By Zilia Castrillon
I used to work with the Nasa-paez community, an indigenous Colombian group who lived in the Cauca Department (territorial region) located near Cali, the third largest city in the nation. The concept of participatory approach to community development had been in the process to be implemented for a while when the struggle for an agrarian reform was in the peak and these communities were taking actions to recover lands and property on the hands of landowners and were organizing social movements to affirm their autonomy in their respective post-colonial territorial entities known as Resguardos. In development projects and research studies in agriculture for the indigenous survival, the use of a participatory methodology in which the observation and constant search for different tactics to incorporate individual and collective reflection involving the whole community of the Resguardo, was frequent and pivotal.
After starting a process of incorporating local knowledge to land and territorial management and learning of ancestral culture systems such as the traditional home gardens or Thul Nasa, those involved in the design and implementation of the development agro-ecological projects initiated a participatory approach through oral history techniques that integrated the indigenous Governor, ex-governors, mayors, councilors, the Indigenous Guard, the educational community (teachers, students, parents) with community leaders, agricultural technicians and the direct beneficiaries of the productive projects who were at the time the most vulnerable community members.
Despite the Western socio-cultural influence and violence against them, the Nasas tribal communities have kept some degree of cultural heritage as it is represented in their beliefs, language, spirituality and manifested through rituals, traditional medicine and the “Minga”, a way of collective work that is an important part of their autonomy, self-reliance, dignity and food security as it is expressed in the Nasa Tul as their ancestral form of production. Indigenous families have gained knowledge working together to increase their food security but subsequent conflicts have threatened their survival having a significant effect on the high number of forced displacement from the ancestral rural territories. The country’s ethnic groups have been deeply affected by the different forms of violence still actively continuing throughout the nation. (Joris J. van de Sandt, 2007)
The participatory approach and local involvement in planning has been a mechanism used to renew formal structures of democracy and turn them into self-managed procedures that are powerful enough to interpret the will and demands of this population. This approach in the case of the Nasa – Paez indigenous community operates within a social, political and symbolic framework. An example of this movement was the creation of the Nasa Project, the Paez life plan, a participatory civil proposal that has faced the action of armed groups settled in the area where the indigenous community has lived. (Fabio Velásquez, Esperanza González R, 2003)
Participation is a process of collective analysis, learning and action. (Luttrell and Quiroz with Scrutton and Bird October 2007) It is an empowerment practice that is defined by the increasing power from critical consciousness (Freire 1992) and collective action better than a power being provided by a benefactor or outsider. According to Servaes (cited in Is Empowerment the Answer? By Robert White), empowering means self-reliance, self-planning and specially, breaking ties of dependence on the guidance of more powerful partners. (White, 2004) It also implies building capacity of the community towards communal benefit, although not always involves sharing of power. (Meshack 2004) However, it only become effective as it engages with issues of institutional change (Gaventa 2004) and when the engagement to create opportunities for the exercise of participation, comes from people’s themselves not only from the strong will of governments either national, regional or municipal. (Ibid)
John Friedmann (1992) explains that the social and political empowerment fundaments an alternative community development in a process with the long-term goal of changing the balance of structure of power in society. This change increases the accountability of state action, strengthens the power of people in the management of their own affairs and improves social responsibility of private businesses.
Participation would be put into practice through a combination of mechanisms that have been productive working in the Latin American context using the techniques aforementioned: the process of research-action  that uses sharing of knowledge and collaborative social learning to provide development agencies and organizations a method of analyzing and understanding the reality of targeted communities (their problems, needs, capacities, resources), and allows them to plan and develop actions and measures to transform and improve their social conditions. (Fals Borda y otros 1991) The distinction between subject and object established in traditional social research for development is carefully avoid since, according to Fals Borda, it may be counterproductive for the researched and the researcher (or experts and clients or targets) to identify them as two discreet discordant or antagonistic poles instead of seeing them as individuals with diverse views which should be considered in conjunction. (Fals Borda y otros 1991)
The “extension model” in development services that assume the researcher or “interventor” as a producer of a “package of improved practices that would transform the ‘ignorant’ customs of peasant farmers or other recipients”, has also been reviewed. (White, 2004)
The participatory approach recognizes that the methods and procedures for monitoring and evaluation of the main aspects that affect people’s livelihoods are most effective when the community identifies their problems and act over them promptly because of time constrains between the detection of various problems and the beginning of appropriate interventions. Indeed, it is an inclusive, iterative and incomplete process as opposed to the conclusive old problem analysis of the integrated rural development (IRD) approach (DFID 1999)
The participatory and local involvement in community development planning to improve food security depends on the social and political context implicated as well. Community leaders and locals need to take part in all process of their livelihoods improvement but there must be a balance in the decisions taken by stakeholders and that is possible trough collaborative learning and negotiation. Acceptable disagreement and reconciliation of competing interests are part of a participatory process. Policies on food security improve by creating a valid space for each community to make their voices heard taking into account the different circumstances and groups.
