Involving a diversity of stakeholders in the management of social-ecological systems can help build resilience by improving legitimacy, expanding the depth and diversity of knowledge, and helping detect and interpret perturbations. Participation can range from simply informing stakeholders to a complete devolution of power. It may occur in various—or all—stages of a management process, although diverse participation can be particularly useful in the startup phase. This is because early participation means knowledge of user groups can be incorporated in defining management priorities and needs.
There are a range of advantages to a broad and well-functioning participation. An informed and well-functioning group have the potential to build trust and a shared understanding – both fundamental ingredients for collective action. An example is found in Australia where an extensive public participa-tion and consultancy process was initiated toraise awareness about threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Through greater awareness of the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef, the public participation process was able to raise public support for improved conservation plans.If a variety of people participate, from a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, it can uncover perspectives that may not be acquired through more traditional scientificprocesses. Participation can also help strengthen the link between information gathering and decision-making. For example, in the Philippines, participatory monitoring of protected reef areas improved transparency of decisions which, in turn, enhanced relationships between project stakeholders. It also improved the comprehension and validity of the information and how it was used in decision making by local people.
Participation, however, is no panacea. If not undertaken thoughtfully, it may enhance the influence of some stakeholders at the expense of others by increasing their power or influence within the system, resulting in competition and even conflict. Furthermore, weak forms of co-management, where participation inlcudes little authority but much responsibility for local resource users, may degrade the resilience of social-ecological systems and the ecosystem services they produce. In Chilean fisheries, for example, formalized co-management institutions undermined previously strong local resource management institutions. Although the co-management institutions aimed to improve the government fisheries’ protectiongoals, instead they added a layer of bureaucracy between resource users and the resource. This weakened local capacity to respond quickly to changes in the resource base.
How can we broaden participation?
Creating a good participation process is highly context specific, and determining who to involve and the most appropriate tools and methods to use are challenging. Common pitfalls found in operationalizing participatory processes include underestimating the financial, time and human resources needed to carry out successful participation, insufficient training in communication and facilitation skills, lack of clarity on the roles or rules of participation, and stakeholders becoming involved too late in the process to have meaningful impact. There are several overlapping guidelines that can contribute to a more effective participation:
- Clarify your goals and expectations of the participation process
- Get the right people involved
- Find inspired and motivated leaders that can mobilize the group
- Provide capacity building
- Deal with power issues and potential conflicts
- Secure sufficient resources to enable effective participation