Identifying and Overcoming Obstacles to Resolving Cross-Cultural Environmental Disputes


Identifying and Overcoming Obstacles to Resolving Cross-Cultural. Environmental Disputes

Global environmental problems, such as deforestation, water pollution, the depletion of fisheries, desertification, the loss of biological diversity and global warming, are increasing. Many, if not all of these problems, involve communities and governments which posses different cultural backgrounds, values and experiences. Most commonly, these problems involve countries from the `north.' with European or North American traditions and cultures, and countries from the `south, with traditions and cultures indigenous to each region. In many instances, whether dealing with global, transboundary or regional disputes, these cultural differences form major obstacles to resolving environmental disputes over common property resources. Conversely, if these cultural differences are understood, a method of conflict resolution can be used that fully accounts for them, greatly increasing the chance that present and future environmental conflicts can be resolved.

The Relationship of Culture to Environmental Negotiations

The failure to fully account for cultural differences contributes to the lack of success of international efforts to protect scarce natural resources. This has been the case with international treaties to protect endangered species, the failure of certain debt-for-nature swaps and large-scale development Bank. Such initiatives often impact local ethnic minorities and indigenous communities who have ancestral rights to land and natural resources necessary for survival.

Indigenous communities often place non-economic values on natural resources that are tied to traditional belief systems involving religious rituals, sacred sites, and historic hunting and gathering areas. When large-scale environmental negotiations are conducted these types of concerns are often ignored, threatening the survival of local communities and destabilizing any negotiated outcome that excludes these parties. In addition, ignoring or undervaluing the importance of culture in environmental negotiations can lead to policies and projects that are much more difficult to implement.

The model for developing and using new environmental protection policies generally originates in developed countries. They are based on the written traditions in these countries. They are based on the written traditions in these countries and do not account for subtle differences in written languages or larger differences between written and spoken languages that often exist between people from industrialized and developing countries. For example, environmental policies that originate in developed countries typically include formal legislation, administrative guidelines and legal regulations, all in the form of long, written documents filled with complex legal and technical terminology. Environmental legislation may include words like wildlands, zoning, or parks and protected areas. These words have clear meaning in the United States or Europe, but are often not understood by officials in countries that lack a tradition of carefully controlled land use and conservation.

In developing countries, especially when an indigenous population is involved, the underlying social process is often more important than the formal legal process. The personal ties, bons and cooperation that define formal surface relationships constitute this social process. In Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Society (Oxford: Basil Blackman, 1965) it is explained how outsiders rarely understand how a social process works in a community that is unfamiliar to them. The result is often bad communication and a start of a ruined relationship that will almost certainly prevent the attainment of a mutual goal such as an agreement to protect scarce natural resources. Also, as noted by Laura Nader and Harry F. Todd, Jr. (The Disputing Process: Law Intense Societies [New York: Columbia University Press, 1978]): "In particular, it is important to see how things work in societies where the boundaries between formal and informal systems are often blurred, and can be crossed when convenient by participants who understand and use the total system for specific ends, and where law often plays a secondary role."

The Importance of the "Culture of Decision-making"

The "culture of decision-making" is the inseparable link between a regional or national culture and the political system in a society. The intrinsic and often hard to understand interaction of culture and political behavior has a major effect on how negotiations to protect the environment are carried out.

The inseparable relationship between culture and politics in the Caribbean is evident in statements by West Indians such as: Outsiders don't understand the tremendous intensity of politics here, everything is political. A large part of the culture is political; intense personal communication is part of the culture, and most of the conversations are political"; "Party politics is usually all of an issue. Most organizations are split by party loyalties; opposition members will oppose just to oppose, not due to any factual position. Common people are not included in this, just party leaders, so people develop apathy of politics go far beyond parties, it tells where the power lies." These statements by West Indians show how deeply politics are embedded in their cultures. This phenomena is intensified by the power of modern politicians which grows from the dependency on individualism that emerged from the plantation system. Strong personalistic leaders are chosen to run governments. These leaders are often paternalistic and have been re-elected repeatedly despite obvious corruption.

