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Incorporating Community Knowledge, Preferences, and Values into Decision Making in Natural Resources Management: an evaluation of selected participatory tools.


Timothy Lynam, University of Zimbabwe, Harare (Zimbabwe)

Wil de Jong, Kyoto University, Kyoto (Japan)

Douglas Sheil, CIFOR, Bogor (Indonesia)

Trikurnianti Kusumanto, CIFOR, Bogor (Indonesia)

Kirsten Evans, CIFOR, Bogor (Indonesia)


Background document providing these lessons learned:

Lynam, T,: de Jong, W.; Sheil, D.; Kusumanto, T.; Evans, K., 2007, A Review of Tools for Incorporating Community Knowledge, Preferences, and Values into Decision Making in Natural Resources Management, Ecology and Society, Vol 12 No. 1.


Applied Participatory Approaches:



The importance and necessity of including community perspectives in natural resource management has encouraged the development of a range of approaches and methodologies (Arrow 1951, Campbell and Luckert 2002, Chambers 1992, Nazarea et al. 1999, Nemarundwe and Richards 2002, Pavlikakis and Tsihrintzi 2003). The development of participatory tools is an important contribution to this trend. This paper provides a review of a selection of participatory tools in the analysis, synthesis, and decision making related to natural resource management and policy. Drawing from our experience working with participatory tools to improve local involvement, we identify the positive and negative aspects of these tools, i.e., methods and approaches, and their effectiveness in different contexts.

There are various competing requirements that practitioners demand of participatory tools, such as standardization vs. flexibility or the often conflicting goals of knowledge or data extraction vs. empowerment. As a result, practitioners often struggle to find the most appropriate methods to suit their objectives. There has been no synthesis of experience to guide potential users as to the strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities of these tools despite their widespread use. This absence is important in the context of natural resource management and governance, in which practitioners have seldom had experience with more than one or two approaches. Such guidance can, we believe, simplify and improve the selection and application of the available approaches leading to improved natural resource management. Our primary goal is to provide guidance for field practitioners as to which methods suit which tasks and contexts. We focus on several tools that we know from our own experience and which we consider relevant and useful.

Overview of the tools

The aim of this overview is to provide potential users with a brief description of what each tool does, what it does not do, and how it is applied.

Bayesian belief networks and system dynamic modeling tools.  Bayesian belief networks (BBNs) and system dynamic modeling tools (Cain 2001, Sayer and Campbell 2004) are modeling tools, generally computer software packages, that facilitate the development of formal representations of a problem or question. Most often these are cast in numerical terms, but BBNs may also deal with qualitative variables. The great advantage of modeling is that it compels users to clearly articulate variables and the relationships among variables. Models can be used in group situations that build on the participants’ perceptions, or a modeler can construct them from other representations. Modeling tools are not generally good at capturing all the nuances and subtleties in a set of relationships; their usefulness is in representing the essential elements of a problem or issue.

Discourse-based valuation. Discourse-based valuation (Wilson and Howarth 2002) is a method for groups to develop agreed-upon values or orderings for multiple entities. The participants create an agreed-upon preference ordering of entities or concepts. Depending on the metric being used, this ordering can use continuous, discrete, or nominal scales. The process does not develop relationships among variables or value entities. The tool must be applied in a group situation in which the participants perform the valuation. These methods require careful facilitation to prevent the domination of the final values by specific interest groups or individuals.

The 4Rs framework. The 4Rs framework (Dubois 1998) assesses stakeholders’ roles and resilience in forest management. This method analyzes the balance/imbalance of the stakeholders’ four “Rs”: respective rights, responsibilities, returns, and relationships. The tool can be used either by outsiders to organize systematically the 4Rs information or in group settings in which stakeholders identify their roles in forest management and then analyze any imbalance between the four Rs. When used in group settings, the four Rs serve as a facilitation tool to help different stakeholders negotiate their respective roles in forest management. The tool does not reveal causal relationships among entities.

