Community Action and the Environment

How communities can deal with politically sensitive environmental problems

by Andrew Leake.

Around the world, more and more local communities are coping with environmental damage which is not caused by them. For example, a village that depends on a river for its drinking water and fish may find that the water becomes polluted by a factory further up the river. To solve the problem, the community may have to challenge the economic interests of the factory owner. This may lead to protests, campaigns, legal battles and – in extreme cases – violence.

A growing challenge for development workers is to know how to help communities in situations such as the one just described. Because of the economic and political interests at stake, intervention of this type is a delicate matter. It is not easy and it is open to all sorts of criticisms and misinterpretations. We must accept, however, that God may call us to be involved in this way. It is important, therefore, to consider how we might act if the need should arise.

CASE STUDY

MOPAWI is a Christian development agency working with indigenous groups in the tropical rain forests of eastern Honduras (Central America). Since 1985 it has worked in agriculture, health, education, credit and women’s projects.

Part of MOPAWI’s work is amongst Tawahka Indian communities along the Patuca river. In 1987 agency staff realised that the forests surrounding this region were being cleared by lumber companies, cattle ranchers and farmers who were moving down the river, looking for new areas to exploit. They realised that if nothing were done, the Tawahkas would soon lose the natural resources that their sustainable subsistence economy has depended on for centuries.

Recognising the problem

Until now, the Tawahkas had not believed their forests were threatened. As one leader said, ‘Since I was a child these forests have stood here unchanged. I could not imagine it being any other way.’ So, a first step in helping the Tawahka to deal with the problem was to help them fully understand the situation.

To achieve this, MOPAWI took their leaders to visit indigenous groups in other parts of the country who had already seen their forests destroyed. By talking with them, they began to realise what it would mean if they also lost their forests. They would have nowhere to get materials to build their homes or construct canoes, nowhere to hunt for animals, nowhere to find medicinal plants and wild fruit. The soils would be eroded, rivers would silt up, fish would disappear and there would be no clean drinking water.

This process of awareness-raising continued, as the Tawahka leaders visited regions near their own communities where forests were actually being cleared. Here they met and talked with cattle ranchers and farmers and asked them why they were moving here and clearing the land. They learnt that many of them could not find land anywhere else, and that they had little choice but to cut the forest. Others were motivated by simple greed, with the aim of making a quick profit from cutting and selling the trees or breeding cattle.

Raising the alarm The whole experience was recorded on video and later shown to other community members. With this audiovisual material to back them up, the leaders were able to convince the rest of their community about the need to do something to protect their forest from outsiders.

Once the Tawahka people had decided they had a real need to protect their forests, MOPAWI helped them meet with the government. This allowed them to find out for themselves what their legal position was, concerning their rights to the forests. It also began good communication with the authorities.

This was important, for it meant the government understood what it was they were doing. It also reduced any possible future misunderstanding of what could otherwise be seen as a political uprising of some sort.

Making maps

The Indians, with technical guidance from MOPAWI, then proceeded to document their situation. They provided information to a professional geographer about where and how they used the forests. He, in turn, put this information on maps. Another map made by the geographer showed the location and amount of deforestation, how little of the rain forest was now left, and therefore how important it was to protect it.

This information helped the Indians to further understand their own situation and added an ecological argument to their case. Using this information, they were able to explain their problem clearly and simply to the government and others. The maps helped to make the situation clear. They also made it difficult for those who were interested in getting hold of the Indians’ forests for political or economic interests, to use misleading information. The maps were, in fact, later used by the government as the basis for drawing plans for a proposed reserve which, if legalised, will protect the Tawahkas’ forests.

A further benefit from the maps and video was that the press could use the material. This allowed the Tawahka to publicise their situation. By doing this they generated public interest and support which, in turn, provided further encouragement for the government to look into their claims.

Throughout this whole process, MOPAWI’s involvement with the Tawahka often faced difficult challenges. Sometimes the Indians faced deep divisions within their community as a result of misunderstandings. Financial mismanagement of project funds at times made people lose their trust in their leaders. Outsiders sometimes accused MOPAWI of having its own economic interests, or of being politically motivated. These problems were overcome through prayer and patience. The important point was that the Tawahkas succeeded in getting their case before the government, avoiding any major direct confrontation with the cattle ranchers, farmers and lumber merchants.

Points to consider

MOPAWI’s experience may be helpful in raising some important considerations for other organisations working to help people solve politically sensitive environmental problems – even though their situations may be different…

  • Community concerns and action may clash with the economic and political interests of those responsible for causing the problem. The possible consequences of this should be carefully considered before any particular action is taken.
  • The community should recognise the problem as their own (not the development worker’s) and be fully responsible for any decision to take action to solve it.
  • To help a community make a decision, the development worker or agency should help them gather all possible information on the problem they face. They must allow them to choose whether or not to take action, and to decide how this might best be done.
  • If a development agency has decided to support a community in taking action, an overall strategy of involvement should be planned (see below), making sure that whatever is proposed lies within the organisation’s legal mandate.
  • Clear guidelines should be set for the development workers responsible for this task, indicating the extent and limits to which they should become involved with the community in their search for a solution.
  • Because of the ‘political’ nature of this type of involvement, the development agency and its staff need to develop a deep level of trust by the community and maintain clear and continuous communication with them.
  • The development agency should provide a supporting role rather than leading any action the community takes. This support should help to identify and provide channels through which the community can take action for itself.
  • Give emphasis to writing and publishing the facts about the problem. This helps to avoid the issue becoming confused with other political interests. Mapping the problem is often a good way in which this can be achieved. It also helps the community to come together and develop their understanding of their situation and explain it objectively to others (see Footsteps 17).

Phases of involvement

It may be helpful to identify the different phases in MOPAWI’s approach to working with the Tawahka Indians, as these may serve as guidelines for other groups…

Awareness-raising Community becomes aware of the problem they face, and are helped to identify its causes and implications.

Decision to act Having considered the problem and the challenges to be faced in seeking a solution, the community must take the responsibility to decide whether or not to act. It is they who will have to live with the consequences of the action taken.

Work with the facts Gather information and publish the facts of the problem. This reduces the opposition’s ability to influence public opinion with incorrect facts and opinions.

Support for the cause Winning public support is particularly important if the community is small and has little political influence. It will increase the chance of the community’s claims being attended to.

Andrew Leake worked with MOPAWI for four years. He is now studying for a PhD at the University of Hertfordshire on the subject of land use patterns among indigenous groups in Paraguay. His address is: 45 Walton St, St Albans, AL1 4DQ, UK.

Community action to protect the environment

by Beatrice Akoth

There are several steps which communities can take to protect their environment:

  1. Understand and identify the causes of all the changes which are taking place in the local environment – especially the more damaging ones.
  2. Design appropriate land use systems which will reduce or prevent further damage – for example: soil and water conservation measures, tree planting etc.
  3. Hold community meetings to encourage full support of the whole community in these measures. It may be necessary to set up local environmental protection regulations to ensure that people protect the entire environment.
  4. Encourage people to plan for the future. Do local farming systems ensure wise use of resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of present and future generations? 

In order to achieve these steps, all community members should be educated to consider the whole environment. People must realise each one of us has a vital contribution to make in this issue. Environmental protection activities need to start right in our homes and then extend to our communities. Together we may be able to avoid the disastrous consequences of environmental misuse such as drought, desertification, famine, disease and eventual death.

Beatrice Akoth is an environmentalist by profession. She trained in Makerere University, Kampala. Her address is: PO Box 7009, Kampala, Uganda.