International development assistance agencies which promote and fund large-scale development projects in developing countries also possess their own culture of decision-making. Decisions to fund projects are often made by top-level political appointees. Internal deliberations leading to these decisions are usually closed to the public and are not officially recorded. Like the countries they often collaborate with to undertake large-scale development projects which impact natural resources, donor countries also create and maintain a closed decision-making process. Such a process virtually eliminates the wide scope of conflict that effective democracies must accommodate. When both the countries and institutions responsible for establishing environmental policies and projects employ closed decision-making, they exclude the opinions and interests of non-traditional stakeholders who have a direct stake in protecting natural resources. These non-traditional stakeholders include resource users who work day-to-day with the natural environment, such as fishermen, farmers and indigenous communities; environmental professionals within governments and development assistance agencies whose opinions are often overruled by political leaders or appointees; and citizens represented by non-governmental environmental organizations, both foreign and domestic. This trend of exclusion, which is contrary to the basic tenet of a democratic society, particularly harms efforts to implement new environmental protection policies. This is because environmental policies are among the newest within the policy arena and must compete for political capital and institutional resources with policies that favor economic development.

The following case studies show that a failure to understand the culture of decision-making in developing countries and donor agencies has led to severe environmental damage in the Caribbean, which could have been avoided.

The Southeast Peninsula Development Project, St. Kitts

The Southeast Peninsula Development Project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is a large development project intended to stimulate national economic growth by promoting tourist-related developments such as a condominiums, hotels, restaurants, a cruise ship port and possible gambling facilities on the previously undeveloped, 4000-acre southeast peninsula of St. Kitts. The major part of this project is a 6.4 mile-long road, costing $17 million, which cuts through steep coastal hillsides and skirts numerous mangroves, beaches and bays. The natural environment of the peninsula is unique in the Lesser Antilles, as its ecosystems contain a wide variety of terrestrial and marine resources including several endangered species.

The road was completed in 1991 and a new water system was extended to the peninsula in 1994. However, the project has failed to stimulate foreign investment as planned. A few scattered house and small bar were constructed near Mosquito Bay, all without the required permits, although permits were granted ex post facto. Preparations are being made to develop a hotel, but the rest of the large expanse of the newly accessible peninsula remains undeveloped. Construction of the road, built to U.S. highway standards, requiring massive cutting and filling of native soils, with subsequent coastal erosion and sedimentation of near off-shore reefs, has caused significant environmental degradation. The salt pond near Cockleshell Bay has been filled in, vegetation cleared from the sea floor to accommodate the hotel. The outlook for the natural resources on the peninsula is not good.

USAID did take several steps ostensibly intended to protect the natural resources of the formerly pristine peninsula. It required that St. Kitts parliament pass national conservation legislation and a National Conservation Commission to oversee development and implement numerous recommendations to protect the endangered natural resources on the peninsula. However, the national conservation law and environmental commission that is supposed to oversee it have never been put in place.

In St. Kitts, as in many other developing countries, policy implementation is a long, slow process. It is based on "person-to-person" communication and trust between individuals that takes years to develop. It takes most outsiders, such as foreign development planners and environmental experts who work on development projects, several years to be accepted by local people and national political leaders. It can also take several years to learn how to recognize and respond to numerous subtleties of the culture that are simply very difficult for outsiders to understand, such as classim, power relationships, and the way that the culture of decision-making works.

