Where is the Ethno in Ethnobotany? The Work with and for Local Communities: A Snapshot of Experiences

This blog is the full version from an excerpt printed in the Fall 2020 SEB Newsletter.

By Baiba Pruse with the contribution from: J. Barstad, J. Alipio, F. G. Alipio, C. A. Arias, T. Sauini, E. Rodrigues, A. Skarlatidou. Images come from the archives of Baiba Prūse while joining her parents and their granddaughter during the honey harvest. As Baiba says – bees and bee keepers are the perfect examples of collaborative work!

As a research fellow in the team of ethnobotanists as part of DiGe project led by Assoc. Prof. Renata Sõukand at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (Italy) I am eager to learn about the diversity of ways to engage and work with local communities. As for me – learning always happens through collaborative work and shared discussions. Thus, I am happy to be able to reach out to the practitioners from different fields who is/have worked directly with local communities on different subjects. I am thrilled to present answers on three questions from: Johan Barstad (The University College for Green Development, Norway), J.P Alipio & Francis Gerard Alipio (Cordillera Conservation Trust, Philippines), Carlos A. Arias (Aarhus University, Denmark), Artemis Skarlatidou (University College London, The United Kingdom) and Thamara Sauini & Eliana Rodrigues (Center of Ethnobotanical and Ethnopharmacological Studies, Brazil).

Baiba Pruse (BP): Would you, please, shortly introduce the reader with the current / recent work you do/did with the local communities?

Johan Barstad (JB): From 2016-2019 I worked as an advisor to three Norwegian municipalities (Stavanger, Randaberg and Tysvær) in Rogaland County. They participated in a national project to introduce qualitative research into public health at municipal level. My task was guiding in methodology, with a special focus on using participative methods, and Citizen Science in particular. The Directorate for Public Health each year issue a ‘Public Health Profile’ for every Norwegian municipality, based on quantitative metrics, showing how each municipality rank compared to national and regional results on more than 40 indicators. Problem was that selected metrics are poorly suited to describe qualitative aspects – and also sub-municipal disparities. Main goal of project was to find if qualitative descriptions could enhance these parts. I worked closely with the dedicated personnel from the municipalities, the County and the Directorate, assisting and advising in choices and approaches.

J.P Alipio (JA): We work with communities by basically leveraging adventure sports for conservation. Using events trail running, hiking, and mountain biking and adventure development such as trail mapping to create alternative economic opportunities for communities to go into more sustainable ways to earn money rather than extracting from the environment. In this way we are able to make conserving the environment as the base capital for doing business rather than simply taking out from it. We train the communities in basic hospitality skills, homestay development, marketing, etc… and in many cases have raised household income up to 500% and that moves them away from less sustainable practices. 

Francis Gerard Alipio (FGA): I would like to highlight what has been mentioned by J.P. Alipio about creating sustainable economic opportunities for the communities we work with. This does put us in the position to raise environmental awareness for local communities while at the same time creating income for them. This, in turn, highlights the need to protect and preserve the source of their income – the environment.

Thamara Sauini & Eliana Rodrigues (TS/ER): In recent years, it has been defended the need to combine ethnobotanical research with aspects of conservation and local development, considering participatory methodologies. However, little progress is available in practical terms in the case studies. And, what we present is one of them, developed in two “quilombola” communities. Our work with local communities is a participatory approach, that involve residents in all of the project phases, providing tools that will empower decision-making related to sustainable use and management among residents. This work was divided into four phases, with the participation of local members in each of them: in phase I, the objectives and activities were defined with residents in meetings to carry out ethnobotanical surveys between two quilombola communities. In phase II, we offered training courses to the local partners about how to collect plants and ethnobotanical data. And in phase III, using the participatory mapping method, residents indicated plot locations and collected plants to calculate the Conservation Priority Index for native species recorded in phase II. In phase IV, a participatory management plan has been conducted with the objective of making feasible the extraction and trade of handicrafts and phytocosmetics made from some of these plants, through the creation of a green seal.

