Overstory #133 - Giving Back: making research results relevant to local groups and conservation
A great deal of research is underway to assess and characterize biodiversity and associated resource management systems. This research yields information critical to the design of conservation programmes and national strategies for biodiversity conservation and furthers scientific understanding of threatened ecosystems. However, researchers and research institutions generally regard the scientific process as complete once an article is sent to press. The result is that most information and scientific understanding generated by researchers remains in the hands of scientists, academics and policy-makers geographically and conceptually distant from the region of study. Rarely are research programmes designed in a way that incorporates the resource management needs of local groups, nor are results put in a form that communities can employ when making resource management decisions. And yet, local groups are widely considered key stewards and stakeholders in biodiversity and forest conservation today.
In part, this situation results from the fact that the outlook and skills necessary to extend and disseminate results are not often found within the organizations that collect and analyse scientific data (Orr 1999). Education and extension groups in the industrialized North acquire scientific data and make valuable use of it in their outreach programmes, but these groups are traditionally small and underfunded in poorer and more biologically diverse regions of the world. For example, school children in the temperate North are taught that while tropical forests cover only 7% of the Earth's surface, they contain 50% of the world's species and are the lungs and medicine chest of the earth. This information is taught not only in schools, but is also displayed for Northern consumers on candy bar wrappers, shampoo bottles and in coffee table books. Villagers living within tropical forests, however, are not privy to such information. Most live unaware that leading world scientists predict the demise of the forests they call home - in only a few decades.
The result is that governments, conservation organizations, researchers and companies often promote or make land-use decisions without fully informing or involving the local populations most affected. At the same time, groups living in close proximity to forests or high biodiversity zones are often badly in need of scientific data that can assist them in negotiations with logging companies, the development of management plans for community forests, assessing the relative value of a given forest area for non-timber forest products versus agriculture, and so on. Increasingly drawn into national and global economies and politics, remote groups more than ever need information and tools to effectively participate, and negotiate their position, in this broadened context.
Traditionally considered distinct from science, education and extension can effectively be twinned with research through institutional or departmental collaborations. Many researchers will not have the skills or interest to translate and transmit their data to local groups; but if they are aware of the importance of this activity, they can forge alliances to ensure this results.1 Some researchers - as we will see in the case studies - integrate science and extension in their research design. The fields of education, development and rural agriculture extension have for decades worked to effectively transfer information to local groups - including through workshops, manuals, theatre and farmer-to-farmer exchanges - and there is much to be learned from these experiences (e.g., Chambers 1983; Kowal and Padilla 1998;http://www.oneworld.org/odi). Unfortunately, communication between most biodiversity researchers and these professionals has been limited.
This article addresses an often overlooked element of equitable research relationships and an invaluable form of benefit-sharing: returning data in forms relevant to local groups and applied conservation.
A Growing awareness of the need for 'giving back'
A new, more equitable approach to sharing- or 'giving back' - scientific results can be built into the scientific process, and there are increasing calls for this approach. For example, the International Society of Ethnobiology Code of Ethics (1998) incorporates the concept of a 'dynamic interactive cycle' for research in which projects should not be initiated unless all stages can be completed. This includes 'training and education as an integral part of the project, including practical application of results'. In an editorial for Conservation Biology, Colvin (1992) recommends a 'code of ethics for research in the third world' that suggests, among other points, that researchers 'help develop educational outreach programmes and interpretative centres that include... research results, reflect the knowledge and values of indigenous cultures, and can be used by both visitors and the local community'.
In India, the Honey Bee Network has worked to transform the paradigm of benefit-sharing to include professional accountability towards those whose knowledge and resources are studied. Researchers realized that their work was published mainly in English, and in ways that remained unavailable and not immediately useful to local groups. As part of their work, the Honey Bee Network shares scientific knowledge in local languages and pools both formal scientific and so-called 'informal' solutions to resource management problems developed by people around the world in order to share experiences across communities (Gupta 1995; 1999).
Why give back?
Most biodiversity researchers feel an affinity for the ecosystems and communities that they study or with whom they work. Indeed, most proposals for biodiversity research include in the project's objectives their service to these ecosystems and communities. But how do researchers generally propose to make this connection? This is accomplished, primarily, by building understanding and organization of the subjects and, secondly, by providing information that will influence policy-makers and the general public, and might also be adopted by applied conservation projects.
