The Cultural Dimensions of Environmental Decision-Making
Culture, an evolving and dynamic relationship between a society and an environment, provides a key to both explaining environmental conflicts and resolving them. In this article, Richard Griggs enumerates and explains the cultural dimensions of environmental decision-making and outlines how co-management schemes, decentralised decision-making, and a recognition of group rights, can reduce environmental conflict and help to achieve a sustainable relationship between societies and the environment.

Culture is an evolving and dynamic relationship between a society and an environment. This corresponds with the term's Latin origin, cultura, meaning a reverent relationship (cult) with the earth (Ur). A better understanding of culture provides a key to both explaining environmental conflicts and resolving them. Figure One assists with the task of clarifying the relationship between culture and the environment by eliminating some common myths that can cloud our understanding.

There are seven major reasons why we should be concerned about the cultural dimensions of environmental decision-making.

  1. Empowering culture could easily become the organising paradigm for achieving sustainable development, the global conservation strategy agreed to by United Nations bodies and state governments in numerous proclamations since the 1980s. The very purpose of culture is to harmonise the activities of a population with the particular opportunities and constraints presented by their environment. The "war on culture" that began in the colonial era and persisted through present-day neo-colonialism may soon be dismissed as a self-destructive period that left in its wake many sterile, damaged, and homogenous environments. A period of rebuilding culture may be our best hope for proper stewardship.
  2. A policy of sustainability must be maintained by local people. Local culture is more significant for environmental sustainability than written laws and distant bureaucrats. Empowering local people to develop cultures appropriate to where they live, and co-management schemes between local and national actors, could both improve environments and reduce conflict.
  3. The global geography of mismatched cultural and political boundaries foments enormous conflicts over environments and resources. The chief tragedy of Africa is the outcome of the 1884 Berlin Conference which either placed international boundaries across cultural boundaries or combined many cultures into one state. Most African governments are now dominated by one ethnic group or another, leading to resentment and conflict over the distribution of resources, including territory. Cultural conflict accounts for 80% of Africa's genocides and wars. It is thus vital to include culture in this analysis of environmental conflict.
  4. Cultures produce local knowledge. The earth is not a uniform ball of wax and treating it as such imperils life and creates conflict. Local knowledge of soil, climate, and resources critical to maintaining a distinct cultural landscape is transmitted in various ways between generations. Local knowledge and technical-scientific knowledge should both be included in environmental decision-making. In many cases Western science is a European cultural product that has sought to impose laboratory conditions on distant environments with many ill effects and through an ill-considered technocentrism (e.g. the Green Revolution).
  5. Colonialism and neo-colonialism have contributed heavily to environmental degradation. For example, clearing tropical rainforests for European husbandry and row-crops has resulted in soil loss, eroded environments and the invasion of alien species ("biological imperialism"). Reconstructing damaged environments requires cultural reconstruction and therefore intercultural cooperation.
  6. Any fully integrated environmental management system must take cultural impacts into account. Past failure to account for differences in culture has led to failed projects, cultural genocide, violent competition for scarce resources and instability between various cultural groups. Large scale water projects have been notorious for this oversight (e.g. damming India's Narmada River Valley, and conflict over the Lesotho Highlands Water Project).
  7. Cultural landscapes are also environmental treasures that add to the wealth and resources of a country. Cultural diversity is an environmental stimulus that educates and entertains people. Furthermore, maintaining diverse cultural landscapes is a precondition for the biological diversity required for sustainable systems and should therefore be a principle of environmental decision-making.

Bases of cultural conflict over the environment

While many people live in a socially constructed world of states that divides up the earth's air space, land, water, mineral resources, and oceans, some live in a world regulated by a nation, tribe, ethnic group or another cultural identity.

The first group often rejects cultural claims as undemocratic, irrelevant, and part of an older order that must not be taken too seriously. The latter group often rejects authoritarian, top-down management that separates the bureaucrat from the environmental user and imposes technocentric solutions on cultural landscapes and environments. Some cultural groups even see the state as an expansionist power in conflict with legitimate rights to resources. These different perceptions and claims lead to conflicts over environmental outcomes.

By explaining the role of the state and its relationship to culture, one can better understand contemporary cultural conflict and the need to create mechanisms for intercultural cooperation in environmental decision-making.

The state is a legal entity, not a cultural one. It employs a combined military and civilian bureaucracy to carry out three main functions:

  • economic expansion (internal or external expansion to secure wealth and resources);
  • socio-political assimilation (consolidating various groups into a single cooperative populace); and
  • maintenance (maintaining infrastructure, security, repelling external threats).

Cultural maintenance is very often dependent on resisting these processes:

  • protecting local wealth;
  • resisting assimilation; and
  • seeking territorial integrity and identification.

In South Africa, for instance, the perception that forest resources are the cultural heritage of local Zulu tribes recently led to the burning of forests in KwaZulu Natal as a act of defiance against government attempts to centrally manage forestry resources (economic expansion and maintenance). Many of these forests, such as Ongoye, Nkandla and Hlatikulu, are seen as cultural artefacts of tribal management and have a close connection with Zulu history. The battle over forest management is just one in a long series of environmental battles and highly explosive cultural conflicts involving some 300 Zulu chiefs who see the new government as a huge threat to their way of life.

By suspending prejudices and considering each vantage point, one can see that this is not a problem of badly behaved actors but a structural situation in which there are two very different geopolitical positions from which to view the world. The state is tasked with maintenance of the forests but the cultural groups affected are concerned with survival, hence their drastic response. The accompanying perceptions are tabled in figure 2.

Five strategies for imposing environmental policy on existing cultures

Resolving environmental conflicts that include a cultural component requires identifying each set of actors and the structural factors and perceptions through which they operate. This can then be used to encourage a collaborative decision-making process. Understanding why this must be so involves looking at the alternatives. How can the state impose its policies and perceptions on a culture and how can this imposition be resisted?

