Choices, Options, and Constraints: Decision Making and Decision Spaces in Natural Resource Management

By Peterson, Nicole D. | Human Organization, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Choices, Options, and Constraints: Decision Making and Decision Spaces in Natural Resource Management


Peterson, Nicole D., Human Organization


This paper analyzes the decision making processes of the staff of a Mexican national marine park and how their options for natural resource management are affected by internal, external, and relational constraints. Using ethnographic data gathered from 2001-2003, I suggest that the failure of the marine park to accomplish its management goals was not from the lack of a plan to manage the marine area or from internal policies or practices, but from mismatch in objectives with other institutions of Mexican government and a consequent inability to access the needed resources and support. In addition, this paper argues for a more contextually-based understanding of decision making in organizations like protected areas that can account for many of the problems and failures that are often blamed on internal policies or practices. This paper proposes a model of "decision spaces" that highlights the space between decision and action, in which these constraints, as well as opportunities, are confronted and potentially managed through flexible strategies that arise from the interaction between decisions and the surrounding sociocultural context.

Key words: environment, decision making, marine resources, cognition

Introduction

Most social scientists explain the problems of resource management as a lack of cooperation in the design of the rules or as a problem with the rules themselves, leading to a focus on bringing different groups and interests into designing protected areas (Berkes 2004) and on the means by which different institutional designs might create incentives for cooperation (Ostrom 1 990). But what if cooperation were not enough? In the case presented here of a marine park in Mexico, I argue that the sociocultural and institutional contexts can prevent successful management, and use the idea of a "decision space" to conceptualize and analyze how decisions and their implementation can be limited by internal problems, external pressures, and relationships with other agencies of the Mexican government.

The case I use to examine the utility of decision spaces is from my 200 1 -2003 fieldwork in the Loreto Bay National Park. I began my research in Loreto during the summer of 2001 in which tourism company owners, local and international conservationists, government officials, scientists, fishermen, and others discussed the third draft of the marine park's management plan, which was to delineate the rules governing the use of the area of the park, 206,000 hectares of the Gulf of California and its islands. For the most part, these meetings had been what many refer to as a participatory process, a term which represents a broad set of practices (Cohen and Uphoff 1980; Eversole 2003), but which for the purposes of this paper refers to the involvement of local groups and individuals in the planning stages of environmental management or development projects. Similar studies of community participation have examined the ways in which local ideas and needs are incorporated into ongoing projects or on the initial planning phases of the protected areas (for recent reviews, see Agrawal and Gupta 2005; Peterson et al. 2010; Campbell and Vainio-Mattila 2003). Less work has been done on the longer-term needs of protected area management, particularly on how new parks maintain their connections to the supporting communities and how they work within existing political, social, and economic contexts to actually manage the resources in their charge (however, see Walley 2004; West 2006).

In Loreto, participatory processes included formal workshops and informal discussions in which many different groups had suggested changes to the management plan. Based on my interviews conducted with people after the meeting, it seemed as though most people considered this process to be successful: their opinions were heard and recorded for incorporation into the final version of the plan. However, most participants were also looking beyond the participatory process for evidence that the park was meeting its ecological management goals. …

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