While these are important objectives, another significant way that research results can be magnified to serve communities and conservation is by taking the results and, effectively, returning them to the groups and communities in or around which they were generated. As described in the case studies, research designed and directed to serve local resource-management needs, and shared in ways that allow groups to make informed decisions about long-term resource use, often has surprisingly significant - albeit localized - effects. As we move through conservation fad after conservation trend, often with mixed results, concrete small steps in a positive direction seem an increasingly sufficient objective.
Not only is giving back research results to local stakeholders (rural and urban communities, governments, industries, conservation projects, etc) an important ethical responsibility that should be taken up by researchers, there are also practical reasons to do this that serve immediate scientific and conservation objectives, as well. Some reasons why a researcher should work to give back results in locally relevant forms include:
- Local stakeholders represent a critical set of actors who will determine if and how natural resources are used and protected. Generally far from enforcement agencies, these groups determine how and if policies are manifested on the ground, and the ways in which resources are managed.
- The knowledge of local populations is an invaluable perspective in examining data. Their specific commentary and critiques of research can serve as a local test of methods and results (Richter and Redford 1999). As Anil Gupta (pers comm 1999) said, it is common that when research results are handed back to local groups, they say something like: 'Oh, is that why you were asking that question... I didn't tell you the full story because I didn't know the full context for your inquiry - now that I know it, I will tell you something I did not tell you earlier.'
- By returning the results of research locally, the information can be immediately applied. Data fed into the scientific publication circuit can take years to emerge, and must compete for policy-makers' attention in an avalanche of published documents.
- Local groups often have key research questions that they want addressed and their livelihoods, and conservation of local resources and habitats, may depend upon concrete answers.
Forms of giving back
There are many ways in which researchers can 'translate' their data into forms that are immediately relevant to local groups and conservation. These include written sources (such as manuals, illustrated booklets, curricula, colouring books and technical books) as well as oral and in-person sources (such as interactive workshops, seminars, theatre, travelling shows, music and lectures). In part, the choice of medium will depend upon the objectives to be served, as well as the intended audience. Local audiences will vary, and will include rural and urban communities and organizations, companies (e.g. loggers, ranchers, commercial agriculture), governments and applied conservation and development projects. Materials should be dynamic and constantly revised in light of feedback and experiences (Pyke et al 1999).
For example, we see that communities are struggling with ways in which to determine the value of their forests in order to strike better deals with loggers and to assess whether a given area is more valuable to the community for its non-timber products (game, medicine, fruits) or for its timber rights. In one case, given the geographic distance across which communities are grappling with these issues, illustrated manuals (that make them accessible to the illiterate as well as literate), exchanges between groups and travelling theatres and workshops were found to most effectively capture the key scientific results, and allowed for broad dissemination.
In Belize, traditional healers asked researchers to help them produce a book for teaching children, and which might serve as a reference for, and validation of, threatened medicinal plant knowledge. The published book includes both local knowledge and clinical information gathered by researchers in the US through databases and literature. Other products include colouring books for children and a video used in local schools to teach the importance of traditional knowledge (Balick and Arvigo 1998).
The Jump with Whales programme in the eastern Caribbean tailors its materials in ways that create a sense of ownership and feeling of being 'at home' in young and old alike. Colouring books for children, curricula material for schools, and a BLOWS! Newsletter distributed free to schools have all helped to translate scientific data into forms that build wider awareness of marine mammal conservation, and a constituency 'to bring about changes in attitudes and values while instilling a sense of heritage for stewardship of the marine environment'.
Lessons learned in giving back scientific data
The case studies and other efforts to link dissemination of results with research have yielded some significant lessons and have flagged key issues that researchers might consider in the design of their research programmes. These include lessons associated with the ways in which data are translated and transmitted, as well as lessons connected to the broader research context in which giving back takes place.
Lessons learned include the following:
- Conduct locally relevant research, in response to locally articulated needs.
- Provide research results in a range of forms as you go through the data collection and analysis process.
- Present economic value and units of measurement appropriate for different audiences; to be most effective this may entail using non-monetary value systems and non-metric local measuring systems.
- Integrate traditional and scientific knowledge, usually highly complementary, when returning results.
