Much of the action taken by development practitioners to address local level environmental problems in the Third World consists of projects, such as tree planting schemes, soil bunding efforts or improved irrigation management strategies, which seek to establish resource use at sustainable levels for selected target areas. In spite of occasional suggestions that broader-level national or international polices should be formulated with the aim of making natural resource management concerns an integral part of economic and social policy (Warford, 1989), this type of approach remains dominant. It is therefore not surprising that the current discussion of environment and development issues often mentions “people’s participation” as a prerequisite for successful “sustainable development”. Resource management projects, as currently implemented, depend heavily on broad-based co-operation and collaboration because they often rely on the combined actions of individuals which, whether such actions be planting trees or refraining from overfishing, by their nature cannot easily be coerced or enforced. The willingness of people to undertake the required activities - what is commonly understood as their “participation” - is therefore essential for the success of these projects. This paper discusses ways in which a more thorough understanding of the range of activities which constitute true people’s participation in local level environmental activities - from the development of indigenous resource management systems to resistance to destructive external initiatives - can be used to form the basis of a more constructive approach to sustainable development.
The analysis contained in this paper follows from some of the work undertaken within the UNRISD research programme on sustainable development and participation in resource management, which explores, among other things, the dynamics of local level initiatives concerned with environmental degradation, and traditionally sustainable resource management practices. Although definitive findings from this programme are not yet available, the research undertaken to date has indicated a number of areas in which the standard interpretation of the dynamics of the process of localized environmental degradation can usefully be re-examined. This paper explores the issues raised by the research and the insights gained in the process. It opens with a discussion of the prevailing approaches to environmental problems by the development community, suggesting two areas in which a broader understanding of “participation” can contribute toward the formulation of more productive solutions. It then briefly defines “sustainable development” as it is used here, and discusses the utility of this concept. The paper then discusses issues connected with the continued viability of traditional resource management systems, including population pressure, the effect of changing economic structures, common property and human rights issues.
The next section discusses popular initiatives which have affected local level environmental issues, both in the form of organized participatory activities and social protest movements, and the potential which such initiatives have for contributing to arresting or reversing environmental degradation. It is argued that these activities, even those which have evolved precisely to oppose outside developmental interventions, have very important implications for the formulation of more effective sustainable development strategies.
Finally, the paper examines the question of the apparent linkages between poverty and environmental degradation in the Third World in the light of the issues raised by the research. It is argued that, although in certain cases poverty clearly aggravates processes of degradation, an analysis positing a simple linkage between these two is incomplete, and unhelpful in policy terms, without the inclusion of the concept of empowerment.
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