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Adaptive Governance and Evolving Solutions to Natural Resource Conflicts - WP 07/03

4  Adaptive Management – Delivering the Vision

If the governance challenges of natural resource management can be met, and an overall vision of what is to be achieved can be provided, then the next challenge is to create the management structures and tools to deliver that vision.

So what does adaptive management look like, what scope is there for flexible and incremental approaches to policy, what are the specific challenges posed by such approaches and what tools exist to meet them?

4.1  Adaptive Management

Adaptive management can mean different things to different people, but the focus here is on sustainably managing natural resources; e.g. “there is a need for water rights systems that can adjust over time, not freezing into a single equilibrium pattern of allocation, but adaptively responding to continuing shifts in water availability, demand, and societal priorities” (Bruns 2005, p296-297).

Traditional approaches such as “scientific management” and centralised prescriptive regulation have limited effectiveness in responding to ecological problems across different scales, particularly in interpreting and responding to ecological feedback or intersecting issues (e.g. managing groundwater and surface flows, salinisation and nutrient enrichment, seasonal or annual rainfall variations, differences in agricultural practices or recreational demands, and urban growth).

One response to conflict is risk aversion, such as strong interpretations of the ‘precautionary principle’ which require action and place the burden of proof entirely on proponents of an activity to prove its safety (Paterson 2006). This tendency can be particularly prominent when faced with the risk of state changes in ecosystems (where the thresholds for change and its likely magnitude may be unknown and the change irreversible; e.g. collapse of an aquifer). Prescriptive precautionary measures may achieve their goal but carry the risk of doing so at an unnecessarily high cost.

Adaptive management: is flexible management but within the context of a governance framework and vision within which it operates and to which decisions are cross-referenced. Management informs governance and vice versa over time.

A key element of an adaptive approach, on the other hand, is to lower the cost of collaboration and conflict resolution through legislation and policies which support and enable creativity in delivery (Folke 2005). Local experiments can often inform national policies, and vice versa, as part of a strategic approach to innovation.

Enabling creativity can require treating policies as hypotheses, and individual government actions as experiments, placing stress on traditional government procedures (Folke 2005). Formal governmental institutions can often have difficulty with incorporating flexibility into systems that require assurance that proper procedures were followed, that those procedures were fair and efficient, and are expected to deliver certainty in outcomes. At the same time, the reality is often that practical delivery of government decisions and services is more flexible, pragmatic and driven by unofficial social norms than the official picture would suggest.

The effort of enabling flexibility, however, can be rewarded over time. Diversity (in institutions, responses and outcomes) can function as a form of insurance against policy or implementation failure, as long as the risks of duplication, inconsistency and transaction costs are well managed (Folke 2005).[29]

Adaptive management does not mean a free-for-all. To be effective over time, adaptation must be guided by a consistent vision, aim at achieving an agreed set of outcomes and keep stakeholders engaged. Delivering it requires increasing the formal or informal ‘adaptive capacity’ of institutions (Folke 2002b), allowing them to live with change, combine different knowledge systems and encourage diversity.

Any viable framework for adaptive management must take into account the interaction of ecological and social constraints. Sustainable development means “co-optimizing economy and environment” (Kemp 2003), or in simpler terms delivering the combination of economic and ecological outcomes that maximises sustainable national welfare.

Local solutions

Viewing a social-ecological system as a whole also may open up alternatives to a stark choice between open access and central control. Locally evolved solutions (e.g. rules for inshore fisheries) may demonstrate high resilience.[30] Such local solutions recognise the extent to which “collective management and governance of common pool resources emerges from interactions between people linked in communities. There are formal and informal rules … cultural and social norms and … laid out by organisations, legislation or government departments” “often observable only at the community level” (Straton 2005, p40-41).

Local solutions do, however, often require wider support in such areas as effective and low-cost monitoring and verification, a moderate pace of change, frequent communication, low exclusion costs and user support for monitoring and enforcement (Dietz 2003). They may also depend on an assurance that outcomes will be respected by higher levels of government and sustained over time.

Fiordland marine management as an example of multi stakeholder participation: [31] A National Park has covered the terrestrial area of Fiordland since 1952. A Guardians group formed in 1995, including commercial and recreational fishing, Maori, scientists, boat operators and environmentalists. The group developed an overall strategy but the need for enforcement and conflicting obligations under existing specific laws meant the strategy needed legislative backing. Specific legislation was passed to achieve this.

Distinguishing real examples of delegated authority to co-management groups, from stakeholder consultation bodies set up to reduce conflicts, can help manage expectations and avoid disruptive disillusionment (Folke 2005). This includes clearly identifying whether the involvement of stakeholders is sought purely for consultation, to carry out a particular function, or as part of a truly interactive process. Over-promising on participation can be worse than not having it at all.


  • [29]There can be conflicts between adaptive management, and political demands for certainty of outcomes and consistency in rules. An example is the application of the RMA in New Zealand where the requirement on decision makers to assess each application against a number of statutory objectives can make outcomes hard to predict – achieving greater certainty for applicants and objectors would require more prescriptive and inflexible rules. It also takes time for a new regime to settle in and for the range of viable policies to be defined. Rushing that process carries its own costs in terms of insufficiently informed decisions.
  • [30]For example, a law to provide for co-management of Maine lobsters moved from trying to create state-wide rules to zone management with rules in each zone set by the fishers and confirmed by the state.
  • [31]
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