Chen, G, 2012 –– Chepang livelihoods and development - Participant observation in an Agro-Biodiversity Conservation project with a local NGO, RIMS Nepal, in Dhading district, Nepal
In my internship placement I was involved in an Agro-Biodiversity Conservation (ABC) project implemented by a local NGO, Resource Identification & Management Society (RIMS) Nepal, targeting the indigenous Chepang communities in Dhading district, central Nepal.
The project attempts to conserve the agro-biodiversity through livelihood improvement mechanisms in the project area, raising awareness of the importance of ABC and providing training for different income generation skills at the same time.
I adopted a participant observation approach, using this placement opportunity to pursue the answers to queries regarding sustainable slope land development and the potential application of Integrated Water Management principles in a broader natural resource management context, as well as critically reflecting upon my experience of development work. In addition, I conducted independent research to gather data to increase the comprehensiveness of the current project.
One of the main things I gained from the experience was an understanding of how complex landscape scale natural resource management can be, especially in a dynamic system such as young slope environment, even just from a natural science perspective.
When considering an answer to my initial inquiry about slope land development, I assumed that my research would give a clearer picture of the realities of shifting cultivation, which is one of the traditional land use practices of the Chepangs, and also allow a reasonable determination of how to sustainably manage slope land cultivation.
However, what emerged was a much more complex and richer picture, and I realised that making comparisons between land use systems, in this case, shifting cultivation and terraced system, was extremely difficult, and thus consequently, so is the attempt to generalise the overall performance of different systems and subsequently judge which one is superior to the other.
The other main learning is gained through my observation from the interaction and dynamic between the NGO and local community. Development work by definition almost certainly encompasses some degree of power imbalance, even initiated with a good intention. Without reflexive attention it is even more likely that such imbalance will reproduce itself.
Therefore, such observation made me understand that only talking about the participation of the targeted community is not enough; in many cases it is the NGOs that take a dominant position who need to be aware of their peculiar role in development work and thus actively give up power in order to incorporate other voices from multiple scales and disciplines.
This would ultimately be in favour of true participation, a more harmonious transition and diversified, innovative approaches rather than a single-minded, narrow agenda-driven approach that seeks only the replacement of other systems.
One of the outcomes of this project was the baseline questionnaire data I collected, which, although a small data set, at the moment offers the only available information on current Chepang conditions and livelihood in the project areas.
However, the main value of my involvement and individual research, though largely coarse and rudimental, lies mostly in examining the assumptions and expanding the scope of the current project rationale and its focused activities. Since practice is defined and limited by perception, both my establishment of the expanded project rationale framework and consideration of the value of previously ignored topics such as shifting cultivation, present RIMS staff a new lens through which to perceive a more systematic perspective of sustainability and development, and at the same time stimulate them to re-examine the foundation of their discourse from a different angle.
In a practical sense, the above added considerations, as well as techniques used to engage people (such as the use of 3D model), provide RIMS several future project directions and opportunities with a more holistic project rationale.
The dialogues and meetings I had with the NGO staff and the research action I took to improve the performance of the project can all potentially benefit the targeted community and the environment, since the wellbeing of the people and the sustainability of the environment are both main concerns of the project.
However, there is one particular research action I took that might aid the process of natural resource management in the targeted communities more directly. I engaged the Chepangs to discuss about their land use patterns around their villages through a newly-introduced approach “participatory 3D modelling (P3DM)”.
Information associated with highly varied terrain, such as that where the Chepangs live, is technically difficult to capture, even through the help of 2D mapping exercises in general PRA techniques due to the difficulty of representing such landscape undulations on a flat piece of paper. Adding an extra vertical dimension, P3DM makes the communication of landscape information much easier.
The use of the model has two potential benefits. For discussion among the villagers, the simplicity and the "birds-eye view” of the model greatly stimulate active learning, planning and analysis in a collective fashion for broader natural resource management on a landscape level.
For communication with outsiders, such as NGO workers or governmental officers who are newly working in the area, it serves as an effective tool of communication that enhances the negotiatory power of the locals, since previously this tacit knowledge is seldom acknowledged by the outsiders because often the communities do not know how to express this information verbally, and thus the outside workers tend to assume there is no such local knowledge.
After my group discussion using P3DM, I transferred the 3D model to the villagers, so it is possible for them to freely use this model in the village in the future, which could aid their future natural resource management and community participation, resuming their true autonomy in the development process.