‘ICTs are useful in participatory approaches to share information, communicate and reflect together on options for managing the forest.’ Georges Thierry Handja, RFUK
There is often conflict between forest communities, businesses and even conservationists. Can they ever all co-exist?
In most countries in the Congo Basin, the people are rarely, if ever, involved in the administration of the forest. The lack of participation makes it difficult for the state to effectively police the forest, which can lead to uncontrolled illegal logging and poaching by people living outside the forest communities. The result is a drastic reduction in the size, quality and potential of forest resources. If communities were involved, they could play an important part in the conservation, management and development of forests.
Forest communities and state conservation agencies, and their partners, can work together using participatory approaches. These approaches often include the use of ICT. The main objective of participatory approaches is to engage and involve people closely in the diagnosis, identification, programming, implementation and monitoring of activities to manage natural resources. By involving everyone who has an interest in the forest, we can define the roles and responsibilities at each stage of the forest management process.
ICTs are useful in these participatory approaches to share information, communicate and reflect together on options for managing the resources. Smartphones and GPS devices for example, can be used to exchange information and collect spatial data to produce maps that can then be used in discussions and collaborative decision-making.
Forest communities are often remote and isolated. How have ICTs helped to connect people living in these areas?
Affordable prices for many types of communication equipment have provided an opportunity for people living in remote areas to connect with each other, and with those outside their immediate communities. They regularly use cell phones, and more recently smartphones, to exchange information on family matters, the availability of resources, or discuss food prices. But more people are also using GPS units, participatory geographic information systems (PGIS) and participatory three-dimensional modelling (P3DM) methods to produce maps and other geo-referenced products. These are all powerful communication tools to assist with the management of land and resources, and even in conflict resolution.
Participatory GIS places the communities at the centre of the process where they can play a key role in gathering information using GPS receivers, transfer their local knowledge to official maps (derived from satellite data or other sources), and have a say on how the final products that come out of the process are used.
The three-dimensional models are basically miniature geographic information systems based on official topographic maps. They can be used to facilitate communication between the agencies and people involved in forest planning, biodiversity conservation, protection of sacred sites, and to resolve disputes involving communities, or businesses.
Communities can use these processes in negotiations with government representatives, businesses and others with an interest in the forest’s resources. Together they can decide on how to manage the existing natural resources and restore degraded ones. For most of this GIS work, communities usually have the support of external organisations too.
Why is it important for governments and NGOs to include local communities in large-scale forestry projects?
The participatory approach to natural resource management promotes effective care for the entire population of a village or a cluster of villages in restoration actions and development of the forest landscape. It ensures the establishment of a stable partnership to preserve forest resources.
The fundamental idea of such an approach is to put people first, to give them the power to restore and conserve their natural heritage, and to develop income-generating possibilities for themselves and for future generations. In other words, the participatory approach helps promote self-development of village communities and active management of their own future, and puts government representatives in a better position to facilitate those processes.
In your experience, do most forest communities have access to some kind of communications technology? Or can more still be done to connect rural areas?
In the Congo Basin countries where I work, forest communities’ lack of access to electricity and ICTs is still a major hindrance to their communication capabilities. If a community does have electricity, it often cannot access cell phone or internet networks. Or it might be the other way around, where they can use cell phones but have no electricity. In these cases the cell phone company might create a centre where people can recharge their cell phones. This happens in the town of Etoumi in the Republic of the Congo, for example, where people from the surrounding villages have to pay CFA 100 (€ 0.15) to recharge their phone batteries.