Monthly Archives: November 2012

Overcoming Barriers to Using Local Knowledge in Natural Resource Management

Many academics and practitioners argue that the dominant model of natural resource management— top-down and “scientific”—wrongly discounts the value of local ecological knowledge (LEK), a system of knowledge developed over time through observation and interaction with the natural environment. Although advocates have expounded the benefits of using local knowledge, in practice, LEK is rarely integrated into the scientific assessments that drive management decisions.

Proponents of integrating LEK into management’s knowledge base have offered a three-fold argument. They suggest that it can 1) improve the understanding of local ecological and social conditions, producing management decisions and policies that are more responsive to these conditions, 2) offer models of adaptive, sustainable resource use, and 3) quell the conflict and mistrust that arises when local expertise is ignored or discredited as “anecdotal.” While there is considerable practical evidence to support these views, why scientists rarely tap local knowledge bases is not well understood. This study confirms academics and practitioners’ claims that a major barrier to incorporating LEK is a “language” divide: LEK is rarely presented in scientific terms and thus it is difficult for scientists to understand its relevance or confirm its accuracy. Furthermore, scientific studies are often too complex for untrained locals to understand and thus engage.

By Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

This study also reveals a less acknowledged barrier: conflicting interests. Such conflicts are to be expected between those who extract resources—and have some of the most extensive LEK—and the scientists responsible for advising managers on how that extraction should occur. Whereas resource users tend to hold utilitarian values and resist any attempts to limit their access to the resources they extract, natural resource scientists have become increasingly precautionary and conservation-minded over the past several decades. Such contradictory interests make knowledge sharing a risk-incurring exercise for both scientists and resources users. And unlike those associated with bridging the language divide, these risks or potential costs are not related to the effort required to undertake translation; rather the risks are embedded in the very act of working together and sharing knowledge. Scientists fear that by involving adversarial resource users they will politicize and compromise their science. Resource users fear that if they divulge LEK, it will be used to limit their access to resources, or somehow compromise their livelihood. Although individuals who are able “translate” between the local and scientific communities can overcome the language divide, interest conflicts are rarely overcome by similar translation. Instead, this analysis suggests that incentives must be created to encourage the sharing and eliciting of LEK and alter the perception of risk. Collaborative research programs in the New England fishery provide useful examples.

Read Alexis’ full thesis and let us know what you think on the EPP Facebook Group!

Difficult Wetland Restoration in Louisiana

Wetland restoration is an important component of every discussion of coastal resilience and flood protection. In Louisiana, wetland loss has been well-documented and restoration efforts have been going on for decades. There is little consensus, however, on the primary functions of the wetlands. All the key actors have their own version of the environmental history of the region.

In his MCP thesis, Mattijs van Maasakkers reviews the ways in which the Atchafalaya Basin, a large wetland-area that makes up an important floodway of the Mississippi River, is described by the two agencies that are responsible for its management, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. These and other stakeholders understand the Basin in different ways, resulting in different visions for its future. Mattijs’ central question is how these different views of the Atchafalaya Basin directly and indirectly impact its environmental restoration and management. He answers this question by describing how the agencies transform elements of the Basin into maps, plans and various management activities, and by relying on a range of information sources, like science, aerial photography, and long-time residents of the Basin. He argues that a central aspect of successful environmental restoration is communication among different stakeholders to create a common framing of the main issues. In the Atchafalaya Basin, this means that environmental restoration cannot be successful without some level of consensus among the stakeholders about what the Atchafalaya Basin is, how it has developed, which environmental qualities are present in the Basin today, and which ones need to be restored. Read more by downloading his thesis.

International Waters and Adaptive Governance – How a Little Flexibility Goes a Long Way

The Nile and the Danube rivers each cross at least ten international boundaries. The agreements that govern the use of these rivers run the structural gamut from relatively inflexible, institutionalized treaties to flexible, adaptive contracts. In her dissertation, “Adaptive Governance of Contested Rivers: A Political Journey into the Uncertain,” Cat Ashcraft, now a Visiting Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, argues that climate change, in particular, is increasing the need for more adaptive, elastic agreements that can respond effectively to the problems that arise in rapidly changing ecological and social environments.

Photo credit: Jairo Londono

Cat explores the navigation and water protection regimes for the Danube River and the benefit sharing agreement for the Nile. She concludes, among other things, that adaptive models stress not only flexibility over time in the substance and terms of the agreement, but customization of the strategy and process through which they are negotiated (and can be modified). Conventional agreements are hard to change without institutional reform, while adaptable agreements anticipate the need for incremental adjustments and include mechanisms to accomplish them. To see more of Cat’s findings, download her dissertation here.

No Perfect Prediction Regarding Climate Change Risk? Plan for It Anyway.

Climate change science is improving, but the relevant predictions are far from ideal. If you are a City Planner in a coastal city, a 60 cm rise in sea level over the next 20 years will present very different problems from a 130 cm rise. But, that range might be the best that science can provide at the moment. How should you proceed?

Melissa Sapuan (MCP ’12) looked at climate adaptation planning in New York City and Rotterdam with this question in mind. She found that one way to handle uncertainty is for cities start with what they do know, and take steps to reduce the vulnerabilities they already face. She also emphasizes the need for flexible risk management strategies that can be adapted over time as projections improve, or conditions change. Melissa notes that stakeholder interests ought to set the agenda for climate adaptation planning. A dynamic exchange among policymakers, the public, and scientists is required. Check out Melissa’s full thesis, “Using uncertain sea level rise projections: adaptation in Rotterdam and New York” and share your thoughts on this topic in the EPP Facebook Group.