Significant funds are being mobilised in emerging initiatives for payments for ecosystem services such as the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+). Many of the regions that ‘provide’ ecosystem services are inhabited by isolated, indigenous communities. There are real dangers that a range of interested parties, from national governments to international organisations (corporations and NGOs), in the rush to get their hands on these funding streams and manage these ecosystems in a profitable way, do not engage in gaining the perspective of the indigenous communities which depend on these ecosystems for their livelihoods.
There is the risk that as a result of the lack of consultation, indigenous communities may be forced into a way of life that they did not sign up to, which would threaten their cultural sustainability as well as the sustainability of the ecosystems within which they are situated.
What we now see taking place is national governments and a number of lobbying groups discussing global economic and environmental problems and negotiating agreements for them at the international level. These agreements then result in public policies, and the release of funds for intervention, at country level. However, many of the interventions proposed are not consistent with the way of life of indigenous communities, generating conflicts.
One example is the actual and potential release of significant levels of funding from national and international banks for hydro-electric dams, such as Belo Monte in Brazil and Amaila Falls in Guyana – initiatives which form part of the international ‘Low Carbon Development Strategy’. These dams have the potential for a devastating impact on the environs of communities local to the developments.
Today, we are aware that local communities often have their own solutions to the environmental, social and economic problems they face on a day-to-day basis. But these solutions do not have enough visibility, and so they are often ignored by public policies. The risk is that by adopting proposed solutions from the “top”, communities put aside their own "best practices" which are then at risk of disappearing. At the same time, proposals coming from "outside" often cannot be adapted to the local level, and so instead of bringing a solution, they compound the initial problems.
Project COBRA is an EU Seventh Framework funded project whose objective is to find ways to integrate community owned solutions within policies addressing escalating social, economic and environmental crises, through accessible information and communication technologies. The project advocates the position that local communities have the capacity to identify their own "best practices" and share them with others.
Project COBRA specifically focuses on accessible and participatory forms of communication, promoting the use of participatory video and photography, which allow indigenous communities to identify and share strategies that they believe will enable them to sustain the survival of their communities in the long-term. The aim is to promote these community-owned solutions and participatory ways of engaging communities, through systemic, participatory and visual methods, amongst civil society organisations and national / international policymakers.
This involves academic and civil society organisations from Europe and South America in engaging, and building capacity within, a number of indigenous communities in the Guiana Shield region of South America, including communities from Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela. To date, the project has been documenting indigenous community owned solutions or ‘best practices’, using an innovative “system viability” framework and participatory visual methods.
The system viability framework works by building a model of a community to determine if it can survive a range of changes in its environment, both present and future. In developing this model, the communities use participatory video and participatory photo-story techniques as the tools of expression. Through these participatory techniques, community members are able to express their ideas in images and words. To date, six ‘community-owned best practices’ have been identified and documented, including the management of farming and fishing practices, use of new technologies, partnerships for community development and promoting indigenous culture and beliefs.
The next phase of the project is to share these methodologies and best practices with other indigenous communities of the Guiana Shield, at the same time documenting their own best practices. The aim is to create a growing repository of ‘community-owned solutions’ for sharing amongst communities of the Guiana Shied and beyond. Our ultimate aim is to make a case for the consideration and inclusion of community owned solutions in policies, processes and projects that are related to local community development.
But we face major challenges. Public participation has limited support from policy-makers and funding bodies. Public participation, especially within marginalised communities, is not a ‘quick-fix’ solution, and involves a long term commitment to build capacity so that community members can participate effectively. Related to this is the limited appreciation of non-written/non-numerical forms of public participation as decision-makers find it difficult to engage with information that cannot be reduced to statistics.
Given these challenges, Project COBRA is demonstrating that it is possible to mobilise significant funding sources for participatory public engagement, and for this to begin to have an impact at national and international policy-making. For more on Project COBRA, visit http://projectcobra.org .
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.