Artemis Skarlatidou (AS):  In the Extreme Citizen Science group (ExCiteS for short) at University College London, we work with several communities to help them address local issues using our methods and tools. Extreme Citizen Science is a situated, bottom-up practice that takes into account local needs, practices and culture and works with broad networks of people to design and build new devices and knowledge creation processes that can transform the world. For example, in Congo-Brazzaville, we have worked with Mbenjele Yaka Pygmies since 2013 to support local communities to tackle the unprecedented exploitation of their local forest and natural resources by collecting data to report illegal logging. Also, in the Pantanal wetlands, Brazil, the ExCiteS tools and methods supported local fishers collect data about their local natural resource management practices; being very dynamic and flexible, these were considered unsustainable and therefore they were not compatible with previous legislation, which gradually resulted in the physical and economic displacement of local communities. The collected data provided the evidence and the government officially recognised them as a ‘traditional community’, giving them the right to continue using their traditional practices. We also collaborate with Maasai warrior communities in Narok county, Kenya, who use the ExCiteS methods and tools to collect information about their local indigenous plants as a way to preserve the community’s botanic and other forms of traditional ecological knowledge (for more information, you may refer here). Between May 2009 and January 2020, the community mapped over 7,000 indigenous plant species and their associated risks. 

These are a few examples of the work we do in ExCietS. We also work with several other local communities in Cameroon, Ghana, Namibia and other parts of the world – you can find more information if you visit our ExCiteS Story Maps.

Carlos A. Arias (CA): for the past 25 year I have been a researcher focusing in water pollution control and the recovery of resources form water treatments.  Even though removing pollutants and improving the quality of water that has been affected by anthropogenic interventions, some of these called “pollutants” can be harvested and can become a resource. For instance, from wastewater treatments, the list of resources might include, reclaimed water for different uses, gas, bioplastics, nutrients, biomass, biocrudes, fibers … and the list goes on , of course depending on the treatment technology used. Additionally, my work deals with the transfer of technology and knowledge to less developed countries and impoverish communities where lack of sanitation is present.

BP: Would you, please, share the main challenge (and possible ways to overcome) while working with the local communities from the activity you mentioned above?

JB: Many challenges will arise in a project like this. A project about public health, planning, participation and involvement always is challenging when the focus is ‘on the ground’, with people and communities. Public Involvement has been a crucial element in the national planning law since the 1970s, and have evolved from mere information to attempting broad participation in all stages and most public activities. One of the challenges we came upon was the ‘discontinuity’-element. When an issue arises, there is a (often strong) mobilization of people and resources to achieve active participation. After a decision has been taken – or even after the required involvement has been fulfilled – the participation is ended and will need to be ‘rekindled’ the next time an involvement issue occurs. This is bot inefficient cost-wise; it slows down the response time; and it is stressful for the communities/the participants. A more continuous approach, establishing local entities that function over time, is a dire need for improved action. Further, the general design of typical public processes are aimed at solving a managerial problem rather than finding applicable and sustainable solutions. This is often the consequence from a strong focus on the formal rather than the informal elements. E.g. time-schedules are often strict to ensure process can input when management is ready for it, rather than when the participants are happy with the result. Finally, the issue of involvement per se. As shown, involvement is both time- and resource consuming (expensive), unclear and fudgy (interest-based rather than representative) and their input is generally only advisory, so involvement in process often is felt unsuccessful. Thus, we need to focus on why we use involvement and what is expected to be the outcome(s).

The simple answer is that we use involvement to strengthen involvement (that, we know, eases the implementation) and to improve the search for better alternatives. This is where (we found) that Citizen Science (CS) comes in handy. Using local people to look into and investigate in issues of local importance (e.g. like in how the SDGs can be turned into active assets for welfare and public health improvement at sub-municipal level).

Working with municipalities, and with processes related to development, we often came across the co-creation understanding. This implies that the (research) process is part of a larger setting where the aim is to find actions/solutions that are to be implemented and contribute to a more sustainable development. The flip side to this is there must be a form of cooperation between both the formal and informal actors, partnerships must be established and stakeholders must learn to relate to each other in planning, decision-making, implementation and evaluation.

JA: One of the main challenges in working with communities is really balancing all the different interests that exist within these communities. You can come into these areas thinking that they will work together as a community but in our experience this is not really the case. In many cases members of the community will only work for their own family/household and sometimes we are even accused of favoritism in the cases where certain members of the community will get certain contracts from us such as catering or cleaning, homestays, etc… so it is always a delicate mix of trying to help whole communities while managing personalities and personal interests involved.

