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Reversing roles


By Sharmila Chandra
Published: Thursday 15 January 1998

Locals know their environment< (Credit: WHO)the nineties have heralded, though a trifle grudgingly, the participatory approach for grassroots development wherein the focus is shifting from 'granting' empowerment to merely facilitating local communities achieve it through the skills and knowledge they already possess. Neera Mukherjee's book, her third in the series on studies in rural participation, documents the methodology to leverage the local communities which are vast repositories of first-hand knowledge of natural resources and have stake in their conservation and preservation. As the author points out, local communities are most proximate to natural resources such as forests, rivers, trees, fauna, watershed, and land in terms of location, usage, and relationship and hence are better equipped and experienced to preserve them.

The book is different from the earlier two studies. It enunciates a totally field-based methodology of soliciting community involvement where the development professionals and experts are students and the community teaches them from its vast reservoir of experience and traditional wisdom in using natural resources. This is a marked change from the earlier practice of dictating terms from the top by intervening agencies and professionals or merely consulting with a few community leaders under the garb of participation. Neera Mukherjee has convincingly argued that "we may feel threatened that our conventional professional domain may be surged with community knowledge and capabilities. It also means sharing of our official powers and privilege with those whom we have always treated as objects of development. Yet, it is important that we listen and learn from local people about their wealth of information, realise our professional lacunae, and enable local communities to get involved in enriching natural resources."

The book begins with the mundane description of methodology of participatory appraisal, the logic behind it, and other related salient issues. It probes the special relationship of local communities with natural resources and dwells on the various participatory methods of learning from them. There are four field case studies exploring different facets of this relationship. The first case study delves into the problems of poverty and food insecurity of local people in Arjuni Mouza of Midnapur in West Bengal. The second is a lucid example of how learning about conflict situation in natural resource management can help resolve such conflicts. It studies the people-sanctuary conflict in Kushiara village in Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh.

The third case study brings to light an outstanding example of how the villagers of Khanpur in Anwar, Rajasthan, ably managed community forest without outside intervention. The last case study illustrates how benefits get diluted if gender issues are ignored. It has been discussed how the social forestry experiments in Avale village in Thane, Maharashtra could not reap benefits for the community as the plan did not encompass women's aspirations and participation.

Though this book is meant for researchers, development workers, environmentalists, social activists, forestry professionals, policy makers, donors, and lobbyists the freshness of its approach would make it appealing to anybody sympathetic to the cause of development.

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