|Greening at the Grassroots: People's Participation in Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 1991, 25 p.)|
To the extent that current and future environmental problems can be arrested or reversed through the types of rehabilitation projects usually sponsored by outside donors, or by protection measures taken by governments, research on ways to increase local co-operation with environmental projects is useful. However, evidence is mounting that the targeted project approaches to environmental problems, though often well intentioned and very valuable within a limited scope, will not be sufficient to solve the environmental problems facing the South today. The problems are too widespread, and too deeply entrenched, to be entirely solved with the disparate, sometimes haphazard and usually very localized palliative remedies presently offered. For example, despite the organization, in response to Ethiopias agricultural crisis, of one of the largest soil rehabilitation projects in the world, Ethiopias highlands continue to erode: the scope and financing of the project, although massive compared with similar efforts elsewhere, are still far below what would be needed to make a real impact on the environmental problems of the country. As a result, the effects of the conservation project are only evident in small parts of the highlands, and in the isolated areas away from the main roads, where the majority of the farmers live, there are few conservation activities at all (St 1990). Government environmental protection programmes have similarly limited impacts, due to the often discussed problems of underfunding, lack of political support, and lack of institutional and technical capacity. As Sithembiso Nyoni writes, no nation in the world was developed by projects alone, let alone projects based on borrowed models (Nyoni 1987: 52).
The fact that environmental degradation in the Third World is commonly perceived as a crisis in the sustainable development literature contributes toward the prevalence of corrective projects. A crisis seems to call for immediate and direct measures, and, as Adams argues in a discussion of development policies, often favours firefighting approaches rather than discussions of deeper ills, and the treatment of symptoms rather than causes (Adams, 1990). In addition, a project-oriented approach can seem, from the point of view of donors, to be the most practical. Results are visible and measurable, and impact can usually be demonstrated and success stories reported.
Perhaps a third reason for the prevalence of this approach, and a somewhat more troubling one, is that it can reflect, to a greater or lesser degree, a perception that rural dwellers of the Third World need to be taught about the importance of environmental conservation. The World Conservation Strategy, for instance, lists the lack of awareness of the benefits of conservation and of its relevance to everyday concerns (IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1980) as one of the problems to be overcome before sustainable development can be attained. The document calls for addressing this problem by public education on environmental issues, and more community involvement in conservation projects. In fact, of course, many rural Third World communities have practiced environmental conservation for centuries, and it has much more often been industrialized populations which have had to relearn the value of the environment.
Projects, of course, necessarily form the basis of much development work, no matter how development is defined. However, the project approach to sustainable development, as now standardly conceived, must both be improved and supplemented by a greater understanding of the grassroots level concerns and activities related to the environment if the environmental problems of the South are to be overcome. At least two directions show promise, and have attracted growing attention, although they have not as yet been the subject of much sustained empirical research. These alternative approaches are both based on peoples participation - but on participation defined in a much more fundamental sense than that commonly used in the environmental literature. True popular participation goes much beyond the mere provision of labour and other inputs into projects initiated from outside the community; it involves decisions being taken and plans being formulated on the local level. In the context of development, as Barraclough (1990) points out, increased popular participation is necessarily a confrontational process, as the development goals of the te normally preclude increased involvement of the poor in resource management decisions. The working definition resulting from the UNRISD research programme on popular participation in development highlights both the process and the conflict inherent in participation, which is referred to as the organized efforts to increase control over resources and regulative institutions in given social situations, on the part of groups and movements of those hitherto excluded from such control (Pearse and Stiefel, 1979: 8).
The first of the two approaches to sustainable development which will be discussed in this paper involves the increased recognition of traditional resource management practices, an analysis of the value of such practices under current and future conditions, and an assessment of ways either to ensure that sustainable practices are maintained, or to adapt the most viable of them for use in different economic, social or environmental contexts. The second approach involves incorporating the concerns, goals and activities of local grassroots organizations and social movements into externally assisted projects, in such a way that such projects become self-sustaining and, more importantly, self-replicating without additional external promotional efforts. A more thorough understanding of the ways in which people participate in resource management is necessary for the successful development of either of these approaches.