TS/ER: For the local partners involved in the study— “time” was different from that of urban society, a fact that caused difficulties throughout the absorption of concepts during the ethnobotanical study and in data collection. And, local partners (community researchers) perform other daily activities that guarantee their livehoods (farming, home and family, and restaurants) and must reconcile these activities with fieldwork. 
Therefore, a faster process for obtaining the necessary authorizations to carry out research in the community, can help local partners to participate. In addition to the longest possible time of the technical team in field work, in the event of unforeseen events due to their routine.  

AS: Having used extreme citizen science methods and tools with various communities for almost a decade now, we have come across several different challenges and we keep experiencing new ones, usually shaped by the cultural settings as well as the project specifics (i.e. the need each specific community is trying to address). We continuously learn from local and indigenous people and we reflect on our experiences to subsequently tailor our methods, tools and protocols so that these can fully support future communities, as well as practitioners, who are planning to use them, to overcome similar barriers. 

A very important part of our methodology, which helps to later address issues that may define a project’s success and its sustainability, is to ensure that the project is designed to truly meet local needs. This entails starting with the premise that we do not fully understand the existing local needs or the knowledge frameworks through which these needs are locally articulated. Preliminary community engagement and research is conducted to establish the project’s aims and scope collaboratively with the local communities, while paying particular attention to how problems are posed, the impacts they have on people’s lives, and whether (and if so how) the communities themselves have attempted to address these challenges in the past. Any new activities brought in as a result of the project need to be thought through very carefully and with respect to existing daily activities, so that they are fully understood by communities and they also fit well within the local cultural setting.   

A major challenge in extreme citizen science stems from the fact that the majority of communities we work with are located in rural developing regions with limited technological infrastructure (e.g. lack of electricity, limited or no wireless coverage). Technology access and use is also problematic since most of our western technological devices are based on digital forms which assume a certain level of literacy from the users (either textual or technical), which cannot be taken for granted in the context of our work and with the communities we work with. To overcome interaction barriers and make sure that everyone can use our tools regardless of their literacy skills, prior experience in using technological devices etc. we have introduced a participatory design methodology, the use of pictorial interfaces (with no text) – where the pictograms are designed by or with the communities (sometimes icons are drawn in the sand during community meetings), as well as, as other technological solutions, such as Near Field Communication (NFC) cards which you tap on the back of the phone for collecting data (i.e. about specific data items shown on the card) together with their GPS coordinates. Last but not least, the extreme citizen science initiatives wouldn’t be successful without dedicating team effort and resources for establishing a trusting relationship with each community. To do so, it is absolutely essential to understand, fully appreciate and respect local norms (and the cultural specificities of ethical codes) and adhere to the community participation and Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process protocols which we always follow.

CA: Working with communities that lack of proper sanitation is very rewarding and for most of my experiences the work can be achieved with the participation of the communities that are generally open to participate and learn.  Although there are some challenges that, have to tackle, and depending on the communities they might include, cultural, religious, education, time management, and language.  Some of the difficulties might also include the willingness of the local authorities to support the tech transfer activities.

BP: Would you, please, share a project/activity/initiative which you were/are inspired by the work done with the local communities and which might serve as an inspiration for the readers as well?

JB: We found real CS (term used for the process of involving actively, sharing power, access and ownership; in public planning we often also use the term co-creation for this) to be very helpful (though time-consuming, so we barely are seeing the results yet), and real CS was employed to build knowledge of e.g. risk-factors and assets in a community, how they can be used – by the community and the public together in a co-creation process, and we started to look at how to use the SDGs.

Case: Input to the municipal Public Health Plan (side effect: better ways of designing/presenting the Public Health Profile). Some main approaches

  • Local community meetings where participants were empowered to become active in discussing, evaluating and suggesting improvements in their community. Further they were invited to be active in implementing new action (action-contracts) and meet at intervals to report on progress (evaluation)
  • Working with schools to engage students to become local investigators re traffic and transportation issues
  • Having politicians and municipal authorities spend time, meeting, discussing and learning from the communities

The school (level 8-10) was invited in a design-process for a town-playground. An area in the town was available and potential suitable. The students were invited first to work on health and safety-issues, then on issues related to their daily use of the town area. A virtual map was made (through support from municipal technicians and external resources, showing hot-spots with comments. Then, a series of design-workshops where students were tasked with designing a (small) multi-ages activity park and bringing the case to the point where it could be put on the politicians’ agenda for evaluation and potential approval. Project stalled in the municipal budget debate. No money was found, so it was not realized.

