Leverage Point 5: Justice and Inclusion in Decision-Making
Part of the Levers and Leverage Points blog series.
Despite recent popular dialogues about the importance of inclusion, 'inclusion' within decision-making processes is generally limited and does not lead to the meaningful involvement of local communities, individuals, and marginalized groups. Government structures in most modern democracies take a top-down approach with a strict hierarchy between state and people. Too often these governments cater to big companies and powerful individuals who have backdoor access to politicians and policymakers, giving little voice to marginalized groups who may be the most severely affected by climate change.
Achieving justice and inclusion in decision-making is inherently important not just for achieving sustainable development goals and biodiversity targets, but also for the functioning of society as a whole. Affected individuals—especially local communities, Indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups—must be included meaningfully in decision-making processes. At a minimum, this means explicitly recognizing the legitimacy of diverse perspectives including Indigenous worldviews in law and policy processes (this is one part of “recognitional justice”); it might also take the form of co-governance.
A top-down approach refers to a system in which decisions are made by the highest governmental authority, which are settler institutions in many postcolonial states. The decisions and processes generated from this system are often disconnected from and disempowering to local communities, prioritizing a single way of knowing and overwhelming them with bureaucratic processes and scientization (using science to obscure knowledge and disable input). Genuine inclusion of other parties and perspectives in processes such as environmental impact assessments or development decisions would mean that the voices of those most affected are heard and heeded in the resulting course of action.
It’s crucial that efforts to include historically marginalized groups address the diverse barriers to their meaningful participation created by a long history of colonialism, disenfranchisement, and unequal treatment. At a minimum, this would include arranging travel (or traveling to affected communities), enabling participation in native languages (via translation), and providing honoraria to compensate people for their time.
In some cases, the goals of conservation may not fully align with those of Indigenous peoples and local communities; however, this does not justify infringing on their rights. In these situations, the Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) as defined by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) should be implemented. FPIC means Indigenous peoples have the right to make their own decisions on matters that affect them and their traditional territories.
This power of consent is often confused with vetoing power, but there is a key difference. ‘Veto’ often suggests that one party can prevent an action without any intention to negotiate in good faith. While it is vital for consent to also respect the right for a nation to say ‘no,’ the distinction is that consent implies that all parties are coming to the table with good intentions and the purpose of reaching a mutually agreed upon decision.
Co-governance and management that directly includes other parties in decision-making processes could help bring about more meaningful engagement of local peoples and marginalized groups. This should be coupled with an understanding of the interconnectedness of humans and natural systems in a way that recognizes the effects of a local project on the wider landscape. In this understanding, decision-makers can construct laws and policies to be more resilient and adaptable (see Lever 2, Improved Management). Local and Indigenous knowledge is fundamental to an improved understanding of the environment, reinforcing the necessity of including Indigenous Peoples and local communities in conservation.
For inclusion in decision-making to occur, law and policy must reflect this sentiment. Increased pressure needs to be placed on institutions to double down on efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within their workforce. Much of the historic treatment of local and marginalized groups still remains unrecognized in formal contexts. Informal acknowledgements only bring about a certain degree of change, but ultimately the formal backing of the law mandating inclusion is crucial. This could be imposed through formal recognition of rights by fully implementing UNDRIP.
UNDRIP was finally written into law in Canada with the passing of the UNDRIP Act in 2021, 14 years after the original UN declaration. This new act establishes a legal obligation for the government to ensure that their laws, policies, programs, actions etc. adhere to the rights outlined by UNDRIP. While this shows steps in the right direction, there are still miles to go. For this to truly be effective, it requires fully following through with policy and legislation, combined with proper enforcement and compliance.
We acknowledge the role that Indigenous Peoples, marginalized communities, and local communities fill in the fight against the environmental crises. When saying that these communities lack representation in decision-making, it is not by their own volition, but a result of the failure of the colonial government to respect their inherent rights. Despite the passing of the UNDRIP Act in Canada, the colonization of Indigenous peoples is ongoing and still deeply rooted in legislation and legal decisions.