Participatory mappingParticipatory mapping (Lynam 1999, 2001, Mascarenhas 1991, Sheil et al. 2002, 2007) is an individual or group method for developing representations of spatial relationships among real-world structures or objects. Participants use pen and paper to develop sketches or drawings or develop three-dimensional representations to capture the perceptions of the spatial relationships of a group or an individual. Unless scaled maps are first used as a preliminary base, it can be a challenge to generate scaled maps in which the scale relates to true distances on the ground. It is also sometimes difficult to identify which factors, e.g., size, distance, or some other attribute, are contributing to the scaling or weighting that occurs. However, this exercise can be a useful introduction to exploring the processes underpinning the emergent maps. In some situations, using existing geo-referenced information as a starting point can be very useful but also requires careful checking to establish the degree of accuracy.

The Pebble Distribution Method. The Pebble Distribution Method or PDM (Colfer et al. 1999a, Sheil et al. 2002, 2003) is a flexible, simple diagnostic scoring procedure that clarifies both the understandings and the priorities of the participants. A preliminary discussion with the target group defines which aspects will be scored and the criteria for scoring to ensure a clear understanding among the participants. The facilitator then introduces a series of cards with a label and usually a picture symbolizing the aspects to be scored. The facilitator demonstrates how the counters should be distributed on the cards according to the quantitative relationships or values of the group. The participants then distribute counters onto the cards. The scoring is not the end point: the respondents are always asked to explain the final scores. There are innumerable possible applications of this tool. Evaluations applied in the Multidisciplinary Landscape Assessment of the Center for International Forestry Research (see Sheil et al. 2002, 2003) included examining the relative importance of different types of landscape elements vs. types of use, e.g., food, medicinal products, etc. A hierarchical adaptation of the procedure was successfully used to identify and weigh the relative importance of the most important wild species. Some forms of quantitative analyses of the scoring results are also possible (Sheil and Liswanti 2007).

Future scenarios. Future scenarios methods help people learn about the future and anticipate the unexpected, particularly in conditions of uncertainty and complexity. The key steps of scenarios involve developing likely trajectories of how important aspects of life may evolve over time or interact in the future. Future scenarios methods can also develop desired futures and the pathways needed to reach them, or the method can be adapted to indicate predicted pathways and identify key points at which these pathways can or should be influenced. Wollenberg et al. (2000) used four different scenarios methods in community work, each for a different purpose: vision scenarios serve to elicit people’s hopes and aspirations, projection scenarios identify the consequences of the current situation projected into the future, pathway scenarios illustrate routes of evolving scenarios and design for strategies for change, and alternative scenarios show a range of possible alternatives of the future and help to deal with uncertainty.

Spidergrams. Spidergrams (Lynam 1999, 2001) provide a representation of the components, attributes, or dimensions of the answer to a clearly articulated question. The tool explores these factors in increasing detail based on the relative contribution of each component to the answer. Spidergrams can be generated in either group or individual settings and yield results as weighted figures or tables. They are typically used as part of a discourse-based valuation process so that the weights associated with each component are group-defined values. Spidergrams are not good at representing dynamic relationships or feedbacks.

Venn diagrams. Venn diagrams represent social relationships among stakeholders and, where desired, power differences between them. They are an easy-to-use visual tool that helps participants explore social relationships between stakeholders. The tool itself does not reveal causal relationships among entities, but it can be used to encourage participants to explore and analyze causal links. Venn diagrams can be combined with a focused discussion among group participants.

Who Counts Matrices. Who Counts Matrices (Colfer 1995) identify stakeholders whose well-being is closely linked to forest management and could be adapted for other contexts. The tool suggests seven dimensions for assessing this link and provides a simple scoring technique for determining which stakeholders should be given priority in forest management in a particular locale. These seven dimensions are: (1) proximity to the forest, (2) pre-existing rights, (3) dependency on the forest, (4) poverty, (5) local knowledge, (6) forest/culture integration, and (7) power deficits. The matrix is often less useful for academic purposes, which would require a more specific definition of terms, including indicators for assessing dimensions.


