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2. Participatory communication and learning for natural resource management in agriculture (NRMA)

Maria Celeste H. Cadiz

This chapter is based on experiences developed in Cambodia and is intended to enable you to:

1. Discuss the perspective of participatory communication in NRMA;

2. Explain the role of experiential learning in participatory NRMA;

3. List some important qualities of an effective facilitator for participatory NRMA;

4. Describe the environment that would be conducive for participatory communication and experiential learning; and

5. List some challenges to participatory communication and experiential learning and describe how to address them.


Research and experience in agricultural development has shown that long-lasting changes to improve farm families' wellbeing does not come with just simple communication undertakings.

People change their practices when they see a need and have the means to do so. While information and communication address people's lack of or wrong knowledge, communication is not a simple task of giving people some information that we presume they don't yet have.

Beyond the communication materials and messages/information used, communication by itself is a key process of bringing people together to cooperate towards addressing the problem of degradation of the environment and natural resources on which people's livelihoods and survival rely. For example, villagers in Kra Chap in Kampong Chnnang, Cambodia observed in 2003 the dwindling fish resources in the Tonle Sap Lake.

Participatory communication in NRMA is not just a set of techniques or procedures to make people change their knowledge, attitudes, and practices. Rather, it is a firm belief that people should voluntarily engage in activities in NRMA as part of a process of gaining critical understanding of why they are doing so. If people understand why and voluntarily change their practices and activities, such changes are likely to be more long lasting. They may also initiate action that brings about social change beyond individual behavior change. In social change, people work together in agreement to make some changes happen at the community or societal level.

For example, beyond merely complying with fishery laws, they might get organized and set up guidelines by which members or sectors in a village take turns in carrying out rehabilitation of degraded lake and flooded forest resources.

The beliefs and assumptions of participatory communication in NRMA shape how extension workers of government agencies like the MAFF and MoE carry out community-based work with the people.


First, they are dealing with adult learners, who are the decision-makers and actors shaping the sorry state of natural resources in Cambodia.

Adult learners are also the ones who can make it possible to rehabilitate, conserve, and judiciously use lake, forest, and soil resources. In working with adult learners, change agents ought to consider several principles and conditions in adult learning (Pine and Horn, 1976 as cited by Ortigas, 1990):

1. Adults have wide experience. It is better to ask them first about their experience rather than teach them as if they know nothing. They can then learn new ways of thinking and doing things starting from what they have experienced.

2. Adults learn best as a result of experience. They do not readily accept what change agents tell them because they often think they know better as a result of their own experience.

As stated in no. 1, it is better to first acknowledge adult learners' experience and based on their experience, introduce relevant ideas or practices.

3. Adults are interested and learn quickly about those things that are relevant in their lives. As long as they can relate new ideas and practices with their own needs and interest, adults will be willing and ready to learn.

4. As adults grow older, their memories grow weaker but their powers of observation and reasoning grow stronger. Because of this, we need to repeat our messages to adult learners in different ways to make sure that they remember the important points, without sounding too repetitive in an annoying way.

Change agents often need to devise ways of helping adults remember, like using a catchy name or acronym for a series of ideas or steps in a practice.

5. Each learner has his own unique way of learning. Whether adults or children, learners are different from one another in the way they learn. Some learn faster, others, more slowly. Some can learn many things at the same time, others need to concentrate on one thing at a time. Some learn better with the help of others, others learn better just by themselves.

6. Adult learners enjoy working together with other learners (although they also like to work alone). Because of their wide experiences, adults like to learn with other adults and listen to others' experiences as well as share their own. However, they can also work independently of others because they like to make their own decisions at times.

7. Adults have a sense of personal dignity. It is thus always important to treat adult learners with respect, like colleagues rather than like subordinates or as "students". After all, they have their own wide experiences relevant to their own realities, from which change agents can also learn.

8. Learning is a painful process. Because learning means changing one's ways of thinking or of doing things, it can mean giving up thoughts or ways we have become comfortable with. Changing them means bearing some discomfort in the process.

9. Learning is an evolutionary process. It often doesn't happen overnight or quickly enough to make us see the change. Sometimes, changes in a person are happening internally first before we can see changes in their actions. Hence, when we do not see visible changes in a person's behavior, it may not necessarily follow that there is no change happening in his outlook or way of thinking.

