New Zealand is revising its outdated conservation laws. We need to find better ways to engage people
Recently, Conservation Minister Kiritapu Allan described existing legislation as not fit for purpose, and she is right. The announcement by the government of an overhaul of the conservation policy is good news.
There are too many outdated, confusing and inconsistent rules. The system they are creating is out of step with current values and priorities.
The way we use and view the curatorial domain has changed. Different forms of recreation are gaining popularity. Tourism operations have expanded. Community partnerships have multiplied. But the potential for conflict has also increased.
Maori have demanded a greater voice, but there are only weak provisions for treaty-based iwi co-governance in the existing rules. Key pieces of legislation, such as the Marine Reserves Act 1971, are completely outdated.
The government has stressed that our conservation tools need to be updated in light of scientific developments to deal with threats to biodiversity and challenges such as climate change.
In New Zealand, we often equate conservation with sciences such as ecology, wildlife and marine biology. Science is seen as the method to achieve conservation goals: protected animals and habitats, preservation of special areas, and correct levels of public access and use.
The science has certainly evolved since many of our conservation laws were put in place. But so does our knowledge of how to improve decision-making through public participation.
Communities, stakeholders and tangata whenua now expect to play a greater role in shaping how conservation is carried out. But under our current rules, public participation in the development of conservation policies is limited to “consultation”.
Conservation is about people and values
The main conservation issues are not animals, plants and places, nor biodiversity and environmental stewardship. Conservation is really about people. These are our values in relation to natural and historic resources.
One way to achieve a conservation system that can meet the challenge of different values is to increase public participation in the new rules, beyond mere consultation.
Public participation is a catch-all term for citizens having a say in the development of conservation policy.
So far, this mostly happens in the form of written submissions or by attending public meetings. The requirement for this form of participation is embedded in key legislation, including the Conservation Act 1987. This law requires that conservation plans and strategies, which govern the operation of the Department of Conservation (DOC), be publicly notified and that the chief executive receive public information. submissions.
Those who study environmental policy have criticized this as a limited type of public participation.
Such consultation processes are difficult to engage in and often dominated by vested interests. They can result in people having relatively little impact on the process and can be disempowering and frustrating. Stakeholders often take contradictory positions, especially when issues are complex and uncertain.
Dealing with Controversy and Complexity
Sometimes the science is incomplete or uncertain. In such cases, political decisions can lead to controversy and damage the reputation of the DOC.
Even when the scientific support for policy is strong, we see conflict again and again: in game management, the protection of endangered species, the use of 1080 and the expansion of marine reserves. On occasion, the intensity of opposition to DOC policy threatened to turn violent.
Stakeholders may feel ignored. Local and traditional knowledge may be valued less than science. And expensive litigation can become the last resort for frustrated stakeholders, as happened recently with the management of tahr in the South Island.
Indigenous Conservation Values
Maori, as tāngata whenua, can be strong voices for conservation. They have a special relationship with ancestral lands and waters, taonga species and wāhi tapu in the conservation area.
But Maori ideas of kaitiakitanga differ from Western notions of perpetual protection. Kaitiakitanga is fundamentally about relationships between environments and people, structured around sustainable use.
Resource lock-in, inability to exercise customary rights or exclusion from decision-making can be barriers to supporting Maori.
The current regime provides only weak mechanisms for Maori to be real partners in the governance of conservation areas. In cases where Maori have achieved greater influence in conservation management, this has usually been through special legislation rather than the conservation framework.
Collaboration with iwi and communities
There are examples of effective conservation collaborations across New Zealand. They tend to be operational. Some have been controversial, including corporate sponsorships and community volunteers picking up the slack left by budget cuts.
But the DOC has also demonstrated its willingness to adopt a more collaborative, adaptive and treaty-based approach.
The Fiordland Wapiti Foundation is an outstanding example of community-led game management. Other hunter-led groups have also adopted a collaborative mindset.
In the contested area of marine protection, a multi-stakeholder approach has been implemented in Otago and the West Coast. However, this process has been criticized as narrowly focused on biodiversity and economic values.
Co-designed projects like Raukūmara Pae Maunga offer a new model of collaboration between DOC, iwi and the community.
Where to go from here
The upcoming review offers an opportunity to do things differently, but this will require a willingness to continue experimenting with participatory processes and to go beyond mere consultation.
Research suggests that effective participation can improve outcomes, if done well, but it is not a panacea for conflict resolution.
Deepening public participation requires commitment, skills and resources. This means that the DOC is investing more in facilitating participatory processes and involving the public. Statutory processes should be flexible and responsive to communities.
There is no rulebook for this, but there are best practices we can learn from. The new rules must require the DOC and its partners to experiment and innovate by involving the public in decision-making.
But the foundation of effective and sustainable conservation policy is a better understanding of the values people hold and our ability to engage with difficult issues.
New research collection highlights Indigenous perspectives on conservation biology
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