“If you really want to help communities solve problems, you have to start with what they say about the problem,” adds Anne Larson, who leads CIFOR-ICRAF’s team on governance, equity and well-being. “As a scientist, you may come in with technology or seeds, but you really need to listen to people.”
That means taking the time to build relationships, getting to know the community and its members and developing trust. “Until you gain that trust,” she says, “your engagement with the community is going to be superficial.”
Spending time in the community and listening to people, especially women, also helps researchers understand power dynamics within the community and between communities and government officials or other authorities. “Problems often don’t originate in the community,” Larson says. “They often start elsewhere, so to address them, you may need to work at multiple levels.”
Working with women to improve land or forest management might hit roadblocks, for example, if women do not have the right to own land, says Larson, whose work focuses particularly on forest and landscape management and property rights, especially for women and Indigenous Peoples.
Listening to women in countries like Nicaragua, Peru and Ethiopia has taught Larson that women face both obstacles and opportunities.
“They have one layer of obstacles and opportunities in the household, with their spouse,” Larson says. “There’s another level in the village – do they have voice or vote in community decisions?”
Local and national governments also have an impact on women’s lives and rights, “and every step of the way, women face obstacles that men don’t because men have more power,” she says. “Some of the most exciting work is thinking about how those levels interact.”
Larson has studied those interactions in programmes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+). She also has studied processes in which local communities, government officials and others come together to discuss and make decisions about land and forest management in a particular landscape.
A study of such multistakeholder forums in Brazil, Peru, Ethiopia and Indonesia found that these efforts must go beyond simply bringing people to the table and must address power inequalities if they are to be effective.
Even if women have decision-making roles in their households or villages, “the higher up you go in political power structures, in most of the places where we’ve worked, the fewer and fewer women there are,” says CIFOR-ICRAF senior associate Carol Colfer.
She and her colleagues developed a method called Adaptive Collaborative Management, which has proven particularly effective for involving women community members in all stages of decision making about forest management.
“In this process, people first talk about their long-term goals,” she says. “They come up with things they agree on for their community, then figure out steps they need to take. They plan it, do it and monitor what happens. If problems arise, you can change pathways and find a new way forward. In that process, you learn a lot about the local situation – and so do the villagers.”
The process also gives people self-confidence, she says, adding. “If you get people’s self-confidence up, they have the courage to try new things, and that’s really powerful.”
In rural areas where she and her colleagues have worked, “we found that women became much more willing to express themselves, much-more able to analyse their own situations and the power dynamics in their area, much better at conflict resolution,” Colfer says. “Those things are enduring – you don’t lose the skills you gain.”