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«We need to show greater consideration for the subtle dynamics of power in nature conservation»

Carte blanche for Ross T. Shackleton, Livia B. Fritz and Mosè Cometta from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL)

Switzerland had two projects for new national parks, namely the Adula Park and Locarnese Park, both of which were rejected by the local population. Greater consideration should be given to subtle power dynamics in future to ensure the creation of more equitable conservation projects.

Carte Blanche / Ross T. Shackleton, Livia B. Fritz, Mosè Cometta
Image: zvg

The article reflects the personal opinions of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the position of SCNAT.

The establishment of both the Adula and Locarnese national parks followed suggestions from the local communities, was widely discussed by them andappeared to offer numerous advantages for both the local population and the environment. But how did these projects fail when it came to the vote? A variety of research projects identified subtle power dynamics that were given inadequate attention during the design of these areas.

Atoning for the sins of towns and cities

Part of the local population was convinced that they would lose influence as a result of the national parks and, "once again", would be forced to subordinate themselves to the predominant and more prosperous social classes from urban cities. They feared the introduction of new rules, prohibitions, excessive bureaucracy and, ultimately, the erosion of their way of life on a local level and associated traditional approaches to dealing with nature. Locally this was considered to be unjust, as society as a whole and the urban centres in particular, were viewed to have created the ecological problems.

There was even talk of the "death" of local Alpine communities and cultures. Cultural landscapes that had been formed over centuries would degenerate into tourist hotspots. Regardless of whether these fears are justified or not, the arguments illustrate that environmental protection is not just an examination of facts, but also values and viewpoints influenced by earlier experiences of "not being heard", discourses, negotiations and broader power struggles.

The four kinds of power

A differentiation is made between four kinds of power in social sciences: actor-centred, institutional, structural and discursive power, all of which can influence conservation research and practice.

Actors: Individuals (actors) can wield power to influence others and drive decisions some people may not have chosen themselves. In particular, the main opponents in the case of the Locarnese Park were influential activists who mainly lived outside the park area. They convinced a majority of the local population to say "No". Were all votes here really evaluated on an equal level? An analysis of actors and stakeholders power can lead to more representative and, consequently, just conservation decisions.

Institutions: Institutional power (laws, unwritten rules or cultural norms) affect structures and decisions. In the case of the Adula Park, the fears of rustic house owners who thought they would be prosecuted for earlier building regulation offences proved important for the rejection of the park . In fact, Ticino had for decades left it up to the owners to decide what to do with their rustic dwellings (known locally as rustici). There were few inspections, and the belief that the state should not interfere had become something of a social norm. Rules governing the usage of land would have changed with the national parks, and this was not welcomed by many. These circumstances could have been better considered and addressed in the proposed conservation project.

Structures: North/south, urban/rural, female/male – structural power means that potential influence of social groups can differ greatly. Power configurations of this nature were decisive in the rejection of both national parks. Local residence felt that urban challenges and needs would have been gratified at the expense of rural areas and their unique and endangered cultures. Is this narrative true, or are the real driving forces behind change of a different nature? And would independent structures, practices and values really be threatened? Better understanding such factors should ensure that historic structural inequalities are not reinforced through nature conservation projects.

Discourses : People can be influenced by powerful ideas, narratives and knowledge. In the case of the Adula Park, two completely opposing narratives competed with each other. Supporters spoke of new resources for the valley, and jobs and opportunities for families and young people. They saw a national park as an instrument for local integration and development. Discourses of opponents, however, focused on freedom of the valley being restricted through new stakeholders and regulations. Nature conservation projects can be made fairer by addressing other forms of knowledge and marginalised perspectives and considering the power of dominant discourses.

Whether national parks, the approach to dealing with wolves or the expansion of energy infrastructures in the Alps are involved, an understanding and addressing of the power dynamics is decisive when it comes to achieving effective and socially equitable nature conservation. This must be taken into consideration in both the implementation and the science involved. For researchers in particular, this also involves the opening of a Pandora’s box. They become involved in debates, need to adapt to local contexts and must confront limitations and contradictions in their own views. But this is positive as, ultimately, researchers are also stakeholders exerting a considerable influence on power dynamics in environmental protection, and we should take this into consideration at all times.

Principles for researchers and practitioners

Six principles were recently developed in a collaborative effort for researchers and practitioners to aid dealing with power dynamics in nature conservation and sustainability projects.

  1. Identify, understand, and clarify the values and assumptions of all participating individuals and acknowledge the effects they might have on decision-making.
  2. Recognise and consider decision-making across space and time.
  3. Understand who wins and who loses. In conservation, it is common that some actors, initiatives or discourses become empowered at the expense or disempowerment of others.
  4. Acknowledge that – even when well-intentioned – power issues arise when people with diverse knowledge, experience and values are engaged in a participation process and there is a need to actively support open communication.
  5. Recognize and understand conflicts (or the absence thereof) as manifestations of power relations.
  6. Assess carefully the right to intervene and the consequences of interventions. This can help to ensure what is said and done is appropriate and legitimate in a given context.

Ross Shackleton is an interdisciplinary researcher working on global change, environmental management and forest monitoring for the Forest Resources and Management Unit at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL).

Livia Fritz is an interdisciplinary social scientist working on relations between science, policy and society in the field of sustainability and climate. Her work aims at finding ways to improve these complex interfaces for sustainability transformations and just climate governance.

Mosè Cometta is an urban scholar at the University of Italian Switzerland who focuses on the balance of power, the analysis of public discourse and institutional actors in spatial planning - particularly with regard to protected areas and marginal urbanities.


  • Nature parks