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Introduction: Changing Approaches to Natural Resource Management: Communication and Natural Resource Management: Experience/Theory

Publication Date
September 30, 2003

Responses to the realities reflected above are not new to NRM or community-based development. There have been significant changes to the methods and theoretical underpinnings of all kinds of community development over the past 30 or so years. Much of this change is the result of reflection on experience, coupled with, and sometimes forced by, the insistence of local voices like Freedom's, to be heard and reckoned with.

During the 1970s, practitioners working with rural communities began to be disillusioned with the lack of progress, the failure of many development activities, and all too often, worsening conditions for the poor. It can be assumed that the communities themselves were even more disillusioned though their voices were seldom heard. Early work on NRM focussed on the lack of local knowledge and the need to improve this through education, training and outside expert advice. Local practices were surveyed to identify what had to change, but not surveyed for the local wealth of experience and knowledge.

To the extent that this amounted to a communication method, it was one in which local people were questioned to discover gaps in their knowledge that could be filled by expert outsiders. Knowledge was usually seen as technical, value neutral, and transferable across cultures and continents. If not quite a one-size-fits-all approach, it was based more on a belief in the universal application of methods defined by agricultural science than «less rigorous» approaches that emphasised the centrality of social and cultural practise.

As it became clear that this approach was not delivering the progressive improvements it promised, two key problems were identified. The first was lack of local support for many of the activities and projects designed by outsiders – Freedom's «interested scholars» or the «modern experts» of Borrini-Feyerabend et al. The second was failure due to poor understanding by outsiders of local social and environmental conditions, made worse by not acknowledging the value of local experience.

Identifying these problems led to new approaches to communicating with rural people that sought a better understanding of their local situation, and involved them in identifying the issues that affected them most directly. This led to the adoption of techniques such as «Rapid Rural Appraisal» (RRA), which enabled development workers and other outside «experts» to gather simple data quickly on issues identified at the local level. It also allowed some participation of semi-literate and illiterate people.

While this was an improvement over the complex and specialised information gathering of the past, it was still based on outsiders obtaining information, which was then taken away for analysis and use in the preparation of development interventions. Local opinions and ideas were gathered more effectively, but control and ownership remained outside of the communities being «developed».

Nevertheless, techniques like RRA opened the door to involving communities further – not just in data collection, but also in data analysis, problem identification and prioritisation, and eventually (though still not often enough) participation in defining, implementing and evaluating development interventions.

This more inclusive approach became popularly known as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). The key insight of PRA was that both local communities and outside «experts» had information and knowledge to share. It was assumed that outsiders knew relatively little about local conditions, practices and resources, while community members often lacked technical knowledge that would help them adapt to changing social, political and natural environments. The important change was the identification of a two-way approach to communication that respected the experience and knowledge of both «inside» and «outside» participants, and gave the community a voice in setting development priorities.

PRA helped move the community back towards the centre of the development process and sought to better understand and overcome the difficult and often contradictory positions in which communities find themselves when facing issues of sustainable resource use. But, as important as this process of enabling communities to take ownership of their own development was and is, it does not fully respond to the interdependent context in which all development processes must work.

Consider the issues faced by communities in the relatively remote San Juan River Bi-National Basin in Central America (see Experience # 6). These communities are in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The basin itself forms a natural ecological and social unit, and there are many cultural links between its inhabitants on both sides of the border. The area is also open to a variety of business activities, and depends on, or is affected significantly by, decisions and policies made in the relatively distant capitals of the two countries.

No matter how participatory an approach may be within a local community, there are many other factors that can impact the local management of resources. If business regulations are lacking, then unscrupulous and unsustainable practices that generate little local benefit and much long-term damage can – and in the case of the San Juan Basin did – occur. If governments make policies that do not take local needs and concerns into account – or do not make policies at all – then local involvement and commitment to the management of resources will be weaker or impossible.

The proper management of an area like the San Juan Basin requires the coordinated participation of at least two national governments, local government, business and local communities. To do this requires more than a commitment to participation at the community level through processes like PRA; it requires meaningful participation at multiple levels and across divides of geography, culture, education levels, income and often fundamental interests.

For participatory approaches to succeed in this wider context of interdependent influences another facet is required - a way to bring the necessary groups into conversation with each other, and to enable the poorest and most marginalised to have a powerful/influential voice. In other words, a communication strategy that goes beyond the relationship between «outside» development experts and «inside» community members.

Communication strategies that go beyond the local community retain the insights provided by approaches like PRA, but insist that equal importance be given to communication strategies dealing with the external contexts in which communities must function. This has been recognised in approaches like Participatory Rural Communication Appraisal (10) and Co-management(11).

The Namibia experience with Community Based Natural Resource Management (see Experience 1) provides a good example of the importance of this kind of expanded communication strategy. Here processes of «internal» communication work together with parallel but linked processes of «outside» communication to build participation and trust between different communities, levels of government and policy makers.

Internally, Namibian communities had to find ways to separate and manage cattle and wildlife, to stop poaching (a major economic activity of many of their own members), to establish new forums for local and regional decision-making, and to learn skills and adopt practices to manage resources in new ways. But for these to be successful, different communities had to share access to resources, traditional leaders had to make co-ordinated decisions and share power, government planners had to listen to rural communities, and national leaders had to incorporate local ideas and priorities into national policies.

This situation is not unique. In fact it can be argued that most development activities require changes at the individual and local level as well as between communities, policy makers and private interests. Such changes require communication strategies that look «in» and «out» at the same time, and that may involve quite different approaches in different spheres. Unfortunately, while the situation is not unique, it is still rare to find development initiatives that incorporate such communication strategies.


The Communication Initiative Network and Partnership convenes the communication and media for development, social and behavioural change community to share knowledge, connect, debate relevant issues, and critically review each other's work in order to advance effective development action across and between all development priorities. Contact Warren