Evaluation: The process was led by, and also owned by the experts. We had been suggesting a stronger link between the project, the municipal authorities and the business-sector (in case such a monetary-deficit situation were to occur), but it did not prevail.

Conclusion: Real CS was helpful and adequate for the planning process but turned out as insufficient for successful implementation by itself. We learned about the need for linking CS to co-creation to build implementation strength (here: would have had several options – not only one!). The project continues in one of the three communities, where we currently are looking at how we can build ‘lasting structures’ for local cooperation, how to design real CS projects and conditions for enabling real CS projects to reach to and implement their potential.

JA: Mt. Pulag is one of the protected areas in the Philippines -quite a famous one because of its unique flora and climate but many of the communities around it have not benefited much from its development as a tourist area resulting in high amounts of clearing of the mossy forests for farming. In 2014 we started engaging with the community of Babadak in order to help them set-up homestays for trekkers to create a more viable income for them to live on. I am happy to say that 5 years after we started that project we have seen the rise of not just the homestays in Pulag but also associated industries all locally run by the villagers from tourist transportation to catering, and even putting up their very own travel agencies -which to me after climbing those mountains for almost 20 years is amazing seeing that kind of development in just 5 years in a village which only got their electricity 10 years ago and had a paved road only less than 4 years ago. This has totally shifted the economy in the area pre-covid19 to be more supported by adventure tourism of course with covid there might be a slip back into the land clearing for agriculture again due to the lack of tourism but at least the infrastructure, skills, and value chain are there now from the seed we planted and when tourism starts up again they will be ready to welcome all those people back again. 

AS: In Cameroon we work with Baka hunter-gatherers and Bantu farming communities of Dja Biosphere Reserve in the Guineo-Congolian rainforest. Baka communities have been living in this region for thousands of years, and later joined by farming communities which also live in the area for hundreds of years. The majority of the forest estate has been now allocated to logging concessions or it is used as a wildlife reserve (used by safari and conservation NGOs etc.). Indigenous and local communities have been evicted from their ancestral lands, while the militarization enforcement measures to tackle illegal logging and wildlife crime in the area, which faces an immediate urgency to conserve its biodiversity, have sadly resulted in reported human right abuses. 

Simon Hoyte from the ExCiteS group has lived in the area and – together with local NGOs, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and local communities – has been working since 2016 helping to empower local communities in having a say on how their forest is used and how it should be used, as the rich forest knowledge that they possess is extremely powerful in terms of preventing the local ecological crisis. Local communities collect data about illegal logging and poaching in the area. What I find particularly inspiring is that although the data collection poses significant – even life-threatening – risks, the commitment to doing so remained. The risks were considered during the project design and in the way it is being implemented, but still this clearly shows the commitment of local communities to address a local problem with such a massive global impact.

CA: one of my most rewarding projects was to establish a wastewater treatment system in Aligarh, India where no wastewater treatment facilities existed. The project aimed at treating the wastewater produced by an academic community of 3000 persons and financed by the EU. The choice of technology selected for the treatment was Natural Based Solutions, which takes advantage of natural process in nature and with the intervention of plants, microorganisms, water, sand, and biofilms can improve water quality and even producing disinfected water for water reclamation. The systems was constructed with the cooperation of the local community and has served as a model for the replication of the technology and for research purposes.  Additionally to treating water and with the support of Aligarh Muslim University new developments are taking place.  Since part of the systems is a planted system (constructed wetlands), new developments are taking place, by harvesting the biomass to produce gas and fodder for animals. The project has had positive impact and currently a second project is taking place to introduce 14 similar technology in 6 towns in India.

BP: I find this topic of community engagement crucial and I thank the interviewees for sharing their/their teams experience. And I particularly appreciate the sharing of the lessons learned and the ways to overcome these challenges. Thank you.

Get in touch with Baiba (baiba.pruse@unive.it)  if you would like to share your experience and/or co-create a working group on participatory work with local communities.

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