USAID conducted all of its project planning, design and construction over a five year period. By operating on such a fixed, fast-paced schedule, reflective of continental lifestyles and American institutional protocols, and essential nuances of the culture and political system that must be understood to effectively implement policies were not incorporated into the project. Despite the fast-paced schedule of USAID, St Kitts continues to have a pact of life reflective of the tropical heat, humidity and one-on-one relationships that mirror the insularity and interdependence of island living. Many of the environmental policies designed by USAID are taking years, rather than months, to be adopted. When discussing how slow the public policy process works in St. Kitts, one official paraphrased a top politician who was protesting a new environmental law as follows: "Man, you are laying too much on the people." IN the words of an official close to the project, the country is learning very slowly how to deal with the planning process for the peninsula.

In St. Kitts the slow process of policy implementation has several distinct steps. Unlike the United States, there is a huge gap between a law and the regulation to implement the law. Once a law is adopted, discretionary guidelines are informally implemented by civil servants to carry out the law. As voluntary guidelines are used more and more, the government starts to think about creating formal regulations. Politicians test the waters with the guidelines to find out what kind of regulation is politically feasible. Then a way has to be found to present the proposed regulation in a simple and concise manner. This process requires that civil servants responsible for implementing new policies possess a lot of political skill, are patient, can work effectively in an informal manner behind the scenes and do all this without much in the way of financial and technical resources.

The Pitons National Park, St. Lucia

This case involves two competing proposals to develop the 316-acre jalousie Estate, a former plantation located on the coast in a saddle between the Gros and Petit Pitons on the St. Lucian Coast. A variety of proposals have been put forward since 1981 to include the estate as a center piece of a larger proposed Pitons National Park, which would encompass 1600 acres in all. The proposed park contains tropical rainposed park contains tropical rainforest, endangered wildlife (such as the St. Lucia Parrot), prime near-offshore fishing grounds, natural hot springs and mineral baths and important national cultural and archelogical resources.

Business people and community leaders from the town of Soufriere, next to the Pitons, formed the Soufriere Development Committee, which received assistance from the Organization of American States, to prepare a proposal for the acquisition and development of the Pitons National park included a park head-quarters and visitor facilities on the estate, surrounded by a 25-acre botanical garden, a spice and fruit tree plantation, a reserve for the protected St. Lucia Parrot, a small jetty on the beach to serve small boats and water taxis, a combination bar/restaurant, a museum, and areas for picnicking, camping and hiking. The park was also to serve as a field laboratory for research activities by educational and scientific organizations in the natural sciences. The competing proposal for a tourist resort on the Jalousie Estate was to develop a tourist complex with about 120 cottages and suites, sporting facilities, a health spa and docking facilities for yachts. This proposal, which was accepted by the government instead of the national park proposal, was funded by the Swiss-based M-Group.

In 1981, Sir Colin Tennant received the Alien Landholding license for the property. This effectively reversed an earlier cabinet decision to purchase the estate as part of the proposed Pitons National Park. Officials close to the project felt that Tennant's reputation as the successful developer of the island of Mustique in the Grenadines helped him garner support from St. Lucia's politicians. The prime ministers of St. Lucia and St. Vincent in the Grenadines were cousins. The support of the prime minister was essential to developing the site as he had ruled the country for most of the post-independence period, which is reflective of the regional tradition of charismatic politicians to stay in power for long periods of time. There are other ways that the importance of family ties, combined with party loyalty, caused the site to be developed as the tourist facility and the National Park planned to be dropped.

The St. Lucia National Trust is the main government agency responsible for natural resources management. The Trust was the first agency to document the ecological importance of the Pitons and recommended as early as 1975 that the area be placed in open space. But the official voice of the Trust was silenced during the Pitons controversy, which received large amounts of press in the country, because the chairman of the Trust was also the leader of the opposition party. If the Trust was to publicly oppose the resort project it would be branded as anti-government and a tool of the opposition. This would destroy the credibility of the Trust within the government and hamper its other conservation activities that require the support of the political leadership.

Another potential supporter of the proposed park was the St. Lucia Archeological and Historical Society. The prime minister's wife was vice president of the society. If she were to support the park proposal, opposing the resort, she would have been publicly opposing her husband. She remained silent. Thus, family ties nullified this group as a source of support for the park.