- Understand how and why local groups use and manage resources in the ways that they do - this will help make your contribution accurate, relevant and useful.
- Provide information on the range of options available to groups, and not only those a researcher considers optimal - this will help to ensure that recommendations and information are adequately placed in the decision-making reality that local groups face.
- Catalyse the learning process with new, useful and challenging concepts -do not assume that local groups are aware of all possible outcomes and options.
- Be innovative and creative in coming up with ways to transmit your information and lessons to communities -for example, explore the use of posters and songs and interactive dialogue to relay what is customarily illustrated in scientific graphs and charts or technical language.
- Extend dissemination beyond the study area - neighbouring groups and communities often face many of the same challenges and information shortages; train local collaborators to extend results to neighbours.
- Encourage local stakeholders involved in generating information to give back the information, blending in their knowledge, experience and perspectives.
- Reflect local social, economic and cultural norms when giving back, and seek to make the audience feel at home with the information and the message.
Broader issues associated with giving back scientific data
Broader issues include the following:
- Researchers are often limited by the availability of funds. Education and extension are an additional cost that many feel they have neither the time nor money to afford. It is important, therefore, that funders not only respect this additional cost within a proposed budget, but - when possible - seek to promote giving back as a standard part of the research they fund, including in some cases assisting in linking research and extension institutions.
- Researchers tend to look upon information transfer as a 'lower' endeavour, and one not of immediate relevance to their work. Academic promotion systems do not generally reward the multidisciplinary, applied work that giving back entails, nor the manuals and other products that do not enter the peer review system. Professional societies might help to promote the concept of the 'dynamic interactive research cycle', as well as giving back results within research institutions and universities unaccustomed to considering this part of the research process.
- Researchers' and local groups' time frames are often markedly different. Local groups' livelihoods or resource-management decisions may require immediate access to information, while journal articles presenting scientific data may take months or years to emerge. Researchers should seek to share preliminary results within a reasonable time frame with local groups.
Forms of giving back data
There are many ways of translating data into valuable forms for local groups, and the method selected will depend upon both the groups and the objectives you seek to serve. Below are some ideas that might be considered.
Interactive workshops and seminars: for many industry groups, technicians, and government officials, this form of exchange will prove most useful; structured loosely, and involving field trips or site-based interaction, they can help to create dialogue and awareness.
Theatre and travelling shows: rural and urban groups alike often respond better to stories, enacted by fellow community members or visitors, which relay lessons learned in a more engaging format than a lecture or seminar. In the realm of theatre, people find it possible to relay information that they might normally find embarrassing to share. In some cases, travelling theatres and shows have proven invaluable for neighbouring communities and groups to share lessons they have learned with each other.
Exchanges: exchanges between groups with like needs and backgrounds but from differing geographical regions can be an extremely effective means of transferring information. When neighbouring stakeholders present information to each other in culturally appropriate forms, there are many benefits. Firstly, language, expressions and manner of communication are clearly understood. Secondly, trust is more readily built; information is better accepted from 'insiders' because they have no motivation to 'sell' ideas. Thirdly, individuals in one region may have personally experienced the positive or negative effects of particular land-use decisions, and are able to relate the consequences in a far more moving and convincing way than an outside extension agent.
Music: songs are a powerful method of cultural expression. New or familiar songs that integrate research findings into lyrics can convey not only relevant scientific facts but also embody the feelings of cultural loss surrounding ecosystem impoverishment. Music has the additional benefit of migrating from community to community on its own, thereby carrying messages across geographical distances.
Lectures: in some cases, presentation of scientific results in a fairly standard academic format will be appropriate and useful, particularly for local research institutions, universities and sometimes government departments. Even in these forums, however, it is important to occasionally integrate aspects of the presentation styles listed above. Standard format lectures are far less memorable than those eliciting audience participation.
Manuals and illustrated booklets: the content of manuals will vary greatly. Some may be illustrated guides to local uses and management of species, intended for largely illiterate audiences who are concerned about the loss of their cultural knowledge and seek in some way to record and validate this knowledge; others may take the form of field guides that local groups can sell to tourists or can use in managing resources; others may be hands-on technical manuals that help local groups better manage resources or negotiate with commercial and government representatives interested in local resources and lands. When seeking to reach semi-literate and illiterate populations, it is critical to test illustrated materials with local people; rural persons, in particular, exhibit acute perceptivity regarding the size and shape of fruits, leaves and wildlife, and have well-developed opinions on natural resource processing and management techniques.
