Richard Cowling and Bob Pressey (2003) deserve credit for explicitly introducing stakeholder involvement as a stage of systematic conservation planning (SCP). (Earlier and other contemporary protocols for SCP had assumed this involvement but only implicitly—see Margules & Pressey , Groves et al. , and Sarkar .) The problem I want to raise, though, is that we have relegated the difficult issues that arise with stakeholder involvement during planning into a black box. We have simply assumed that, so long as we are well-intentioned and bring stakeholders together, we will have solved all relevant problems.
There are two reasons why this black box must be opened. First, no one in the context of SCP, as far as I know (and I welcome correction) has provided a protocol to mediate irresoluble differences, that is, situations in which the participating stakeholders cannot come to an agreement. By and large, in practice, we’ve already occasionally faced serious problems. (For instance, in New South Wales, a negotiation process between stakeholders broke down in the late 1990s due to differences between stakeholders who included logging industry representatives besides conservationists [Justus & Sarkar 2002].) I suspect these problems will multiply in the future and we would do well to prepare for them.
Second, beyond such prudential and pragmatic issues, the involvement of stakeholders raises deep ethical issues which should concern us. These issues are troubling enough that some commentators, including Mark Dowie (who has written a telling critique of conservation planning by NGOs and others [Dowie 2005]) doesn’t even like the framework of stakeholder negotiations presided by external experts and even the term “stakeholders.” Let me raise three questions and open this up for discussion:
Who is a genuine stakeholder in a planning context? Typically, we include all those who have an interest in biodiversity conservation in a region, those who would be affected by a conservation plan, and those with statutory or de facto power over the region and other resources (Margules & Sarkar 2006). But why should someone who expresses an interest in conservation—say, an outsider, as most of us are in typical contexts in which we serve as technical consultants—be considered a relevant stakeholder? Moreover, prudential considerations may dictate that we include all those who have power over a region. But that does not mean that these entities have any ethical standing. Consider, for instance, oil interests in Alaska or mining interests in New Guinea. By the scheme outlined earlier, these would both qualify as stakeholders. But it is far from clear that ethical considerations would give them any such standing. This leads to the second related question:
What is the relative standing of different stakeholders? Surely, it cannot be the case that Shell corporation has the same standing in the Niger delta as the Ogoni people whose homes and livelihoods are being systematically destroyed by Shell. But what principles should be used to determine the relative merit of the cases presented by different sides? I have at times—though not yet in print—advocated a Rawlsian view: that those who have the least options and are most affected by a plan be given the highest standing. But there are well-known philosophical problems with such minimax principles and the question is far from theoretically settled, let alone practicable in the field. This question also cannot be avoided: for instance, if Shell and the Ogoni disagree on some plan, the interests of the Ogoni in the Niger delta should take unqualifued ethical precedence over Shell’s claims. This means that the best possible optimal solution need not be one to which all parties agree. In fact, from an ethical perspective, a solution to which all parties agree with reservations, that is, as a compromise, may well be worse than a solution that runs roughshod over some of the parties.
Additionally, even if we can provide a theoretical answer to how standing should be distributed among the various stakeholders, how should this answer be incorporated into practical protocols that can be used in the field? As far as I know, SCP is yet to address this problem The time has come for us to broach other areas of collective decision-making seriously to see what insights, if any, can be brought back into conservation planning.
My third question returns to an issue that was already raised earlier:
What is the best possible optimal solution in stakeholder negotiations? There are a large number of related difficult issues here. The example of Shell and the Ogoni has already highlighted some of the problems that are encountered in trying to frame ethically sound policy.
Once again, purely pragmatically, an explicit agreement between all parties may be deemed sufficient. However, especially when some of the stakeholders are supposed to represent groups (for instance, local communities), how do we know that the groups in question (rather than the participating stakehloders) find a solution genuinely acceptable. If a group has an organized political structure which is brought into play during negotiations, for instance, by electing negotiators who regularly report back to hte group, we may reasonably assume that acquiescence on the part of these negotiators suffices to show the group’s preferences. But, typically, we don’t have such a situation with such a convenient organization. Moreover, often enough, different stakeholders all claim to represent the same group. What must be determined is whether the group genuinely acquiesces in decisions—some form of community review will probably be necessary as part of any planning process. (This problem is also not new. Versions of it have been encountered in the context of obtaining group consent during the Human Genome Diversity Project [Foster & Sharp 2000].) We should also bear in mind that any solution to this problem is likely to be highly context-dependent. The challenge is not only to solve the problem of determining the optimal solution in a given case but of abstracting insights that are transferable to other cases.
Many of the issues raised here go beyond what is usually regarded as within the domain of conservation biology or even, more generally, the natural sciences. By now most of us have come to accept that conservation planning requires input from the social sciences. But the ethical issues raised here will require a further broadening into the humanities, particularly philosophy including ethics and political philosophy. Given my background in that discipline, I welcome that move.