The so called ‘Big Society’ calls for the empowerment of local people and communities and the movement of power away from politicians to the people of the UK. Whether you believe in the current coalition flagship policy or not, this participatory idea has been gradually infiltrating the environmental sphere over recent decades, and recently we have seen increased citizen participation in environmental agenda setting, policy-making and implementation. Although most widespread in developed countries, citizen participation is now widely portrayed by many as an essential component of achieving sustainable development.
Historically, the role of citizens has been limited within environmental decision-making and management, as they are seen as ‘outsiders’ to the policy process. However, a rise of citizen participation has taken place against a backdrop of increased recognition that the traditional, centralized, hierarchical model, which draws from scientific and technical expertise to solve environmental problems, does not always guarantee effective or socially acceptable solutions. The concept of civic environmentalism, where local people are involved in the planning and decision-making process therefore provides an increasingly popular alternative approach to environmental governance worldwide.
Joint forest management (JFM) in India is a good example of civic environmentalism in practice. Forest resources in India have historically being under the control of the state Forest Department (FD), whilst forest communities were alienated from forest administration and management, contributing towards large-scale deforestation and degradation. In 1990, Joint Forest Management was introduced, with the notion of shared responsibility and decision-making between the FD and forest fringe dwellers. Local people were allowed free access to designated areas and given the ability to claim a share of the profits from any timber grown. Evidence from this project clearly points to a positive impact on both forest conditions and revenues for its communities, but also highlights the difficulties of implementing participatory approaches, with the poorest excluded from both the decision-making processes and benefits of the project.
The case for public participation typically focuses on three things; functional gains to government, fairness, and individual and collective fulfillment. Valuing citizen knowledge, interests and values is important, especially at the local level. Integrating local people makes environmental governance easier, with considerable less opposition to potential plans. Locals can bring value to the decision-making process with unique knowledge of the ecology of the region, whilst awareness of social dynamics can also help negate any potential negative effects of any efforts to protect the environment. However despite the potential benefits of a civic environmentalism, in reality participatory approaches towards environmental management vary considerably are therefore are best perhaps represented on a continuum, as represented in Arnstein’s Ladder of participation below.
Source: Arnstein (1969)
With our current government’s commitment to the ‘Big Society’ idea, citizen participation is considered a key goal both inside and outside the environmental agenda, but where do we really feature on the ladder of participation? Where would you place India’s JFM program? Where would you place a recent environment related decision that has taken place near you? Arnstein details citizen power as the highest level of participation, but is this an attainable or realistic goal for environmental governance in today’s current society or are we simply encountering tokenism?