Is anticipatory governance possible? An example from geopark management

Is anticipatory governance possible? An example from geopark management

by Hernán Bobadilla (Download here Bobadilla_2014)

As Michael Polanyi already said in 1962, in his now classic paper “The Republic of Science”, science, in regard of its progress, is essentially unpredictable. Furthermore, as its impacts are also unpremeditated, science is unpredictable in, at least, these two senses.

Nevertheless, even if we cannot predict, we sure can anticipate, i.e. create the conditions that allow us to deal with unpredicted and unpredictable risks. David Guston highlighted this important difference, inviting us to engage in public policy and social-minded scientific research.


But, how far can we actually go? If public policies are supposed to materialize public values, as Guston says, any anticipation program must align with these values. However, what we usually need is an anticipation program that portrays values that we still do not share at a social level. Public policies that represent our most fundamental values could be, in fact, the very source of troubles regarding our concerns. Let’s consider a particular example as illustration.


Geoparks are a rather new entity for conservation and sustainability. Their focus is to preserve geological heritage, but they also integrate other features like history, culture and, especially, biotic diversity. Geoparks came to worldwide recognition when UNESCO Geoparks Programme was proposed in 1999.

Two years later, at the 161th session of UNESCO’s Executive Board, the project was modified, assuming a more passive role. UNESCO delegates decided “not to pursue the development of a UNESCO geoparks programme, but instead to support ad hoc efforts within individual Member States as appropriate”.

Nowadays, UNESCO supports geoparks projects all around the world through the Global Geopark Network (GGN). The GGN is formed by 111 geoparks in 32 countries.

To become part of the GGN, a geopark project has to fulfil certain guidelines established by UNESCO. These guidelines focus on three main aspects: 1) Conservation and protection; 2) Research and education; 3) Sustainable development, mainly embodied by tourism and related activities. I will refer to the first and third criteria, as I don’t have many repairs on the second.

Conservation seems like a valuable aim for a geopark. But, it retains a long term harmful dynamic, in which the land is divided in protected and unprotected areas. The reasoning here is ‘if we protect certain areas from being exploited, we can continue exploiting others’. Thus, practically the only choice for communities to save their geological heritage, or their ecosystem in a broader sense, is to get into this logic and push the creation of a legal artifact to defend it. But, of course, this demands time. Meanwhile, companies could take advantage of these legal voids. For example, check this project: Glacier Republic, Greenpeace, Chile.

Another drawback of this reasoning is that, some policies reach for pristine conservation areas. Some of these policies require the removal of communities from the restricted area. But by doing this, we are cutting the political activism that communities could have over a broader area, and in the long term. Also, we would be violating their right to be there. Actually, I don’t really think these communities were the problem in the first place. For example, you could check this paper about the impact of these policies in Amazon rainforests.

My point here is that our relationship with nature has become polarized into a matter of consumption or protection. We have not reached a real sustainable dynamic.
So, what about sustainable development criterion in geoparks? First of all, as Prof. Albert Bartlett has demonstrated, it is an intellectual fallacy to talk about sustainable development in conjunction with exponential growth of consumption. Therefore, sustainability policies cannot go along without degrowth policies. I am still waiting for those!

Secondly, sustainable development in the form of tourism has particular downsides:
– ‘Environmentally friendly’ intervention in the geopark
– Incidental events inside the park (e.g. fires or unconscious damage). These examples are not from geoparks, but they illustrate my points (ex. 1; ex. 2).

– Impact in the surrounding area (e.g. hotels, roads), following the logic of protected and unprotected areas.
– Non-violent introduction of capitalistic principles in native communities and potential impact on their identities. This statement could be, in some ways, patronizing. After all, many communities want and need to profit in order to survive in the current world. But the cost we all have to pay is the lost of certain ways of life and world views (weltanschauung).


Overall, UNESCO is not taking an active role in the development of geoparks. Geoparks depend on the local legislation of every country or state. In my opinion, it is irresponsible that, such an influential agency as UNESCO, promotes the creation of geopark through certain criteria, and then they just restrict who could be member of the GGN. These criteria could be misunderstood or misrepresented by the local laws. And as UNESCO is the one putting them on the table, they should be more careful about their shortcomings.
So, in my opinion, to think about better policies will not make much difference if we still promote values that are the source of problems. Particularly, in regard to environmental issues, we have to change our values and our relationship with our planet at all scales. As H.D. Thoreau said, we should stop seeing resources and monetary values in landscapes and start seeing the landscapes themselves.
In this way, the guidelines for geoparks creation are not ethically neutral. They represent a particular set of values that align with a neoliberal agenda. And it is debatable if those values give us enough freedom to introduce the anticipation programs that we need. Certainly, a global scale agency like UNESCO should be more aware of these issues.

Download here Bobadilla_2014

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