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Institutions, misfits, and biodiversity conservation

Clement, Sarah (2015) Institutions, misfits, and biodiversity conservation. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Institutions have a critical role to play in global efforts to halt biodiversity decline, but they need to be fit-for-purpose. Adaptive governance has been positioned as a model to improve fit, as it endorses decision-making institutions that foster learning, experimentation, and responsiveness to local conditions; all of which are necessary to cope with the inherent uncertainty and complexity of biodiversity conservation. Implementing adaptive governance in practice has been slow; however, as its recommendations are often at odds with the structure and function of current institutional arrangements, and in particular fail to consider the limitations of state agencies.

This research develops and applies an original conceptual framework for diagnosing and designing adaptive biodiversity institutions that considers these conflicting demands. The framework integrates adaptive governance concepts with insights from institutional theory and pragmatism, especially from literatures on organisational environments and public administration. The framework is then applied to assess how institutions enable and constrain landscape-scale biodiversity conservation in two contrasting regions in Australia: 1) the Tasmanian Midlands, a privately owned agricultural valley, and 2) the Australian Alps, largely consisting of publicly owned mountainous protected areas. The results are used to develop two sets of potential governance reforms for each region.

Analysis of the biodiversity conservation institutions in the Tasmanian Midlands identified four fit issues: framing, interplay, power and authority, and self-organising. These fit issues are amplified by the failure of institutions to adequately address biodiversity in a multifunctional, privately owned landscape where novel ecosystems are likely to emerge. Reforms focus on enhancing ecosystem functionality within a ‘working landscape’, building on self-organising efforts while collaborating with a broader suite of stakeholders, and strengthening capacity to buffer key political and ecological drivers.

Institutional diagnosis in the Australian Alps revealed the interlinked issues of administrative competence, buffering, and power and authority, all of which constrain adaptive capacity, especially learning and response to cross-border threats to biodiversity. Reforms focus on enhancing cross-border collaboration, broadening accountability measures, building capacity to buffer socio-political influences, and devolving discretion to appropriate levels within protected area agencies.

This research contributes to scholarship in three important ways. First, it develops and applies a tool to diagnose and design adaptive biodiversity institutions that considers both the constraints and opportunities of institutional environments. Second, it demonstrates how insights from pragmatism – especially the idea that change can scaffold on current competencies – are able to inform an approach for designing institutional reforms that addresses current shortcomings in adaptive governance approaches. Both are especially relevant for public agencies, which retain a high degree of responsibility for biodiversity conservation and thus play an essential role in addressing this policy problem. Finally, it advances institutional scholarship by providing a systematic, context-driven approach to analysis that bridges two divergent schools of thought: rational choice and discursive institutionalism.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Veterinary and Life Sciences
Supervisor(s): Moore, Susan, Lockwood, M. and Bailey, John
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