Curricula: teachers in high-biodiversity developing countries often have limited access to materials that assist in teaching about the local environment, traditional use of resources and wider environmental concerns; researchers can provide an invaluable service by translating their results into forms that are easily adopted by teachers in the classroom.
Colouring books: children respond well to colouring books in their local language or vernacular; colouring books allow them to become engaged in the subject and are important education and learning tools.
Books: publication of books can help to disseminate information more widely that otherwise might not reach a broad cross-section of society; however, many groups cannot afford books, and researchers should be clear on who this form of dissemination can reach - generally academic and governmental, rather than the rural and urban poor.
Balick, M. and R. Arvigo. 1998. 'The new ethnobotany: sharing with those who shared'. Herbalgram No. 42.
Chambers, R. 1983. Rural Development: Putting the Last First. Longman, Harlow.
Colvin, J. 1992. "Editorial: a code of ethics for research in the Third World." Conservation Biology, vol 6, no 3, September, pp. 309-11.
Gupta, A.K. 1995. Accessing Biological Diversity and Associative Knowledge System: Can Ethics Influence Equity? IIMA Working Paper No 1340, November, Presented at the Global Biodiversity Forum, Jakarta, 4-5 November.
Gupta, A.K. et al. 1999. 'Blending universal with local ethic: accountability toward nature, perfect stranger and society'. In: C. Potvin, M. Kreanzel, and G. Seutin (eds), Protecting Biodiversity: Roles and Responsibilities. McGill-Queens University Press, Toronto.
International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE). 1998. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Research, Collections, Databases and Publications, ISE, Aotearoa/New Zealand, November.
Kowal, M. and E. Padilla. 1998. Collaborative Links between Research and Extension Organizations: Lessons from the CONSEFORH Project Experience in Farm Forestry with Intermediary Agencies. Rural Development Forestry Network Paper 24c, winter 1998-99, Overseas Development Agency, London.
Orr, D. 1999. "Education, careers, and callings: the practice of conservation biology." Conservation Biology, vol 13, no 6, December, pp. 1242-5.
Pyke, C.R. et al. 1999. 'Letter to the Editor: a plan for outreach – defining the scope of conservation education'. Conservation Biology, vol 13, no 6, December, pp. 1238-9.
Richter, B.D. and K.H. Redford. 1999. 'The art (and science) of brokering deals between conservation and use'. Conservation Biology, vol 13, no 6, December, pp. 1235-7.
This excerpt was reprinted with the kind permission of the authors and publisher from:
Shanley, P. and S.A. Laird. 2002. "'Giving Back': making research results relevant to local groups and conservation." In: S.A. Laird (ed), Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge: equitable partnerships in practice. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London.
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About the authors
Patricia Shanley has 18 years of experience in temperate and tropical research and educa-tion, specifically on non-timber forest products. During the past eight years she has worked with forest-based communities in the eastern Amazon, concentrating on the impacts of logging on locally valued non-timber fruit and medicinals and the compara-tive economic value of timber and non-timber species for rural communities. In an effort to return research results to forest-based communities, Patricia Shanley has coauthored two non-timber forest product (NTFP) manuals that focus on the use and marketing of significant non-timber forest products in eastern Amazonia: Forest Fruit Trees in the Life of Amazonians and Recipes without Words: Medicinal Plants of Amazonia, both published in Portuguese. Shanley is currently a research scientist at the Center for International Forestry (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia.
Sarah Laird is an independent consultant with a focus on the commercial and cultural context of biodiversity and forest conservation. She has conducted research and provided advice on access and benefit-sharing issues for a range of non-governmental organiza-tions (NGOs), governments, research institutes and community groups, most recently in Cameroon. Recent publications in this field include coauthorship of The Commercial Use of Biodiversity: Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit-Sharing (1999), Benefit -Sharing Case Studies from Cameroon (1998), Biodiversity Prospecting in South Africa: Towards the Development of Equitable Partnerships (1996) and Biodiversity Prospecting (1993). She received an MSc in Forestry from Oxford University.