10. Adults learn best:


Because change agents deal with adult learners in NRMA, they ought to apply the experiential learning approach.

This approach acknowledges the wide experiences of adult learners and how such experience is important to them when they learn new ways of thinking and doing things.

Likewise, experiential learning is the appropriate approach to use in participatory NRMA, which respects and values learner-driven or people-driven initiatives in NRMA.

To make learning NRMA participatory, change agents may be guided by the experiential learning approach which proceeds as follows:




1. Start with NRMA experience or exercise

Ask fishers in small groups to chart their fish catch during open and closed seasons yearly in the last five years

Clear and complete instructions on procedures of the exercise, e.g., indicate no. of fish caught; kinds and sizes of fish caught

2. Let them discuss the NRMA experience/ exercise

Ask the small groups to share their charts with each other and reflect on their experiences in elaborating on the charts drawn up

Guide question: What happened?

3. Let them draw out lessons from the NRMA experience/ exercise

Ask the group to reflect on and discuss the reasons/factors explaining the patterns of fish catch shown in the charts drawn

Guide question: Why/ how did it/ they happen?

4. Let them summarize the lessons learned

The facilitator lists in large manila paper in front of the group the important lessons drawn from the discussion as validated by group members

Guide question: What lessons do we learn from the exercise?

5. Let them plan how to apply the NRMA lessons in real life

In response to the lessons raised, ask the participants to draw up an action plan they wish to carry out.

Guide question: What should we do? What are our capabilities and resources to do so?

Carrying out experiential learning requires that change agents assume a different role from that of the usual role of teachers and experts who serve as NRMA authorities. Instead of asserting their authority on NRMA, they should serve as facilitators of the learning and communication process.

A facilitator listens well and learns with fishers and farmers who are adult learners in NRMA, rather than tells them what to do based only on his/her expert knowledge.

NRMA facilitators recognize that their expert knowledge is incomplete if not integrated with the realities and experience of fishers and farmers whose livelihoods depend on the natural resources.


In her extensive review of related research and literature on desired qualities of facilitators and change agents, Cadiz (1994) noted six desired qualities of facilitators. These qualities are relevant for facilitators in participatory NRMA:

1. Social/interpersonal communication skills. These include qualities like trust, sensitivity to feelings, propriety and values of the people, commitment to people's well being and development, sufficient self-confidence to accept ambiguity and vulnerability, humility, respect, patience, skills for encouraging those who defer and keep quiet to speak out, empathy, flexibility of attitude enabling her to adjust to pace at which people's participation can proceed with success, willingness to be honest, genuine humor; enthusiasm, alertness, credibility, and sufficient rapport with people

2. Group processing skills. These include managing meetings and problem-solving activities, eliciting information, and organizing and planning skills

3. Knowledge of scientific principles and techniques. Because natural resource management and agriculture apply principles of biological and technical sciences, NRMA facilitators need to have a clear understanding of science and the scientific method.

4. Teaching skills. NRMA facilitators should understand how people learn, especially how adult learners learn. They must understand the requirements of critical thinking in order to be able to facilitate such critical thinking among NRMA users.

5. Technical skills. "These are "how-to's" in NRMA. As the saying goes, "the blind cannot lead the blind." Facilitators of experiential learning in NRMA thus need to possess the relevant NRMA knowhow, experiences, and skills in order to provide the proper guidance to fishers and farmers in NRMA.

As facilitators, however, they may tap other experts and resource persons where their technical expertise falls short in order to learn together with NRMA learning participants.

6. Clear vision of development and its issues. The NRMA facilitator should not just be well-versed in NRMA; s/he should understand the process of social change and have a clear view of the kind of development the country should strive for.

Principles of people-centerdness, participation, self-determination and empowerment; holistic and balanced development in the economic, social, cultural, and political aspects; sustainability; positive universal values; and respect for unique potentials and resources of each community should guide this development vision.


Based on Cadiz' (1994) review of literature, the roles a facilitator plays in participatory development may be outlined as follows:

1. A coach in team-building. The facilitator is less of a teacher and more of a guide who sees to it that members of a group of learners are able to work and learn together. S/he sees to it that working and friendly relations among the members of a group are all right.

2. Creates a learning climate. The facilitator arranges the setting and learning environment to make sure that it is conducive for learning. This is discussed in a latter part of this chapter. In addition, s/he makes sure that the overall emotional atmosphere of the learning session is pleasant and friendly rather than threatening and pressure-driven.

This is to encourage creativity, openness, and critical thinking among learners. This is especially important where the learners are villagers whose educational attainment may have been limited because of their poverty, and their situation limits their self-confidence to speak up in groups or with extension workers.

3. Asks questions, does not present solutions. The facilitator challenges learners to take control of the learning process and discover answers to problems and questions by themselves. His/her role is to ask questions, allowing learners to draw answers to challenges they face from their own experiences and insights. S/he does not shortcut the critical thinking process that experiential learners need to go through; hence s/he refrains from immediately presenting and prescribing solutions coming from experts.

This is because s/he assumes the learners to have just the same capacity as, if not better capacity than experts to come up with bright ideas relevant to their own needs and realities.

4. Encourages a process of search for causes and solutions. The facilitator places emphasis on the process of learning, making sure that villagers understand fully why they choose a certain option over another in. As mentioned above, s/he encourages learners to think critically and even test options by experimentation.

For example, season-long Farmer Field Schools (FFS) incorporate farmers' experiments comparing use and non-use of pesticide in separate plots of rice crops. This allows farmers to observe the results of using or not using pesticides on the rice plants.

5. Assists the group to discover as much as possible for themselves. The difference between the traditional extension worker and the facilitator is that the latter takes care not to encourage too much dependence from their client farmers and fishers. Instead, s/he encourages farmers and fishers to seek solutions to problems by themselves, showing them where they may access additional information that will be useful in their search.

6. Provides access to theory or scientific knowledge. To assist learners whose experience and understanding may be limited by their limited education and exposure, a facilitator does not refrain from inviting experts or finding and providing reference materials that will expand the scope of options that can help improve the situation of the learners.

For example, technical solutions to conserve soil resources may be available from the Department of Agronomy and Land Improvement or research centres that farmers may not be aware of. The Department may already have extension publications explaining these soil conservation practices that are based on research in rural areas. Unlike the traditional extension worker, however, the facilitator does not openly advocate for a certain technical solution.

Instead, s/he gives farmers and fishers the full responsibility to decide on which solution to adopt, making sure they fully understand the consequences of their decision. This is where bringing in technical experts and reference materials that can explain such consequences is crucial.

7. Helps learners in planning action. In participatory NRMA, it should be the users who plan action in solving a problem or addressing an NRMA issue or need. The facilitator's role is to guide NRMA users in the step-by-step planning process as part of empowering them.

These steps in planning include a) situation analysis; b) goal and objective setting; c) strategy and activity planning; d) monitoring and evaluation planning; e) budgeting; f) assignment of tasks; and g) scheduling.

8. Disseminates results to wider audience. The facilitator should also see to it that the results of the village learners' critical thinking and experimentation can benefit the wider community by sharing these with them. Informing the wider community about the learner group's action plans may also generate support and cooperation from them.


Facilitation experts from Africa listed the first three considerations as important in the participatory or experiential learning environment (Hope and Timmel, 1984):

1. The use of manila paper. Manila paper (large white sheets in Cambodia; brown recycled paper in the Philippines) can be used as a cheap substitute to the chalk or white board. An advantage over the chalkboard or white board is that these large sheets of paper are highly useful as documentation aids capturing notes of a group's discussion and members' presentations.

2. Seating arrangement. As much as possible, seating arrangement in a room should allow as much face-to-face interaction and eye contact among group members as possible. Circular arrangements are preferred over classroom-type of seat rows facing the front of a room.

3. Size of the learning group. Different group sizes are appropriate depending on the nature and goals of a specific learning activity. As a general rule, large groups limit the participation of individual learners. To enhance learner participation, big groups can be divided into smaller subgroups. The smaller a group, the greater is each member's chance of involvement in the learning process.

