By Tundi Agardy, MEAM Contributing Editor (

Participatory planning is the Holy Grail of EBM. Reaching out to stakeholders to determine a group vision for the coastal or marine area to be managed, bringing stakeholders into the planning process, and actively involving user groups in management are each thought to be a key to EBM success.

But paying homage to "participatory planning" is easier than working hard to ensure truly comprehensive stakeholder engagement. The broader the stakeholder spectrum, the more opportunities for conflict and the greater the need to negotiate compromise among differing perspectives, values, and needs. And even maximum engagement among user groups can result in a failed attempt at management if the individuals participating in planning and management are not truly representing stakeholder constituencies.

Participatory planning means having to spend resources (time, human resources, funds) on identifying all possible stakeholders with vested interests in the place to be managed and its resources. This is a worthwhile investment, to be sure – the literature is rife with examples of planning run amok because stakeholders opposed planned management measures that were developed without their participation.

But what is a stakeholder? People living in or adjacent to the managed area, direct users of resources, management entities, those holding property or use rights – these are all obvious candidates for inclusion in participatory management. But what of environmental campaigners, or shareholders of companies that have designs on developing resources in the area? What of the person who lives far from the area but feels strongly about its protection because of the cultural or spiritual value it holds? In discussions of the US MPA Federal Advisory Committee on which I had the good fortune of serving, we agreed to define stakeholders as "all affected and effecting parties" – in other words, groups who either derived benefits from the area by using the space or resources, or those responsible (either directly or indirectly) for exerting pressure on or influencing the ecology of the area. A pretty broad spectrum indeed – and one that poses problems for planners, who, in order to engage in participatory planning, have to identify all these parties, contact them, and request their participation via a representative.

If the area to be managed is relatively small, and the set of users more limited, then participatory planning and/or management that encompasses all stakeholders can be possible. In the case of the multiple small community-based management initiatives in the Philippines or within locally-managed marine areas in Fiji, stakeholder engagement operates relatively smoothly. It helps if those stakeholders have aligned interests. But even in cases where user groups have differing perspectives and objectives for an area, participatory management can result in supported EBM. Whether in Norway or in Namibia – where fishing interests co-exist with energy and minerals development, tourism, and conservation interests – participatory planning has allowed views of stakeholders to be voiced, compromises to be reached, and steps toward EBM to be taken.

However, negotiation and conflict resolution between stakeholder groups can occur only if the individuals participating in a process truly represent the "affected and effecting parties". For coastal communities, this representation is pretty straightforward: the public can have some confidence that elected officials or traditional authorities can represent their interests. Businesses, too, can control how they are represented by appointing individuals to make their case. But what of institutions that lack this kind of social organization? Who can represent the interests of all scientists as a stakeholder group, for instance? Can one individual represent the interests of the environmental community? And who speaks for cultural values across myriad cultures? Or for spiritual or religious interests? Does nature itself have a voice?

I do not pretend to have an answer to these questions. But these questions need answering, with rigor and with some urgency, too. As the world calls out for more EBM, with more participation of stakeholders, the challenges become more daunting. EBM planners and managers have the responsibility to reach out as broadly as possible. At the same time, society and its institutions have the responsibility to organize themselves and make sure that the voice that is being heard is the one that best represents the complex web of values and desires that the collective group holds.