Community owned solutions are practices developed and carried out by communities themselves. The solutions contribute to the well-being of communities in the present and in the future. They are born, developed and successfully implemented in the communities, by the communities, for the communities, with minimal influence from external stakeholders.
How can community owned solutions be promoted and supported?
Today, we are aware that local communities often have their own solutions to the environmental, social and economic problems they face on a day-to-day basis. But these solutions do not have enough visibility, and so they are often ignored by public policies. The risk is that by adopting proposed solutions from the ‘top’, communities put aside their own ‘best practices’ which are then at risk of disappearing. At the same time, proposals coming from ‘outside’ often cannot be adapted to the local level, and so instead of bringing a solution, they compound the initial problems or introduce new problems. One simple example is the introduction of battery-operated torches in regions where there is no electricity. These allow communities to see in the dark, but because there are no safe disposal strategies, toxic batteries are just left leeching their heavy metal content within the community, resulting in increasing number of children suffering from heavy metal poisoning.
Researchers from The Open University have been working since 2011 on Project COBRA an EU Seventh Framework funded project whose objective is to find ways to integrate community owned solutions within policies addressing escalating social, economic and environmental crises, through accessible information and communication technologies. The project advocates the position that local communities have the capacity to identify their own ‘best practices’ and share them with others. Project COBRA is all about building capacity and promoting local knowledge in communities to record and share their solutions to current and emerging challenges
Project COBRA specifically focuses on accessible and participatory forms of communication, promoting the use of participatory video and photography, which allow indigenous communities to identify and share strategies that they believe will enable them to sustain the survival of their communities in the long-term. The aim is to promote these community-owned solutions and participatory ways of engaging communities, through systemic, participatory and visual methods, amongst civil society organisations and national / international policymakers.
This involves academic and civil society organisations from Europe and South America in engaging, and building capacity within, a number of indigenous communities in the Amazon region of South America, including communities from Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, Colombia, French Guiana and Venezuela. To date, the project has been documenting indigenous community owned solutions or ‘best practices’, using an innovative ‘system viability’ framework and participatory visual methods… the same model which was used to assess the viability of the Amazon rainforest as a whole.
The system viability framework has enabled indigenous communities to identify successful practices which they use to face up to a range of changes in their environment, both present and future. In support of this process, the communities use participatory video and participatory photo-story techniques as the tools of expression. Through these participatory techniques, community members are able to express their ideas in images and the spoken word. An increasing number of ‘community-owned best practices’ have been identified and documented, including traditional farming and fishing, use of new technologies, partnerships for community development and promoting indigenous culture and beliefs.
Indigenous communities participating in Project COBRA are now sharing these best practices with other indigenous communities of the Amazon, at the same time encouraging these other communities to document their own best practices. The aim is to create a growing repository of ‘community-owned solutions’ for sharing amongst communities of the Amazon and beyond. Our ultimate aim is to make a case for the consideration and inclusion of community owned solutions in policies, processes and projects that are related to local community development.
But we face major challenges. Public participation has limited support from policy-makers and funding bodies. Public participation, especially within marginalised communities, is not a ‘quick-fix’ solution, and involves a long term commitment to build capacity so that community members can participate effectively. Related to this is the limited appreciation of non-written/non-numerical forms of public participation as decision-makers find it difficult to engage with information that cannot be reduced to statistics.
Given these challenges, Project COBRA is demonstrating that it is possible to mobilise significant funding sources for participatory public engagement, and for this to begin to have an impact at national and international levels. For more on Project COBRA, and to see how you could support our work and/or apply some of the ideas and techniques within your own community, visit the website.
Next: reference list
This page is part of our series of articles on the Amazon System, emerging out of the experience of Dr Andrea Berardi, a Lecturer in Environmental Information Systems at The Open University to support the BBC Two series I Bought a Rainforest. See the full reference list for these articles.
Dr Berardi is a co-investigator on Project COBRA. COBRA is researching ways to integrate community solutions within policies addressing escalating social, economic and environmental crises, through accessible information and communication technologies.