Following the Participatory Action in research and as a basis for development action, the emergence of participatory research techniques in the global north, originally known as Participatory Action Research (PAR) and Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), directly involve people in the definition and analysis of local conditions. (Chambers 1994)
International organizations, NGOs, universities and research centers have worked using these techniques around the world having been subject to debate and criticism because of the increasing lucrative consulting business as a part of the development industry fueled by rich industrialized countries through their development and international aid agencies in a process that David Moose (2003) describes as “‘comodification’ of participation”. In The Making and Marketing of Participatory Development, David Moose says that the emphasis on technique and methodology expertise compensates the ignorance (of outsiders) of social conditions, while at the same time, promotes the capture of local knowledge. The commercialization of knowledge promoted participation with clear differences in power relations. As David Moose (2003) states in his essay, participation (lately conceived as a way of changing power relations) may be “edited, printed, packaged (sometimes literally wrapped in colored paper) and presented as a gift”. (Ibid) Moose also says that participation is a powerful component to legitimate development projects through the presentation of a series of activities (meetings, conferences, work plans, seminars and workshops) as indicators of success to justify investment and budget execution. (Ibid)
According to (Rahnema1999) when the term participation for development started to be mentioned, it involved a people-centered approach to development. Participation was expected to enable the following functions: cognitive, political, social and instrumental. Cognitive function generates a development discourse and practices based on different understandings of human realities. The political role of the development discourse provides a source of legitimacy to promote people’s development, creating a bridge between them and elites. The instrumental function generates a number of alternative strategies to justify the failure of conventional development strategies used in the past. This aims to involve beneficiaries in solving their own problems. Then, the social function gives the new development discourse a breath to reactivate old concepts. Under this function, it was expected that all institutions, groups and individuals involved could be finally integrated in the development process. The involvement, however, has many interpretations, which change in relation to whom is implementing.
The cognitive function, however, implies a feedback process that can be sometimes overwhelming. Locals need to be constantly informed and participation cannot be a sole mechanism to complain, but one that allows the construction of ideas among disagreements. For the Nasa community, land disputes have been a matter of concern for leaders. Conflicts over leadership and management have occurred. But the participatory approach to food autonomy within the community (participation includes different stakeholders), begins with the principle that production is based on using the diversity of resources and production practices, the transfer of agricultural environmentally sound technologies designed to enable a clean production system and product diversification obtained from ecosystems and, in a very important way, outside expertise intervention.
Van de Sandt Joris, (2007) Behind The Mask of Recognition, defending autonomy and communal resource management in indigenous resguardos, Colombia Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands (with A. J. Hoekema)
Fabio Velásquez C. y Esperanza González R., ¿Qué ha pasado con la participación ciudadana en Colombia? (2003), Fundación Corona, Fundación Social, Foro Nacional por Colombia, Banco Mundial, Cider – Universidad de Los Andes, Corporación Región, Viva la Ciudadanía, Transparencia por Colombia, Fundación Corona, Bogotá http://www.dhl.hegoa.ehu.es/ficheros/0000/0120/participacion_ciudadana_e… (link is external)
Luttrell, Cecilia and Quiroz, Sitna with Scrutton, Claire and Bird, Kate (2007) Understanding and Operationalising Empowerment http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opi… (link is external)
Freire P. (1992) La educación como práctica de la libertad. México: siglo veintiuno
White, Robert A. Is Empowerment The Answer? Current Theory and Research on Development Communication, (2004) In: Gazzette: The international Journal for Communication Studies, Vol. 66(1): 7-24, London, Sage Publications
Meshack, M. (2004) Potential and Limitations of Stakeholders’ Participation of Community Based Projects: the case of Hanna Nassif roads and drains construction in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. International Development Planning Review. Volume 26, Issue 11
Gaventa, J. (2004) Representation, Community Leadership and Participation: Citizen Involvement in Neighbourhood Renewal and Local Governance, Report Prepared for the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
Friedmann, J. (1992) Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development, Oxford: Blackwell
Fals Borda y otros (1991) Acción y conocimiento Como romper el monopolio con investigación-acción participativa, Santafé de Bogotá, Cinep
Department for International Development (1999) Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets http://www.efls.ca/webresources/DFID_Sustainable_livelihoods_guidance_sh… (link is external)
Chambers, R. 1994. ‘The origins and practice of participatory rural appraisal’. World Development, 22 (7), pp.953-969 https://entwicklungspolitik.uni-hohenheim.de/uploads/media/Day_4_-_Readi… (link is external)
Mosse, David (2003) ‘The making and marketing of particpatory development.’ In: Quarles van Uffard, P. and Giri, A., (eds.), A Moral Critique of Development: In Search of Global Responsibilities. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 43-75. http://www.kus.uu.se/Mosse.pdf (link is external)
Rahnema, Majid (1999), “Participation”, en Development Dictionary: a Guide to Knowledge as Power, Wolfgang Sachs (ed.), London, Zed Books
 Fals Borda Investigacion Accion Participativa (IAP) Fals Borda (1991): “The reality of people who engage in dialectical processes of the type of IAP can be understood if we share their spaces. They are the ones who know the territory, which in turn constructs the meaning and purpose of involvement. In this way, learning their ways and means, it is necessary coexistence and dialogue in their contexts. ”