Pairs and groups of three allow intimate sharing and high learner involvement in a learning task. However, a variety of ideas allowing creative work is possible with four, five, or six members. As the group gets bigger, the group will require procedures and systems to make learner inputs orderly. A discussion moderator and a separate documenter/recorder will need to be designated, especially as the group members increase to 10-12.

Large groups of 30 working at a task bring about a sense of community. However, subgroups or subcommittees need to be organized to break up the tasks and ensure orderly participation of each member. Groups of 300 and more allow decision-making on policies affecting the whole community.

4. Supportive and encouraging atmosphere. Finally, the facilitator should set a pleasant, positive learning climate that encourages learners to be open, to participate, and to test their ideas. To set such a positive tone, facilitators should (Porter, Novelli and Associates, 1983):

a. Convey warmth and friendliness. To encourage farmers and fisherfolks with low education to actively participate in a joint search for solutions to problems, facilitators should be pleasant.

b. Listen very carefully. Facilitators need to be alert to be able to synthesize learners' inputs and contributions to a discussion and make the learners feel in control of the content of learning.

c. Dress appropriately. The rule in appropriate dressing is to do so as the setting and situation calls for, blending well with the group and commanding their respect.

d. Be accepting of any and all opinions. Learners should feel any of their contribution to the discussion welcome. Facilitators should just let fellow learners evaluate each others' inputs rather than asserting any member's contribution to be right or wrong.

e. Actively encourage participation. Facilitators encourage learning participants to take part in group discussions and activities by asking questions and calling on members by name as they show readiness to speak up.

f. Become actively involved in the group. Facilitators may also take part in the group activities themselves to help learners feel at ease in joining and treating them as co-learners.

g. Be kind, but also firm. A facilitator tends to be liberal, giving learning participants more leeway in how they take part in group activities and discussion. However, they remain firm as far as ensuring that what is done and said are in the direction of attaining the learning goals set.

h. Search for the underlying meaning of participants' comments by probing. In a joint learning process with learning participants, a facilitator should know how and when to ask probing questions to help everyone understand fully a member's statements during a group discussion.

i. Show incomplete understanding. Facilitators must assume the role of being co-learners rather than experts. By showing that they do not know everything, participants will not feel threatened to contribute to the discussion and help in the joint search for answers to issues and questions.

j. Be flexible in running the group. The facilitator can change his or her style of facilitating as may be required in order to see to it that learning goals are met.

k. Show sensitivity in probing participants. In following up to clarify participants' statements, a facilitator should see to it that participants' feelings of awkwardness are not aggravated.

l. Stay focused on the purpose of the discussion while being actively involved in the group. The facilitator helps a learning group to reach the learning goals of a session and should not lose track of such goals when s/he allows digressions and exercises flexibility.


Porter, Novelli and Associates (1983) present several problems that may arise in a participatory meeting, as follows:

1. Everyone expresses the same opinion. This may happen when a respected leader in the community, such as the village chief or elder, speaks up first and everyone else feels s/he has nothing else as profound to say. Or, no one simply wants to contradict what the respected leader or elder said. Another possibility is that learning participants are too lazy to think of other answers.

One way of addressing this situation is to remind participants that there are no right and wrong answers. The facilitator may also challenge the single opinion expressed, pointing out possible loopholes in its reasoning. This is merely to engage the participants in critical thinking before they zero in on a single answer to an issue or problem.

2. Certain participants dominate the discussion. Leaders, elders, or outspoken members of a group may tend to do all the talking. Probably they are also sharper than the rest and are able to think of answers to discussion questions faster than the others. In this situation, the facilitator may remind participants that everyone is encouraged to speak up and may call on others first even if the outspoken members are raising their hand to indicate they have something to say.

3. The discussion is dull. This may be due to similar points that are merely repeated by group members. Perhaps, they are too shy to speak up on contradicting or unconventional ideas.

Or, probably the group happens to be sluggish and is unable to think of creative answers. Again, the facilitator needs to encourage critical as well as creative thinking. S/he may raise controversial issues or challenge the similar answers, pointing out possible loopholes in their reasoning.

4. Some members do not participate. The shy and perennially silent members in a group might be encouraged to speak up by calling on them by name. Sometimes, they have bright ideas but are just slower than the more outspoken members in speaking out. However, no one should feel pressured to speak when s/he really does not happen to have something to share.

