CIFOR’s Carol J. Pierce Colfer, co-author of the new book Collaborative Governance of Tropical Landscapes, shares the story of how her research team responded when a Lao village participating in targeted research was relocated.
Riding along a rural highway in the beautiful mountains of northeastern Lao PDR in February of 2007, I admired the view and delightedly imagined the next few years as we began our project in the country. We anticipated fruitful partnerships with Lao colleagues, district officials, and villagers, trying to figure out how to collaboratively manage this dramatic landscape to benefit both the people and their environment.
Our (perhaps overly ambitious) plan was to work collaboratively with local people, local and national governments, and researchers from a variety of institutions, using Participatory Action Research (PAR). PAR ideally involves a facilitator conducting research with local stakeholders to identify goals, make and carry out shared plans, and monitor and adjust actions to make progress toward those goals.
Under our PAR approach, we expected to learn about each local context and to figure out what the various stakeholders wanted, needed, and knew. From there, we hoped to strengthen local people’s analytical, leadership, and conflict management skills. Eventually, we aimed to facilitate agreements that would address the many land use problems more fairly and link local people to broader resources (knowledge, funds, and programs).
In the course of all this work, the Lao Government made the decision to resettle one of the communities where our team was working: the Hmong community of Phadeng. The Government’s official goals were to reduce swidden agriculture as a strategy to reduce deforestation, to protect the nearby Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, and to improve villagers’ access to services like health and education. But it stopped us in our tracks.
Part of our research design involved the selection of three villages along a continuum of remoteness – Phadeng had been selected as our remote site. We suffered a fair amount of soul-searching when we learned about this plan: Should we pull out and choose another place, given our fears about the semi-loss of our remote site? Or should we do the best we could to make the relocation process itself more equitable, more participatory?
At last, we opted to stay. We faced many challenges on how to proceed. We were aware of the significant literature on the impacts of village relocation and the negative consequences of supporting such a process. Yet, what legitimacy did we have to intervene in the process? And what reasonably could we hope to achieve? From the perspective of the district government, the decision to relocate the village was not subject to discussion.
Participatory Action Research, by definition, focuses on developing sustainable solutions to problems. For this project, our research centered on developing sustainable landscape management, and this proved an invaluable tool for the relocation process. By developing scenarios of relocation with the people of Phadeng, including alternative sites for relocation, we were able to evaluate the possible impacts, positive and negative, of each relocation site. The villagers were able to communicate these results to the district government, and from there, to negotiate relocating to an intermediate site that met both the government’s policies and the concerns of the villagers. After this, villagers and district authorities were able to negotiate preliminary land use and development plans through a workshop.
It was an imperfect solution – a response to an immediate problem. The long-term consequences of our involvement are yet to be measured.
Nonetheless, the relocation issue did reveal several things about our PAR approach. The tools and methods that we used – such as participatory mapping, eliciting and talking through possible scenarios, creating 3-D maps, and arranging multi-stakeholder negotiations – were valuable when addressing a government process that permitted some space for participation. Notably, however, our legitimacy as intermediary was restricted to the immediate relocation process and to initiating the land use planning process.
When we decided to keep working with the people of Phadeng, we imagined – and, to some extent, these imaginings were justified – that our continued involvement could do two things. As with our other research sites, we expected to be able to strengthen the voices of local people in governmental decision-making, by working with them on skills such as analysis of their own system, planning, conflict management, negotiation, and networking (using an approach called adaptive collaborative management). We also hoped to convince government officials at various levels of the value of including such people (including women and the Hmong, both typically marginalized) more substantively in policymaking that affected them.
Our initial project idea of comparing villages along a remote to accessible continuum was compromised in this case. Yet this experience reflects the ubiquity of ‘surprise’ in efforts to conduct research or facilitate change in complex human and natural environments. Our response was to adapt our own project management to these twists. The result, though not precisely as anticipated, was to strengthen desperately needed local skills (both governmental and civic), to share important lessons among stakeholders, and hopefully to more effectively manage problematic processes like resettlement and land use planning.
Colfer and her co-author Jean-Laurent Pfund describe more of this process and other findings from Lao PDR in Chapter 4 of Collaborative Governance of Tropical Landscapes, which compares the Lao experience with that of a displacement area in another of our study countries, Tanzania (Watts et al., 2011). The book conveys the experience of researchers, government officials, and local residents as they strive for better governance and more sustainable, people-centered development of tropical landscapes in five countries.