The international community has embraced marine spatial planning (MSP) as a way to preserve the ecological integrity of marine environments while obtaining economic, cultural, and social benefits. MSP has quickly become the dominant marine management policy worldwide in the last 10 years. However, while MSP has a transformative capacity, the worldwide experience reveals large gaps between how it is conceptualized and how it is practiced. One of the main critiques of MSP is the tokenistic nature of stakeholder engagement.
MSP is being implemented as a form of post-political planning (post-political processes are run by the government and prioritize a priori or fixed goals) where a top-down approach dominates the planning process. The MSP post-political condition creates an illusion of stakeholder engagement. However, stakeholders with less power (often the local stakeholders) do not have the capacity to influence process outcomes meaningfully. Moreover, the top-down approach fosters a hierarchical decision-making logic, where the top interests prevail over the bottom. Therefore, exclusion in MSP mainly affects local stakeholders.
Overall, stakeholder exclusion has consequences such as lack of shared vision, high levels of mistrust between stakeholders and planners, wasted resources, loss of enthusiasm about the management strategy, and lack of strategic direction. In particular, MSP stakeholder marginalization has at least three negative impacts. First, lack of specificity; the stakeholders are not well informed about the benefits or losses of the marine spatial plan. Second, poor communication and perception of exclusion; stakeholders can be unaware of the planning process and there is a perception of deliberate exclusion, which delegitimizes the planning process. The third is the fragmentation of scale (municipal, regional, provincial, or federal), governance, and space, which impedes integral decision-making.
On the other hand, the practice of social inclusion is a hegemonic idea in planning. Stakeholder engagement is a key component of MSP. Since stakeholders are the core of marine activities; they represent a vast amount of knowledge, experience, values, and interests. The meaningful engagement of local stakeholders enhances the quality of the MSP process. Stakeholders can contribute to better understanding of human activities and the physical and biological conditions of the marine space, which allows the development of robust plans. Moreover, stakeholders have the right to participate in decisions that can affect them so that stakeholder engagement improves the legitimacy of the MSP processes. Finally, stakeholder inclusion also has the potential to minimize marine space use conflicts because stakeholders are aware of the commitments as well as the future implications of the MSP plan.
Considering the advantages of local stakeholder engagement and the disadvantages of their exclusion, today, providing meaningful stakeholder engagement is one of the major challenges of MSP. Some questions to answer are: How can meaningful local stakeholder engagement be strengthened in MSP? How can good stakeholder engagement practices be applied in MSP? What can MSP learn from other planning experiences (e.g., coastal zone management, land planning, and watershed management)? What factors foster local stakeholder exclusion? And how can local and traditional knowledge contribute to MSP? Answering these and other questions is crucial since there will not be a successful MSP without a meaningful engagement of local stakeholders in the process.