Imposing development policies on culturally resistant populations requires a deliberate intervention into the people-territory relationship that we have described as culture. The figure below illustrates the five basic ways that forceful state intervention can attempt to change that relationship. These include:


Genocide simply refers to nation killing. One of the best-known examples in Africa is the ongoing struggle between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda where at least a million people have been killed in the name of "ethnic cleansing" in an effort to reduce the cultural force of the opposing ethnic group. Environmental problems, including severe land shortages, underlie the conflict and further environmental devastation has taken place in and around the large Hutu refugee camps in western Zaire. Resistance to genocide continues on both sides but most often takes the form of military combat and organised incursions from the refugee camps, which threatens to destabilise Central and East Africa.

Forced removal

Forcibly removing a population is another strategy, for which South Africa is perhaps the most infamous. The removal of the majority black population to isolated homelands on thirteen percent of the land area created both large areas of white privilege resembling many First World countries, and degraded environments in the densely populated homelands. Resistance at both local and international levels was eventually successful but cost thousands of lives and led to the large urban "squatter settlements" and degraded rural areas that the new government is tasked with upgrading.


Occupation is a policy pursued by Morocco in the Western Sahara. The original population, forced out in 1975 by King Hassan's infamous "Green March", now live in Tindouf, a giant tent city of nearly a million people in Algeria. The Sahrawi people resist assimilation and occupation through armed incursions but their Polisario Cavalry is no match for giant manned walls, landmines, and other electronic devices erected by the more sophisticated Moroccan Army.


Ethnocide is a common tactic involving an attempt to use laws to bring a culture into uniformity with the majority population or the philosophy and ideals of those in power. However, it often meets substantial resistance. Attempts by the Arabic peoples of the North to Islamicise the tribal peoples of the South by outlawing their languages, dictating their form of dress, and changing their educational, religious, and agricultural practices, failed massively and resulted in a war that has been going on since 1983 with more than a million lives lost.


The last tactic for altering culture is to change the territory itself. Since the 1950s resistant cultures have often been driven out by large scale hydroelectric schemes that flood their land and destroy their way of life. Disbanded cultures often end up as internal refugees living in squalor in the cities. The semi-nomadic Himba in the border area between Namibia and Angola are threatened with such an outcome, finding their land under threat from a proposed hydroelectric dam at Epupa on the Cunene River. The state argues that the dam will make Namibia self-sufficient in electricity and will accelerate development. The affected ten thousand Himba argue that the land is their life and without it, their culture will be destroyed. Major breeding grounds for fish, turtles, elephants, black rhinos, and rare birds that are other "partners" in the Himba way of life will also be destroyed.

Alternatives: co-management, autonomy, and group rights

There are alternatives to imposition which, on the whole, are eminently more successful than force in achieving harmonious development. These are:

Involving local cultures in environmental management

Perhaps the best known African example of co-management is Operation Campfire, Zimbabwe's Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources. This was a response to perceptions that rich, white tourists and the state were the only beneficiaries of Zimbabwe's game reserves. The authorities and more prosperous elements of the population wanted to save elephants but local indigenous groups could not even meet their basic needs.

All that local villagers saw was that elephants and other wildlife raided their meagre crops, trampled their huts, and destroyed sheep. These two perspectives and the structural factors underlying them (e.g. economic disparities, social injustice, colonial legacy) led to conflict, resentment, and a high level of poaching. Conflict resolution was effected in this case because rash judgements were set aside and creative ways of meeting the two conflicting needs were worked out through a co-management strategy. Put simply, wildlife management and its profits would be shared with local people. Once conservation was for the people and by the people, poaching was significantly reduced. Since national parks are now part of local income (e.g. local Campfire groups run safaris), many villagers see poaching as a threat to their livelihood and have acted vigorously to end it.

Autonomy and decentralised political structures

Another approach is to decentralise environments and environmental competencies through some kind of autonomous or federal arrangement. This is being attempted in Ethiopia where ethnic provinces have been devised after thirty years of armed struggle between major cultural groups. Previously, under various regimes of the more dominant Amhara people, all five methods for imposing development policy had been tried and failed. Today there are nine federal states, each based on cultural affiliations. Each has significant local powers including the right to secede.

Recognition of cultural or "group" rights

Lastly one can consider the new discourse of cultural rights. The United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations recently completed ten years of compiling testimony on cultural ethnocide and genocide to draft forty-five articles that the General Assembly must consider for adoption. Among these is the concept of land rights because culture "takes place" in a place and cannot survive without it. This principle is being effected world-wide as indigenous cultures are reclaiming lands on every continent. One example among many is that in 1996 the Kalahari San or "Bushmen" reclaimed half the 960 000-hectare Kalahari Gemsbok National Park after a 25-year land claims struggle.


Comparing the two types of strategies, one based on imposing an order and the other on participatory social constructions, one can see that the latter is more productive both in resolving conflict and in achieving a sustainable relationship between societies and the environment.

This does not mean that there are not "teething" problems in participatory decision-making, co-management, and the recognition of group rights, but, by contrast, the alternatives are draconian, simplistic, and ineffectual.

The five strategies of imposing solutions were generated by the major myths about culture discussed above. When culture is represented as an anachronistic way of life determined by environmental conditions that no longer obtain and now exhibits itself in "ethnic violence", strategies are bred that are based on forcing culture to meet state objectives. Recognising culture as an active force with the task of creating a harmonious balance between people and the environment moves our strategies in a more cooperative, compassionate, and peaceful direction.

Source: Richard Griggs, Independent Projects Trust, South Africa
   Return to the Environmental Decision-Making pages