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Back | Programme Area: Environment, Sustainable Development and Social Change

Greening at the Grassroots: People's Participation in Sustainable Development

The paper focuses on local level environmental problems in the Third World and the means by which steps can be taken to alleviate them, with evidence drawn from the work undertaken within the UNRISD research programme on participation and sustainable development, as well as from other published and unpublished material. It opens with a discussion of the need for an approach to environmental issues based on the full involvement of communities in the definition of problems and the formulation of solutions, incorporating their perceptions of their own needs, concerns and abilities. It is argued that a more thorough understanding of the ways in which people have traditionally managed their resources, and an increased recognition of the ways in which they react to unsustainable resource exploitation, can contribute to the establishment of a more productive approach to sustainable development.

Different types of "traditional" resource management systems are described, and the importance, in different settings, of cultural identification with the environment, of explicit regulations regarding resource use, and of the development and refinement of local environmental knowledge for the success of such customary systems are discussed. The observation is made that social mechanisms which maintain sustainable levels of resource use within a given society are often not readily perceptible to outsiders. The paper also discusses the factors affecting the sustainability of common property régimes. It is noted that mounting evidence against the accuracy of theoretical models which maintain that all common property systems are unsustainable has not prevented such models from influencing - or at least being used to justify - policies which are designed to weaken or eliminate such systems.

The question of the ability of traditional resource management systems to adapt and remain viable in the face of pressures from within and without the system is addressed, and the argument is made that generalizations regarding the future of such systems are inappropriate. The impact of population pressure on traditionally sustainable resource use is taken as a case in point. It is clear that in many situations the conventional conception of a direct relationship between population growth and increased pressure on the environment holds true; such a relationship, however, is not inevitable. Examples are given of cases in which population decline has resulted in environmental degradation, and of other cases in which growing populations have been able to adapt their methods of resource management in a sustainable manner.

The paper next discusses the types of collective action undertaken by communities which see their livelihood threatened because they have been deprived of their traditional means of resource management, or because of unsustainable resource exploitation on the part of outsiders. It maintains that the ecological knowledge of societies which are based on sustainable environmental management practices enables them to better judge the real effects of ecosystem disturbance than outside evaluators. However, the success of local attempts to intervene in the implementation of policies or projects which adversely affect the environment depends upon a range of factors, including the ability of local organizers to form coalitions with regional, national or international groups with similar interests, and the existence of social, economic and political structures which allow the formation of such alliances, and the expression of their concerns.

The paper closes with a brief discussion of the apparent linkages between poverty and environmental degradation in the Third World, arguing that, although in certain cases poverty clearly aggravates processes of degradation, an analysis positing a simple linkage between these two is incomplete without the inclusion of the concept of empowerment.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Apr 1991
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD