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Lessons learned from an interregional experience in participatory upland development

Luca Fé d'Ostiani is Chief Technical Adviser of FAO Project GCP/INT/542/ITA - Interregional Project for Participatory Upland Conservation and Development.

Reflections on the challenges of working in a participatory way in mountain areas.

The Interregional Project for Participatory Upland Conservation and Development (PUCD), which is funded by the Italian Government and executed by FAO, has been under way since 1992. The project is operational in three countries - Nepal, Tunisia and Bolivia, and strong links are maintained with Pakistan and Burundi where the project was active in previous phases.

It is designed to be a process-oriented, pilot project, focused on building local capacity for natural resource conservation and management. The use of participatory methodologies, including participatory rural appraisal (PRA) and participatory monitoring and evaluation, is integral to the project. Upper subwatersheds selected for field implementation are small (approximately 10 000 to 20 000 ha each) and the related budgets are very limited (about US$300 000 per annum) in order to minimize financial dependence on the project, while maximizing the use of locally available resources.

Various aspects of the project have been discussed previously in Unasylva (Kane, 1996), and another article in this issue (p. 3) focuses on experiences in Bolivia.

Throughout the project, observations on the challenges of working in a participatory way in mountain areas have resulted in a number of lessons learned. The purpose of this article is to highlight those lessons which would appear to be of major relevance and to have significant potential for replication elsewhere.


Using a participatory approach in mountain areas involves a number of special considerations.

Watershed delimitation versus community boundaries

From a technical viewpoint, (sub)watershed boundaries could properly define the territorial unit of intervention. However, in most cases mountain inhabitants would not define their own territory along the watershed divide, since they might grow crops or have grazing land in an adjacent watershed and outsiders may have access to resources falling within the same hydro logical unit.

One way to deal with this situation is to define the outer limits of the planning area according to social/administrative boundaries, whereas field-level work could be undertaken on a local (micro) watershed basis (where appropriate) within these limits.

Territorial dimension of participatory watershed management

The diversity of ecological and social systems making up mountain areas and the upstream/downstream links call for an integrated vision of natural resource management, highlighting interaction among user/interest groups.

Isolation and poverty

Widespread poverty makes day-to-day survival a priority, and often leads to conflict with environmental concerns. Mountain infrastructures (communication, energy supply, health and education, etc.) are usually poorly developed and often represent a higher priority for local people than environmental considerations. The literacy level is often very low; therefore some literacy and basic training in bookkeeping are needed and should be provided before or at the same time as other activities. The greater distance from markets limits the prospects for cash-oriented activities. Line agencies and administrative bodies are often far away and, therefore, not suitable institutional partners.

Fragile environment

Mountain areas are very delicate. Even small interventions in land and water use can have considerable, long-term effects.

The importance of an adequate understanding of indigenous knowledge, natural resource ownership systems and population trends is often overlooked.

Collecting information on natural resource ownership systems, population trends and indigenous knowledge should be systematically incorporated into the design of the information gathering process before, during and after PRA exercises.

Ownership of natural resources

Land rights, water rights, grazing rights, rights on the collection of wood, etc., including their dynamic interlinks, all play a pivotal role in the access to and use of natural resources and, therefore, in any process aimed at a less destructive and more sustainable use of mountain areas.

Population trends

Population features, reproductive patterns, seasonal migratory trends and the layout of settlements have a direct influence on land pressure and on the availability of labour, and also on local decision-making and involvement. This is particularly true in Tunisia where, in the absence of men, marginal mountain farms are often managed by women, whose traditional and social position prevents them from getting assistance for improving their technical and managerial skills and from increasing their role in the decision-making process.

Indigenous knowledge

The need for consideration and valorization of local knowledge in planning sustainable mountain development activities is widely recognized, and PRA exercises often include questions about indigenous knowledge. Yet, a more systematic assessment of this knowledge could make available significant information and provide leads on the attitude of the community towards changes in farming systems and natural resource management.

In the case of Bolivia, for instance, a serious threat to the remaining forests on the foothills of the Andes comes from the slash-and-bum techniques of immigrant Andean communities practising intensive, high-return strawberry cultivation over a three- to four-year cycle, before clearing a new fertile plot. Here, the traditional awareness of and expertise in soil fertility conservation of the indigenous communities, coupled with new improved cultivation techniques, is helping to stabilize the immigrant Andean communities and to slow down the rate of deforestation.

