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How does legacy create sticking points for environmental management? Insights from challenges to implementation of the ecosystem approach

Kerry A Waylen, Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Group, The James Hutton Institute
Kirsty L Blackstock, Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Group, The James Hutton Institute
Kirsty L Holstead, Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Group, The James Hutton Institute


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There are many recommendations for environmental management practices to adopt more holistic or systems-based approaches and to strengthen stakeholder participation. However, management practices do not always match or achieve these ideals. We explore why theory may not be reflected by practice by exploring experiences of projects seeking to implement the ecosystem approach, a concept that entails participatory holistic management. A qualitative inductive approach was used to understand the processes, achievements, and challenges faced by 16 projects across the British Isles. Many projects made significant progress toward their goals, yet failed to achieve fully participatory holistic management. Many of the challenges that contributed to this failure can be explained in terms of the legacy effects of previous projects and the wider social-ecological system. These legacy effects do not necessarily imply a fixed path dependency or lock-in. We therefore call these effects sticking points. Drawing on the literature on institutional analysis and knowledge production, we distinguish three main types of sticking point: (1) institutional, arising from previous ways of working; (2) cognitive, arising from ways of framing and knowing; and (3) political, arising from pre-existing power relations. These sticking points may interact. For example, attempts to promote systems thinking and management may be impeded by a tendency for reductionist thinking, itself reinforced by the constraints on prioritization that arise from pre-existing statutory targets. These influences often arise from aspects of societal and institutional context beyond the control of any individual project. Stickiness is not necessarily all bad, but often acts to constrain the “opening up” away from previous approaches. Because the long-term success of natural resource management is argued to depend on more integrated, participatory, and holistic environmental management, we argue that these sticking points demand more explicit attention in both research and practice.

Key words

adaptive management; conservation; institutional inertia; participation; pathways; systems thinking

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087