What do wolves in Yellowstone, Bay Area marshlands, and forests in Borneo have in common? They are all the subject of tugs of war between those who are trying new ways to save biodiversity and those who fear that those conservation programs will hurt them. In these cases, the norms that favor preserving and enhancing biodiversity run smack into the norms promoting democracy in environmental decisionmaking. What then? Whose voices should count, whose should count the most, and why? This is the complex and fascinating issue that Professor David Takacs tackles in his new article, “Whose Voices Count in Biodiversity Conservation? Ecological Democracy in Biodiversity Offsetting, REDD+, and Rewilding,” just published in Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning.
Each of the three areas he considers takes an innovative approach to species preservation. In biodiversity offsets, as he explains, a developer or government agency is permitted to destroy parts of the natural world in exchange for preserving biodiversity elsewhere. You can fill in marshlands here if you save a larger, more biodiverse marsh over there. If done right, such trades can result in net gains for a threatened species, for example by creating larger swaths of contiguous habitat. Rewilding involves reintroducing, or at least allowing the return of, formerly banished or extirpated species, like wolves or bears, in order to recreate intact ecosystems. REDD+ refers to projects, under the auspices of regimes aimed at limiting climate change, that allow public and private actors to claim carbon credits for leaving forests intact.
But what about the people and communities who lose access to the natural world near them, or to agricultural, grazing or hunting land—especially if those are vulnerable or marginalized groups? Professor Takacs spells out the different possible interests involved, and looks at existing guidelines for “participant engagement” and “stakeholder participation.” These guidelines are a patchwork of international law, domestic law and private certification schemes. Where the substance is difficult, law tends to turn to process, trying to at least ensure that affected voices are heard. But while important to the success of any project, these general guidelines don’t help much in figuring out how to weigh and balance the views of “stakeholders” who may want different things, have different amounts of power and knowledge, and may or may not be able to speak for non-human (nature) and human (future generations) stakeholders who cannot speak for themselves. Anyone involved in these types of projects has sat through the interminable efforts to move from everyone being heard to actually making decisions, and knows how much we need more than a good process (although that too); we need to know how to weigh substantive claims.
Professor Takacs offers, if not an answer, at least a methodology for moving forward. Deep equity, he posits, “simultaneously and synergistically maximize the health and potential of human and non-human individuals and communities.” Further, “in an ecological democracy, when we must choose whose voices to heed more closely in biodiversity conservation, those espousing or likely to result in deeply equitable outcomes should be heard loudest.” To do this, we should pay preferential attention to those who speak for the non-human, including biologists, because human needs depend on the health of the non-human world. But not only: we should also listen to local citizens who have place-based knowledge and immediate needs. In the end, it’s all messy and, perhaps, therefore all too human. But we can look to these three ongoing experiments as chances to get the balance right.