How can research, practice and governance invigorate action-oriented ecology? One of the major challenges has been to engage fishers and other user-groups in collaborative decision-making to foster ecosystem management. Co-management can be defined as the sharing of power and responsibility between the government and local resource users. In the last decade or so, the emphasis on learning-by-doing has resulted in combining co-management with adaptive management into adaptive co-management. The unit of analysis is the social-ecological system, the complex adaptive system that includes both social (human) and ecological (biophysical) subsystems in a two-way feedback relationship. The health of marine and coastal ecosystems very much depends on human action. Hence, “putting people back into the ecosystem” (Berkes, Fish & Fisheries 2012) requires an assessment of co-management and what we have learned about fostering learning and adaptation in collaborative decision-making. Here I present a synthesis of some key strands of thinking about adaptive co-management based on international experience.
Over two decades of marine and coastal co-management experience indicates that co-management can be examined as a problem-solving process involving negotiation, knowledge generation, joint learning and stewardship building. The understanding of participation has changed over the years to one that regards multiple linkages and social relationships in the form of networks, as the essence of participatory management. Case studies illustrate the ways in which these relationships can evolve and deal with a succession of problems. Much of this problem-solving occurs through informal learning networks and communities of practice. Bridging organizations provide a platform for co-production of knowledge, deliberation, visioning, and building social capital, trust and institutions. Skills acquisition and capacity-building often occur through networks and partnerships. Learning can be characterized as an action-reflection-action process. Some of these factors can be posited as a model, not a “blueprint” applicable to all cases but a diagnostic tool, to help think through participatory ecosystem management.