Critical issues in regional natural resource management
Marcus B Lane, Geographical and Environmental Studies, The University of Adelaide
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
In bringing democracy to the regional level, improved levels of civic engagement will, we are told, empower communities to better manage their affairs and local areas. The process is assumed to enhance citizens’ political skills, and this is expected to ensure that government becomes more democratic and effective. Combating inequality is central to this framework.
This is a tall order. As mentioned earlier, there is evidence from both here and overseas that decentralized, civic approaches have entrenched the power of elites, enhanced the severity of local conflicts, and increased intolerance toward minorities.
While capable communities might flourish under such a decentralised approaches, others might be further disadvantaged because their existing geographic, social and economic circumstances impede their ability to take advantage of changing circumstances. As Rainnie argues:
‘the language of empowerment and self-activity can easily fit into a neo-liberal approach which allows the state to wash its hands of responsibility for less favoured regions, arguing that salvation now lies in their own hands.’ (Rainnie 2005, 137)
Another problem presents itself in countries like Australia, where there are profound problems of environmental justice for Indigenous peoples. Can regions and communities develop an image of themselves that will be inclusive rather than exclusive? If they cannot, civic regionalism will see the excluded being further disadvantaged. The evidence from Europe on this precise point is far from encouraging.
Finally, despite all the talk about community participation, there is precious little evidence that efforts to facilitate participation and inclusion have become more effective. Spouting the importance of participation and inclusion is one thing; achieving effective citizen participation across populations that vary according to wealth, knowledge, ethnicity and gender is another. A recent book ponders the provocative question of whether participation is the new tyranny (Cooke and Kothari 2001). What is striking about the thinking presented is that it so closely resembles a refrain of Leonie Sandercock’s written nearly three decades ago:
‘The demand for public participation in planning has become the great populist red herring of the seventies in Australia. Evidence of both overseas and Australian practice has shown that … it is not an effective way of involving the ‘have-nots’ in decision-making: all the procedures so far tried are biased towards involving the middle class.’ (Sandercock 1978, 117)