5. Friends having side conversations or not speaking openly. This again may be due to lack of assertiveness of participants to raise their ideas to the group, turning to their seatmates privately instead.

These participants should be encouraged to share their ideas to the whole group and affirmed that their contribution is valuable. On the other hand, friends having side conversations on other matters not related to the learning topics might cause a distraction to other group members.

Altering their seating arrangement may break them up. Seating arrangement may be altered tactfully through appropriate games facilitated as icebreakers where participants need to scramble for seats.

6. Participants give irrelevant answers/ comments. When participants raise off-tangent points, it is possible that they were unable to understand the question properly. The facilitator can try re-stating the question in simpler or more concrete terms.

7. Participants all give positive answers. Where participants all resort to "safe" answers and positions regarding an issue, the facilitator can attempt to challenge the "safe" position to show how it is not all that "safe". This is to challenge participants to think of creative ways of addressing an issue and to make sure their proposed solutions are critically evaluated.

8. Participant "attacks" you personally with negative remarks. When participants raise such controversy, is facilitators should first remember to stay calm and refrain from reacting emotionally to the situation. Instead, s/he can acknowledge and even thank the participant for his/her honesty and point out that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.

Then the facilitator should make sure that s/he explains the point being challenged properly and thoroughly. For example, the participant may be questioning the goals of the learning session, or the manner by which it is being facilitated.

9. Participants keep asking your opinions. In the aim of empowering learning participants and discouraging over-dependence on extension workers or technical experts, the facilitator may smile and simply say, "I will share with you my opinion - after you have shared yours." Putting people in control of the learning process on NRMA means they first take responsibility for their own learning and think out solutions to problems and issues first.

However, this does not mean that facilitators should refrain from lending their expert opinions and sharing their own experiences altogether. But in order to encourage the empowerment of learning participants, they can reserve sharing their own opinions and experiences last, at the time when they summarize and synthesize the group's discussion.


In this chapter, we have asserted that communication is a key process of bringing people together to cooperate towards addressing the problem of degradation of the environment and natural resources on which many of rural people's livelihoods and survival rely. Through participatory communication, people can work together toward long-lasting social change beyond individual behaviour changes.

Experiential learning is the appropriate approach to use in participatory NRMA, which respects and values learner-driven or people-driven initiatives in NRMA. Bringing about social change through participatory communication and experiential learning requires change agents assuming a more facilitative role than the traditional teaching role that extension workers traditionally assume.

As facilitators, they need social or interpersonal communication skills, group processing skills, knowledge of scientific principles and techniques, teaching skills, technical skills, and a clear vision of development. Facilitators should also mind the experiential learning environment including the use of manila paper for documentation and sharing, seating arrangement, group size, and setting a supportive and encouraging climate for learning. They face various challenges in facilitating adult learning posing threats to a balanced, fruitful participation among different participants in a learning group.

In conclusion, the Chinese philosopher Confucius most aptly espoused experiential learning in his following saying:

I hear and i forget
I see and i remember
I do and i understand

We likewise repeat two reminders for change agents from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Research:


Cadiz, Maria Celeste H. 1994. Communication and Participatory Development College, Laguna: UPLBCA, 52 p.

Cadiz, Maria Celeste H. 1996. "Experiential Learning Strategies and Techniques" a lecture handout prepared for the SEARCA Rural Projects Analysis Course 27 May-1 June 1996., 8 p.

Hope, Anne and Timmel, Sally. 1984. Training for Transformation, A Handbook for Community Workers Book 2. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press. 132 p.

Johns Hopkins University Training Materials in Strategic Communication

Ortigas, Carmela D. 1990. Group Process and the Inductive Method. Manila, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press. 181 p.

Pfeiffer, I. Williams and Jones, John E. 1981. Reference Guide to Handbooks and Annuals. San Diego, California: University Associates. P. 1-36.

Porter, Novelli and Associates. 1983. The Focus Group Interview: Guidelines for the Moderator. Washington, D. C. (Prepared for the Egyptian Oral Rehydration Therapy Project). 11 p.

UNICEF Bangladesh. 1993. Visualization in Participatory Programmes. Dhaka, Bangladesh and New York: UNICEF. 158 p.

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