” approach recently put forward by the World Commission on Dams to guide decisions on large dams that affect a wide array of stakeholders. In this approach, anyone holding a right (such as a water right) or facing a risk from a proposed action (such as displacement by a dam) must have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. This includes not just those who reside in the affected ecosystem, but also those who depend on or value that ecosystem, no matter where they live. It is also important to recognize the standing of those who can speak for the ecosystem itself-whether they be scientists, natural resource managers, or members of an environmental or recreation-focused NGO.
As governments begin to broaden their conceptions of standing, civil society’s role in representing the public interest in decision-making takes on greater significance. It is imperative to remember that civil society is not monolithic, but wildly diverse. It may be appropriate to seek the input of several different groups in a participatory process, since a single NGO, labor union, or neighborhood group rarely reflects the pluralism of public opinion. For example, the World Commission on Dams included representatives from three different categories of civil society on its Advisory Forum-indigenous groups, public interest advocacy groups, and environmental groups. This was intended to reflect the diversity of stakeholders in the dam debate (Dubash et al. 2001:7).
Integrate environmental sustainability in economic decision-making
Many of today’s environmental impacts originate in decisions about economic development, trade, and investment-decisions outside the traditional “environment” sector. To make progress in reversing environmental decline, governments and businesses-not just natural resource agencies-must accept environmental sustainability as a principal mandate. That means assessing how each policy and investment strategy will affect equity and the environment.