St. Lucia citizens adhered to another norm of the culture of decision-making by accepting how the developer of the resort influenced the government to support his project. In February, 1989, the owners and developers gave a large cash donation to the Soufriere Hospital Committee. After this, residents of the local town saw the eventual construction of the resort as "a done deal." At the time of the "donation," the developer had not received official permission from the national planning authorities to build the resort. Nonetheless, once the citizens saw the money change hands between the developer and the political leadership, they saw the park as a lost cause.

The Pitons are an important part of St. Lucia's culture. As one St. Lucian said, "They are seen as the guardians of the island. They have entered the psychological consciousness of the people, as shown by stories told about them in wedding ceremonies that relate the importance of a strong, durable bond in marriage. The Pitons are seen as symbols of the country. If they are given away, anything in the country can be given away. They are a focal point for all of our national concerns." Another St. Lucian said, "The Jalousie Estate is the bosom of St. Lucia. The people know this and have to be involved. The resource users, like charcoal cutters, have to be trained as resource managers."

If the planning team from the OAS, who prepared the proposal for the Pitons National Park, could have tapped this popular sentiment to protect the Pitons, it may have gained enough national support to be successful. There was a lack of grassroots participation when the park was being planned. This occurred in part because the government disapproves of public meetings, but park proponents also seemed to underestimate the importance of culture in the public policy process. As one official said, "The OAS park proposal was prepared with the input from a small group of technicians,not reflecting the people of St. Lucia, but their own views of the area." This omission had several repercussions.

First, it prevented local people from becoming politically organized to challenge the culture of decision-making that has kept this isolated part of the island relatively powerless in national political affairs. Second, it prevented local people from becoming involved in promoting the park as a way to provide economic development opportunities, consistent with the scale of the local community and minimizing disruption to the culture, as compared to the large resort that was built. Third, it prevented people from becoming educated about what a conservation-oriented park is. As one observer said, "To the average St. Lucian, a park is a soccer field; the concept of setting aside a large area as a wildland, without any obvious productive human use, is foreign." The park planning process could have been used as a vehicle to increase local understanding of environmental conservation and to help make it an element of the national culture. Such as approach could have enlisted the many resource users in the area, including farmers, herders, charcoal producers and fishermen to become resource managers to protect the local environment, which would also have helped create a new environmental tradition for the island.

How to create Negotiated Partnerships for Sustainable Development

In general, there are two main reasons why environmental policies that are intended to protect scarce natural resources in developing countries fail. First, even with the best intentions, the underlying complexities that effect decision-making in both donor agencies and developing countries make policy reform very difficult to achieve. The combination and interdependence of conflicting political, cultural and economic conditions make it very hard to implement environmental policies. Second, environmental concerns are treated as tangents to the development process. Policies, laws and regulations intended to preserve limited natural resources are treated as add-ons to it, and as a result, are given a low priority. In addition, policies intended to protect natural resources are seriously constrained by a lack of understanding of culture in developing countries and the inseparable link between political behavior, decision-making and cultural conditions.

The parties involved in international development can improve environmental policy implementation by participating in a collaborative negotiation process. Several preconditions need to be met before a negotiations process can commence. These pre-conditions include: the participation of all parties who are effected by a decision to develop limited natural resources; fair representation and technical assistance for weak stakeholders traditionally omitted from the decision-making process; creating legitimacy in the process of negotiating environmental policies by sing the help of a neutral mediator of facilitator; and requiring accountability by governments and development assistance agencies by providing a structure to motivate them to keep agreements they make at the negotiating table.

