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Honing Participatory Methods for Grassroots Conservation

by Amanda Foster, EcoLogic Intern and Master’s student at Brandeis in Sustainable International Development. Amanda has been working with EcoLogic for about three months, and is focused primarily on considering how to systematize participatory methods throughout EcoLogic’s work in the field in order to maximize active community involvement. 

Mic in hand, with about 30 sets of smiling Guatemalan eyes staring back at me, I asked forgiveness for my far-from-perfect Spanish skills; a cheap ploy to break the ice before the day’s activities. Chuckles and reassuring nods from the sympathetic crowd eased my nerves. Equipped with markers and a pile of post-it notes covering the complete color spectrum, I was thrilled to be facilitating a participatory workshop in Totonicapán as part of my internship with EcoLogic. Thankfully, my public speaking fear wouldn’t be an issue, as this kind of workshop was all about the voices of the participants, who were there to collaborate in a local analysis of environmental concerns facing the region.

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Amanda (second from right) facilitating a workshop in Totonicapán, Guatemala

As a graduate student in sustainable international development, I’ve been exploring participatory approaches, which aim to not only increase local involvement and decision-making in project planning, but also build local capacity and empower groups to initiate effective, lasting change. With this work in mind, I was drawn to EcoLogic for its commitment to community-based conservation and support for locally-led solutions to urgent environmental issues. During my graduate studies and previous professional experiences, I’ve found that despite stated goals of empowerment and grassroots participation in the development process, few organizations are actually following through with this commitment. At EcoLogic, though, these values are an integral part of the day-to-day work, which became clear for me during my internship at the regional office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

Much of my internship focused on this idea of participatory development, including revising a guidebook to participatory methods which was drafted by a previous intern, and considering how EcoLogic can operationalize these efforts that are already a key strategy to their work. To evaluate the ease of implementing tools prescribed in the guidebook, I worked with regional staff to field test a few activities with one of EcoLogic’s local partners, the Association of Communal Mayors of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán. We selected a few activities that would enable a process of local problem analysis and prioritization, as well as assess local actors and potential partners. Participants, who included indigenous community representatives and members of the 48 Cantons leadership council, all contributed to hands-on activities, in which they drew, wrote and discussed local threats and potential solutions for conserving the rich natural resources of the region.

A visual workshop

Local people participating in a workshop that visualizes threats in their community (Photo: Amanda Foster)

Being a part of this truly local, collaborative process confirmed my belief that rural and indigenous communities have tremendous knowledge and skills that are vital to solving critical environmental issues. My field experience with EcoLogic also reinforced that enabling meaningful grassroots participation in the development process is far from easy. There are countless obstacles to effective participation and institutional challenges to honoring local decision-making. In a field where organizations often pay lip service to participation but fail to genuinely respond to local priorities, EcoLogic’s steadfast promise of community engagement and commitment to overcoming these challenges is refreshing.

In the end, based off my research and practical experience, I was able to offer recommendations to EcoLogic to enhance the organization’s incorporation of participatory methods. As just an intern, this opportunity to advise and contribute to such an important organizational strategy was an honor, and I look forward to seeing how EcoLogic’s locally-driven model continues to evolve and support rural communities in conserving their environment.

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