Another example is the Oued Sbaihiya watershed in Tunisia which is highly eroded. In the early 1990s, line agencies started soil management works with bulldozers on private land. Passive resistance mounted against the programme, and technicians thought that the peasant farmers were not aware of the consequences of erosion and, therefore, not willing to counteract it.

In 1996, the PUCD project interviewed a group of farmers in a highly eroded area in the watershed. It was clear from the interviews that they knew a lot about erosion. People defined erosion as "fertile soil going away, leaving bad land behind". They said that in the past they used to stabilize the soil by constructing check-dams with stones and by planting prickly pear cactuses on the gullies. They also used to build embankments with tree branches and earth (consolidated through the plantation of fig trees) for collecting and channelling running water. Time and labour constraints had led them to abandon these practices. They explained that their objection to the use of bulldozers was that the machinery was too big to operate efficiently in the patchwork of their small parcels of land and did not respect customary borders. Based on these considerations, the PUCD project solicited line agencies to reallocate part of the funds earmarked for mechanical works to cash incentives for farmers practising their traditional manual cultivation techniques.

Participatory feasibility analysis of initially selected activities and their ex post evaluation are crucial steps in participatory planning.

The direct result of participatory feasibility analysis is that the community/user group becomes responsible for identifying the priority activities which have a reasonable chance of success. Even more important, it helps local people rapidly identify the importance of the potential interaction among activities implemented within the same (sub)watershed, and progressively develop a vision and practice of (micro)territorial planning.

In Nepal, several small irrigation canals and hill trails which were initially selected have been dropped or radically redesigned as a result of an analysis of the cost-benefit, the labour requirements and the impact farther downstream. In Bolivia, Pakistan and Tunisia, beekeeping and the planting of fodder crops are undertaken by an increasing number of families which recognize that the economic return is substantial. These feasibility exercises are highly cost-effective and, through inexpensive farmer-to-farmer visits, expose user groups to similar more advanced experiences, thus strengthening their confidence and self-reliance. The community/user group also becomes familiar with the concept of "what if" scenarios and becomes a better equipped negotiation partner in the context of (sub)watershed planning and management.

Open-ended PRA versus thematic participatory appraisal

An open-ended approach would help identify the whole array of needs felt by participants. Conversely, a selective approach would be more conducive to exploring indigenous knowledge and identifying problems in line with the project's objectives in the area of sustainable mountain development. To maximize the advantages of both approaches, the initial exploratory PRA could then be complemented by in-depth thematic assessments to be carried out with smaller interest groups as part of their participatory feasibility analysis exercises.

Participatory planning, monitoring and evaluation at the community level are a valuable means of capacity building.

Regular self-monitoring and evaluation, leading to the participatory replanning of activities, are important in analysing their results and interaction and, most important, in making a process that can be repeated. Also, the community/user group becomes progressively aware of its own potential and limitations, including an increased understanding and consideration of the environmental impact of activities implemented; and possible conflicts (within and outside the community) can be addressed early on.

The monitoring and evaluation sessions have been as accessible as possible to people from the same community initially not involved in the process, in order not to limit participation. This is particularly important in mountain areas where the local society is often subdivided in castes and/or is highly stratified.

Participatory methods are not ends in themselves and, if used alone, are often insufficient

Over the past 15 years the use of participatory methods in development projects has become more and more popular. There has been a shift from addressing normative needs (as defined by outsiders) towards felt needs (as perceived by insiders). The approach has been successful in giving voice to mountain communities in decision-making and action taking, thereby making it more likely that problems relevant to participants are addressed.

However, participatory methods alone are not enough to achieve development goals. There is still a need for quality scientific and technical applied research to tackle the challenging problems of natural resource management, especially in highly fragile mountain areas. In order to apply promising techniques from outside, in particular to combine and integrate them with indigenous knowledge and skills, projects have to be inventive and make use of a high degree of technical knowledge.


Participatory sustainable mountain development projects are very complex to manage, requiring expertise in a wide array of disciplines. Addressing the needs and wishes of these parties successfully requires skilful negotiation capabilities. Staff at all levels of a project need to be well trained in the difficult process of negotiating, including conflict management.


Fé d'Ostiani, L. & Warren, P. 1996. Steps towards a participatory and integrated approach to watershed management. Field Document No. 1. Project GCP/INT/542/ITA. Tunis.

Kane, M. 1996. Footballs, almond blossoms and blue chickens: forestry extension with rural women in Pakistan. Unasylva, 47 (184): 27-34.

Sharma, Prem N., ed. 1997. Participatory processes for integrated watershed management. Kathmandu.

Warren, P. Learning from experience. PUCD/FTPP. (in press)

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