By Zoe Cormier
Scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) have devised a new tool that could make it easier for village communities to plan future changes in how their landscape is used.
By placing a 3D map complete with familiar landmarks in the middle of a table and asking residents what they’d do as the developer, conservationist or village leader, it suddenly becomes much easier to incorporate local views. A role-playing tool, called ‘PLUP Fiction’ (PLUP stand for participatory land use planning), helps them see the long-term advantages of careful management and how they themselves will actually benefit, according to Jean-Christophe Castella, one of the researchers.
When villagers are left out of the process, he says, plans too often end up being abandoned and forgotten.
The method was initially tested out in 2011 in 28 villages in Laos that buffer the Nam Et-Phou Loey National Protected Area, one of the few remaining sanctuaries for tigers in the country. It’s since been picked up by ten different districts located in three northern provinces (Luang Prabang, Huaphan and Phonsaly) in the Southeast Asian nation and is being implemented in about 300 villages.
Castella says the results so far are very promising.
“In former styles of land-use planning meetings, local people would usually just sit at the back of the meeting room waiting for it to end,” says Castella, one of the authors of Toward a land zoning negotiation support platform: Tips and tricks for participatory land use planning in Laos, which appeared recently in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.
As result, villagers often ended up implementing plans that they did not understand and were doomed to fail.
Things changed with the introduction of the 3D maps, which are put together with the help of the residents.
When leaders from all the local villages are in the same room together, demarcating their borders, they are able to resolve territorial disputes and arrive at a group consensus, Castella says.
“If you were to measure the amount of noise during this process, before people were very quiet, nobody would interrupt, but now it’s a very lively process - many people are talking to each other and to the facilitators,” he explains.
LEARNING TO NEGOTIATE
One of the biggest barriers to villagers engaging with land-use planners in Laos and other parts of the globe has been low understanding of the socio-economic implications of the plans and low map literacy.
In Laos, a large diversity of languages is spoken in the highlands, making communication difficult even for those who can read. That, of course, complicates matters when policy makers visit from urban areas.
Moreover, traditional hierarchies of power – especially those that marginalise women – have prevented many people who actually use the land from inputting with authority into plans for its future use.
By involving villagers more directly, scenario exploration with the ‘PLUP Fiction’ tool and 3D maps combined not only ensures that land use plans will actually be adhered to. These meetings can also help train local people in negotiation skills so they are better equipped to discuss other future land use and resource management plans in their area.
“We want to engage them in a learning process so they can become good partners in future negotiations,” says Castella.
Monsay Laomouasong, the governor of Viengkham district in Luang Prabang Province, where the initial trials took place in 2011, appears pleased with the results so far.
“This approach puts the keys of development in the hands of local communities and avoids engaging them in endless assistance programs,” he says.
Castella, meanwhile, points to another big benefit.
He says this kind of tool will be important when projects tied to the U.N.-backed scheme, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), hit the ground in the coming years.
“REDD+ is basically all about participatory land use planning for low carbon emissions,” he says. “REDD+ projects can use this to really engage the local community in the local design of the projects, so they will actually be implemented as expected.”
This method was developed by the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute and its partners, the Center for International Forestry Research, the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement and the University of Queensland. Implementation was supported by the European Commission and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
Zoe Cormier is a freelance journalist and science writer who specialises in environmental reporting. This post first appeared on the CIFOR Forests News blog.