Key lessons from the field

Participatory tools are rarely used alone; they are typically part of a series of methods and procedures. Very often it is the combination of methods and the robustness of the research and implementation design that determines if the tool is useful and ultimately effective. Although the process and context of implementation are critically important, we are able to provide a set of general guidelines to enable potential users to identify which tools may be best suited for their purposes. Most have a range of uses and applications. Some, such as spidergrams or Pebble Distribution Method can be used for many purposes; others such as participatory mapping are relatively narrow in their use. The criteria highlighted below are a first step in simplifying the process of tool selection.
The nature of the process in which the tools are embedded plays a critical role in success and failure. This is probably more significant in the context of natural resource decision making with local communities than in many other fields of enquiry. Most of the tools presented in this paper can be used either to extract information or for participatory co-management. Although some tools may be more suitable for one application than another, the reality is that each tool could be used anywhere across the continuum. The investigator must identify which level of engagement is required to achieve his or her given objectives. The tools can then be adapted to achieve specific goals.

Cross-checking procedures are important. Clarifying surprising or contradictory results can highlight significant failures of assumptions or indeed provide valuable new insights. One cross-checking method involves implementing different approaches to elicit the same information, a process called triangulation. Another cross-checking solution would be to make sure that the membership of a focus group reflects the distribution of people or classes within the community. Yet another possibility is to start with coarse-level information and then iterate to finer and more precise information. The purpose and context will define the degree to which cross-checking is necessary. For example, a practitioner who has not yet developed trust with a community will have to implement a careful triangulation strategy, consulting widely with the community to determine if everything is as it seems, whereas a practitioner with long-standing relationships with co-management partners and a significant level of trust will have more reliable results, is more likely to spot a problem when it arises, and may find additional methods unnecessary.

The tools evaluated here are all flexible and can be applied adaptively to co-learning or co-management approaches. However, the flexibility inherent in several of the tools reviewed here is a double-edged sword; on the one hand it increases the utility of the tool, but, on the other, it means that careless, uncritical, or ambiguous use may yield ambiguous results. The flexibility of the tools is often an asset in precisely those situations in which the key issues are not yet clear or important questions have not been defined. In these contexts, it is recommended to start with creative and open tools such as future scenarios, Venn diagrams, participatory mapping, or spidergrams and then move steadily to the more focused methods such as discourse-based valuation or modeling. We also suggest shifting between creative and analytical tools to ensure that the results are not constrained by the tools or the issue currently in focus.

Uncertainty about the future is a key problem in decision making and research, and there are several participatory tools that can be used to explore the major sources of uncertainty as well as to quantify uncertainty by placing probability distributions on states or outcomes. Future scenarios explore uncertainty by stimulating creative thinking about the future and possible outcomes. Bayesian belief networks are also effective futuring tools, but require considerable specialist knowledge to use. Lynam (2001) has developed and used another method called “possibility diagrams,” not included in this review, that enables local communities to express quantitatively their uncertainty about outcomes or relationships.

Participatory tools are often used to facilitate co-learning with a small group of participants. However, changing the views of a segment of a community can create new problems if the information and experience are not shared more widely. Communicating not only conclusions, but an understanding of where the conclusions come from, is important, but is a challenge. We have used theatre, videos, meetings, pamphlets, and posters to communicate results back to communities and other stakeholders. Where possible, a communication and dissemination strategy should be planned from the outset.

Different forms of engagement are appropriate in different circumstances. We might erroneously assume that more participation is always better and that co-management is preferable to co-learning, which is in turn superior to extractive and diagnostic approaches. However, this is not necessarily true in a project context. We know that it is difficult to involve every stakeholder in every decision, because neither time nor resources will allow it. The practitioner needs to judge the strategies that can best enhance recognition of local people’s stake in natural resource management.

Many of the tools discussed here, but particularly the computer-based modeling tools have the potential to become ends unto themselves, with the researchers focusing almost exclusively on development of the tool. This is a trap that needs to be avoided. The reason why a tool is being used needs to be clearly articulated in terms of a goal or end point that can be reached. The use of the tool after this end point must be justified, and the revised goal and new end point must be clearly stated.



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