Since the 1980s, there has been mounting evidence of unprecedented ecological decline in a range of scales, from local habitats to the global earth system (WHO, 2005; Rockström et al., 2009). Until the beginning of the 1990s, the dominant approach for dealing with ‘sustainable development’ was government-led (Dryzek, 2005). But with the growth of globalised, market-based economies and the weakening of governments, sustainable development has now taken on an increasingly market-led approach (Murat Arsel & Büscher, 2012). As we have seen in the economic crises since 2008, the market is essentially controlled by transnational corporations such as major banks, which are primarily accountable to their shareholders, and the intervention of international institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, that are not directly accountable to a democratic electorate. What characterises both government-led and market-led approaches to sustainable development is that the process is mostly under the control of professional experts who generally propose generic solutions, and are never answerable for the impact of their decisions.
This expert-led, top-down approach ignores the fact that communities may already have the appropriate knowledge and governance strategies for sustainable management of natural resources (Agrawal, 2003; Berkes, 2012). Recent studies on indigenous territories demonstrate that deforestation rates inside community-governed areas with strong legal recognition and government protection are significantly lower than in areas outside (Stevens et al., 2014).
Although not all ‘local’ actions are necessarily sustainable, and low demographics, limited market pressures or unsophisticated technologies may easily influence conservation outcomes, a balance needs to be struck wherein ‘local groups provide the initiative, innovation, and direction; governments provide the enabling conditions, mainstream local concerns into national policies, and encourage the scaling up of local successes’ (UNDP, 2012).
‘Community owned solutions are practices that are born, developed and successfully implemented in the community, by the community, without any major influence from external stakeholders, and contribute to the community’s well being in the present and in the future in ways which are socially fair and environmentally friendly (Berardi et al., 2014).’
The aim of Project COBRA, a European Commission funded project implemented from 2011 to 2015, was to work with indigenous communities in the Guiana Shield region of South America to identify, record and share their own solutions to emerging challenges, and to share these solutions with other communities in the region facing similar challenges. The Shield is spread across six countries—Suriname, Venezuela, Guyana, Brazil, French Guiana and Colombia.
The Guiana Shield encompasses 2.1 million sq km and is the world’s largest contiguous block of tropical rain forest, characterised by the highest percentage of forest cover and lowest rate of deforestation on the planet, while supporting a significant reservoir of biodiversity and hundreds of distinct indigenous cultures.
Overarching the whole project were three related research approaches: participatory action research-where reflection and learning, as well as the needs of the participants involved in the project, were built into the way the project functioned (Kindon et al., 2007); system viability– a holistic framework through which communities assessed their responses to a range of social and environmental challenges such as community survival strategies (Berardi et al., 2015); and participatory video (PV) and participatory photography (PP), participatory visual methods that allow people to represent their own views and concerns in an accessible way (Bignante, 2010; Mistry & Berardi 2012).
Working on the project in Guyana over two years, the indigenous communities of the North Rupununi region identified and recorded six best practices for community survival:
- Traditional fishing techniques;
- The setting up of a community radio station;
- Community self-help practices;
- Traditional farming techniques;
- The development of partnerships through the local civil society organisation; and
- Strategies for the transmission of indigenous culture to youths (Mistry et al., 2016).
These communities owned solutions were then shared with other indigenous communities with similar challenges in the six countries of the Guiana Shield region. One of the aims of this knowledge exchange was to see whether solutions from one community could be a source of inspiration for others to act on (Tschirhart et al., 2016).
What distinguishes the COBRA approach from many other interventions is that communities were supported in identifying and sharing the solutions that they themselves were practising, without ongoing assistance from external stakeholders. The approach highlights that different strategies to challenges are not mutually exclusive, and that a social-ecological system can simultaneously have both resistance and change responses (Berardi et al., 2013, Mistry et al., 2015). Crucially, the system viability framework enabled the identification of best practices which have synergistic effects and were mutually reinforcing. For example, self-help is practised in traditional fishing, traditional farming, in ecotourism and cultural transmission. The COBRA approach of community to community knowledge exchanges has also shown that indigenous communities are significantly more receptive to solutions emerging from, and communicated by, other indigenous peoples. An exploration of their own social-ecological system can help communities plan governance and management of land and resource systems, while reinforcing sustainable practices by discussing and showcasing them within and between communities, and by engendering a sense of pride in local solutions.
The following example showcases the need for a change in mindset towards supporting community owned solutions for tackling current and emerging global challenges.
Controlling Zika virus
The Zika virus is a recent addition to the maladies spread by the Aedes mosquito along with yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya. Dengue alone is responsible for infecting 50 to 100 million people every year. Control of the Aedes mosquito is clearly a key strategy in the fight against several diseases.
One approach that has been heavily reported on is a solution developed by Oxitec, a UK biotech company that has been able to genetically modify the male Aedes mosquito to produce sterile offspring. When this genetically modified (GM) mosquito is released in significant numbers to mate with ‘wild’ females, there is a temporary crash in the Aedes mosquito population. However, Aedes is phenomenally good at spreading back into areas where it has been removed from, so the release of the GM male would need to be a regular intervention in order to control the population.
An alternative ‘community owned solution’ for controlling the Aedes mosquito population has been shown to be highly successful in communities in Vietnam. The approach promotes the spread of a natural predator of the Aedes larvae. Mesocyclops is a crustacean (part of the shrimp family) with a propensity to devour Aedes larvae. The Aedes female mosquito lays its eggs within any container filled with water. Trials in communities have shown that the Mesocyclops predator can easily be spread from container to container through the use of sponges. In some communities, where community members have worked together to sustain a healthy population of Mesocyclops, there has been a total decimation of the Aedes mosquito, with no cases of dengue registered for over two years (Kay et al., 2002).
Every community has its own native Mesocyclops species (Kay, 1996); Tahiti has Mesocyclops aspericornis, Vietnam has Mesocyclops guangxiensis, the Americas have Mesocyclops longisetus and all have been successfully shown to almost completely eradicate the Aedes mosquito in community trials.
Decision makers thus have a clear choice when combating the Zika pandemic. They can support an expensive, foreign-controlled approach that involves a repeated release of a GM organism into the environment, or they can support communities in putting comparatively inexpensive solutions to effect.
Scaling up community owned solutions
Using community owned solutions fosters multi-functionality in facing environmental and social challenges and nurtures healthy people-nature relationships. Highly marginalised groups, such as indigenous peoples, are generally represented as ‘poor’, ‘backward’ and ‘in need of help’. This deficit model prevails at all levels of policy and decision making. On the contrary, indigenous people are a source of inspiration, and have multiple solutions for adapting to new situations. The global community can learn from these solutions by providing adequate and authentic representation of these groups at all levels of decision making (Mistry et al., 2015). With national and international policy makers mobilising financial resources to conserve biodiversity and mitigate climate change, community owned solutions may deliver more long-lasting, socially and ecologically integrated and investment-effective strategies as compared to top down approaches led by professionals.
Governments have always veered towards top down, expert-led solutions for local problems. But in the long run community owned, inexpensive solutions may not just prove effective, but sustainable as well.
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