Lessons and Final Remarks

The Merauke analysis remains one of the most complex multi-criteria analyses so far attempted in efforts to implement systematic conservation planning in the field. Reflection on this story leads to two sets of observations on what philosophy has done for the practice of conservation planning in the field and, conversely, three observations on how that practice influenced philosophy.

With respect to the role of philosophy in influencing scientific practice, first and foremost, our involvement ensured that a distinction was maintained between decision analysts and stakeholders. From the first Jakarta meeting, CI personnel presumed that they were stakeholders in the unfolding process rather than outsiders brought in for technical expertise. As many environmentalists (particularly from the South) have pointed out, this type of presumptuous arrogance has often been characteristic of Northern individuals and institutions operating in the South, as they have the advantages of technical know-how and economic resources. We—that is, those who worked on the project at the University of Texas—prevented such an attitude from dominating the protocol at the first Jakarta meeting; in this we were aided by being in a context in which we, and not CI, were the ones with the intellectual resources and experience to undertake the final multi-criteria analysis that would provide the map to be used for implementation on the ground. However, our success was only partial: members of the local community were not present as stakeholders at the first meeting even though they were subsequently consulted.

The second set of observations consists of three related points. Even before development of ConsNet, philosophical reflection on conservation biology and systematic conservation planning, and attempts to explicate a clear framework for the latter, had come to dominate my approach to conservation practice in at least three ways. First, philosophers such as Bryan Norton and Baird Callicott had already been arguing that biodiversity is a normatively loaded concept. This had led me to propose a culturally relativized attitude to what could count as biodiversity features (or as surrogates for them) that were the goal of conservation planning. Next, as noted earlier, the attempt at explicating the framework of systematic conservation planning led us to appreciate the problem of setting targets and to emphasize the extent to which normative assumptions permeated our work. Finally, conceptual analysis also led to technical innovation in systematic conservation planning. Realizing that minimum area and maximum representation were not dual problems was important. It showed the extent to which the latter can be flexibly approached in the field. There are many other such technical examples. To the extent that Margules and I, through our textbooks, and through prominent collaborators such as Sanchez-Cordero, have had any impact on systematic conservation planning beyond our own work, these philosophical influences may have spread far and wide.

Turning to the converse process: the experience of planning for Merauke has implications for philosophy. First, we were forced to confront the question of who was a legitimate stakeholder in the relevant decisions about the habitat. I will construe this question as posing an ethical problem and call it the problem of ethical standing. Elsewhere, I have pointed out that although stakeholder consultation has become fashionable in environmental decisions, very little attention has been paid to the question of legitimacy—who has ethical standing. Moreover, the term “consultation” implies that at least some of the included stakeholders do not have decision-making authority, that the process of including them is ultimately window dressing designed to conceal asymmetries of power. The same asymmetries are typically reflected when stakeholders are selected to sit at the table. As I also argued earlier, analyzing how courts handle claims of legal standing could help answer this question, though only to a limited extent: ethical standing cannot be reduced to legal standing.

During our work we were very careful to maintain our role as decision analysts who supported the decision process but did not participate by voicing preferences because we did not view ourselves as stakeholders. (Of course, there remains a valid worry that, in spite of our best efforts, we were implicitly guiding the decisions. One telling moment, though, was when the stakeholders decided that ecosystem services were subordinate to biodiversity conservation in the objectives hierarchy. Though I found that choice idiosyncratic, I did not voice any opinion.) In contrast, CI personnel routinely injected themselves into the decision and this led me to question whether CI was even a legitimate stakeholder. Why should CI, based in Arlington, Virginia so as to be close to the corridors of power in Washington, DC, have ethical standing over the future of the homes of indigenous communities in New Guinea? Perhaps because it was contracted by Medco? But Medco only had legal standing because of concession given to them in distant Jakarta. Did Medco have ethical standing? The problems noted earlier may well have been avoidable if these issues had been addressed at the beginning of the project. Environmental philosophers, especially in the United States, have spilt much ink over abstract, practically irrelevant questions such as whether species have intrinsic value. When it comes to philosophical questions about the environment that have tangible consequence—for instance, that of establishing ethical standing—environmental philosophers, with very few exceptions, have contributed little of value. That situation needs to be changed. Paraphrasing Marx, it is not enough to interpret the world—the point is to change it.

Second, I have been arguing for several decades that conservation biology' presents unique opportunities for philosophers of science insofar as they can be witness to the founding of a science (Sarkar 2005). Conservation planning in the field illustrates this point beautifully, showing how practical choices may become reified as essential components of a scientific framework. Recall how communities’ weights on preferences were established by division of 100 pebbles between alternatives. We did that only because it worked in practice (and turned out to be an innovation from the perspective of decision analysis). Suppose that this strategy becomes standardized in the field. What that will mean is that the field will accept the “naturalness” of an additive model for integrating preferences. But there are alternatives, most importantly multiplicative models, and these would have been elided because of an initial practice-guided choice made for convenience. In philosophy of science, this would favor an instrumental rather than realist reading of scientific frameworks. There are other such examples. The main insight to be drawn from this discussion is the poverty of armchair philosophy compared to what the discipline can be if guided by field experience.

Because our plan is no longer likely to be implemented at Merauke, our work there, in one very tangible sense, must be regarded as a failure. However, the idea of systematic planning for habitats using multiple criteria has been widely disseminated in the Papua region (and elsewhere in Indonesia) because of the visibility of this attempt. In that sense, the work was not a complete failure.


This chapter has benefited immensely from comments and criticisms from both editors, Evelyn Brister and Robert Frodeman.


  • 1 The discussion that follows is based on Ciarleglio et al. (2009b) and Sarkar et al. (2017).
  • 2 The discussion below will adhere to confidentiality agreements that will prevent me from discussing stakeholders other than Medco and CI in more detail and, even for Medco and CI, many individuals will not be named.
  • 3 Some typical solutions were published as part of Ciarleglio et al. (2009b) and Sarkar et al. (2017).
  • 4 awasMIFEEl, “About Us.” https://awasmifee.potager.org/?page_id=37 (last accessed August 23, 2018).
  • 5 awasMIFEEl, “Reports from Villages.” https://awasmifee.potager.org/?page_id=60 (last accessed August 23, 2018).
  • 6 See, for example, Franky Samperante (November 2011), “PUSAKA in the Land of Papua.” www.downtoearth-indonesia.org/stoty/pusaka-land-papua (last accessed August 23, 2018).
  • 7 awasMIFEEl, “Reports from Villages.” https://awasmifee.potager.org/?page_id=60 (last accessed August 23, 2018).


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