There is a step-by-step process that can be followed to create negotiated partnerships for sustainable development, particularly with large-scale development projects proposed by development assistance agencies. These steps are designed to support an open negotiation process between development assistance agencies and developing countries. Representatives of these agencies (including environmental professionals from the agencies and governments, resource users in the country and NGOs in the host country), in addition to stakeholders normally excluded from the decision-making process, should be allowed to participate openly to design environmental laws and policies and to create a framework to implement them. The steps that can be used to create a negotiated partnership for sustainable development are summarized as follows. 1 Evaluate the institutional capability of host country to know how to strengthen it. 2 Conduct a culturally sensitive stake-holder analysis to account for cultural differences. 3 Choose a facilitator or mediator who is neutral and qualified. 4 Include local stakeholders in a community-based negotiation process so that local knowledge of limited natural resources and the political system is tapped. 5 Initiate negotiations to create all implementation strategy. 6 Create performance standards to link the implementation plan with the project agreement. 7 Agree on a time frame and procedure for post-project evaluation of an implementation plan that enforces the negotiated agreement.

These steps allow the institutional capacity of a country to implement environmental safeguards to be determined in a way that accounts for the complex interplay between culture and political decision-making. For example, conducting a cultural stake-holder analysis involves identifying all of the parties that will be effected by a new environmental law or policy. It provides a detailed road map of how the political system includes and excludes parties effected by development projects. This analysis requires formal consultation with NGOs that are familiar with the political system and the culture of decision-making in the country. Many stakeholders, especially resource users who are typically excluded from the public policy process, are hard to find. They may be politically or socially alienated and unwilling to participate. But they possess valuable information about fragile and natural resources, information that project planners need.

As part of the cultural stakeholder analysis, the analyst should identify who the stakeholders are, their interests in the project, who represents their interests, and how their interests are in conflict with each other. This will show who makes policy decisions and whose interests they represent. It will become clear which parties have to take part in the negotiation to secure a binding commitment to a negotiated agreement to protect natural resources.

It is in the best interest of national political leaders in developing countries to adopt this approach as it will build national institutional capacity for policy analysis, long-term development planning and economic self-sufficiency. Politicians will in turn gain the leverage to ask donors to provide longterm funding for institution building that cannot be accomplished with a single project. It is in the best interest of political leaders to open up the policy-making process to environmental interest groups. Environmental interest groups are growing in developing countries and it is just a matter of time before they become strong enough to mount effective challenges to the government. Political leaders can turn the opposition of environmental groups to their advantage by using their own leadership to initiate environmental reforms.

Environmental NGOs in the United States and Europe need to form tighter coalitions with similar NGOs in developing countries. Each of these groups needs to understand its particular strengths and weaknesses and how to account for them when engaging in a negotiation to promote environmental reform. For example, U.S.-based NGOs can use political access to the United States Congress to continue to promote environmental reform in donor agencies. In addition, they have an ability to obtain funding and much practical experience obtained by participating in conservation projects worldwide. Their weaknesses include: a lack of credibility with political leaders in developing countries who are often distrusting of outsiders; the differences inherent in operating in countries that possess many different cultures, and the First World perspective they often bring to conservation, in which local constraints to and opportunities for environmental protection are prevented from being understood.

Environmental NGOs located in developing countries are able to operate effectively in the local political system and are aware of cultural norms that underline the public policy process. They are weak because they are small, lack adequate financial support and often do not have direct access to political leaders that is needed to influence development decisions. By combining their efforts, international and local NGOs can use each others' strengths to compensate for their weaknesses.

It is in the best interest of international development assistance agencies, such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and USAID to help preserve natural resources in developing countries by taking part in a negotiated partnership for sustainable development partnership for sustainable development. Organizing and carrying out a negotiated dialogue can strengthen the protection of natural resources in several ways. A negotiation process provides a forum for diverse stakeholders to express their interests, needs and concerns in a manner that can be translated into public policy. It provides an organized structure to deal simultaneously in a step-wise fashion with complex development decisions by integrating environmental, cultural, political and economic elements in negotiated agreements. Such agreements, because they have the support of the negotiating parties, have a much better chance of being implemented, creating environmental, cultural and economic gains, while building the democratic capacity of governments and their institutions.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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