Participation and Environment Essay

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Participation is an approach to environmental management and problem solving that solicits groups with locally specific knowledge and skills to contribute to sustainable environmental policies and projects. Sometimes called community-based natural resource management, participation seeks to actively include populations at the grassroots level in access, control, and management of natural resources.

Public participation frequently appears as a framework for facilitating sustainability and actor investment among populations that are (to be) affected by environmental policies. By involving indigenous groups in the creation of management institutions and guidelines, participation is expected to lead to empowerment. Cost and time efficiency are additional benefits to be achieved by facilitating local involvement in projects.

Participation as a precept was codified during the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as Principle 10, which states: Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.

Principle 10 indicates that participation should be solicited from a variety of actors at many scales (e.g., the state, formal councils, private industry, activists, municipal administrators, consumers, and nongovernmental organizations [NGOs]). It also includes in its definition of participation access to environmental information and citizens’ rights to know about potential hazards. Once citizens have this information they are to be included in decisionmaking processes. The state is also given responsibility for disseminating information to citizens and providing for their access to judicial and administrative processes in relation to environmental issues and citizens’ rights.

Compared to “top-down” approaches to environmental planning, participation is expected to increase project success rates and lead to sustainable management practices. Top-down approaches involve allowing powerful groups (e.g., the state or donor institutions) to make decisions without accessing local environmental knowledge or consulting with users’ groups. The failure of environmental policies and projects is blamed on lack of community participation and local people’s indifference to their success.

Whether participatory approaches are more successful than “top-down” approaches to environmental decision making is debatable, and criticism of participation has grown with its popularity as an approach. Critics argue that participatory approaches are in name only, i.e., there may be much talk about the benefits of participation, but actual public participation is much less widespread. Others suggest that the cost and time efficiencies achieved by participatory approaches are mechanisms that shift state responsibilities onto citizens or lead citizens to self-regulate and monitor.

Another difficulty with participatory approaches is the variety of meanings and practices associated with the term. Participation has been used to validate a range of activities, e.g., justify expenditures, cut operation costs, improve public image, and create new markets. Decision makers and environmental planners may intend stable meanings for participation, but these meanings may change throughout planning and implementing phases of environmental management. The opposite problem arises when planners settle on a fixed set of participatory techniques or interventions, which limit flexibility when searching for potential solutions.

Types of Participatory Approaches

Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA; central to this approach is learning “just enough” from a community to enable decision making and planning), and Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) are names given to participatory approaches in general, and more specifically to techniques and methods of information gathering from local people. Although the term rural is in the definition of each approach, its methods are not limited to rural settings.

PRA is founded on the idea that individuals are aware of themselves, their situation, and their problems and, given a chance, they will actively seek appropriate solutions. In contrast to approaches where so-called experts arrive in a community, gather information themselves and then analyze it within their own context, PRA calls for local people to facilitate information gathering and analysis of shared issues among stakeholders. Exercises are often hands-on and action-oriented (e.g., village walks where different types of land use are pointed out and discussed en route). PRA is also intended to facilitate collaborative learning between all stakeholders (not just majority, rich, or powerful groups) and outsiders, who may be state employees, NGO fieldworkers, or development aid donors. PRA uses informal interactions (e.g., brainstorming sessions), mixed group, open meetings, and/or games to draw out community knowledge about resource access and problems from indigenous populations. PRA tools include interviewing, focus groups, preference rankings, mapping, and diagramming. Learningby-doing, teamwork, and open-ended discussions are central tenets of PRA approaches. Flexibility is key to allowing local knowledge and solutions to surface as part of the process.

Participation as a Form of Power

Flexibility is also necessary if a community participatory approach is intended to address existing power imbalances within and between stakeholder groups. Participatory approaches that accept the status quo in local societies may serve to sustain oppressive power relations existing within communities. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, participation has been framed as a discourse and a form of power. In contrast to viewing participation as a set of techniques and then offering advice on better implementation or training, conceiving of participation as a discourse enables participation to be explored for how it is deployed to further or hinder power.

Discourses of participation in different contexts and scales can be interrogated for what they contain and omit, and the ramifications of such inclusions and exclusions for both environments and affected citizens. Within a framework of participation as a form of power, the actions of individuals and institutions, comprising the context in which discourses are created and operationalized, are examined for the ways in which participation might be used in an illegitimate exercise of power. Still further, participation as a form of power interacts with other operations of power. For example, participation combines with patriarchy to reinforce the marginalization of women when participatory approaches address women only in their roles as housewives.

Before participation became popular, approaches to knowledge gathering were criticized for answering the agenda of those who came in from the outside to collect information and for failing to access and question groups on the margins of their communities, e.g., women, the poor. Although participation is now standard as an approach, scholars and practitioners have realized that choices made by local people and participation facilitators are shaped by the relationships and discourses in which they are immersed.

Simply setting a participatory approach in motion may lead to the furthering of a particular environmental agenda held by the facilitators or believed by local communities to be favored by the facilitators. For example, NGO fieldworkers asking questions about forest use may inadvertently steer local people’s answers in directions that suit the technical solutions that the NGO can offer. NGO fieldworkers make choices about participatory practices based on constraints and opportunities present within their NGO and the community with whom they are conducting participatory planning. Powerful groups within local communities may try to influence the process. Individuals navigate social pressures within their communities about what to reveal or omit, or whether to speak or stay silent. Strict definitions of participation will not resolve these issues of power. The dynamic social context in which participatory approaches are practiced means that participation will always be influenced by relationships of power.

Participation is also a method of research gathering for scholarly purposes, with many of the same attributes, criticisms, and pitfalls. Ultimately, researchers decide which information is most valuable to report. An analysis of participation becomes further complicated when implementing organizations reflexively begin to take note of their own practices of inclusion and exclusion. Participation may begin as a method imposed from the outside, as part of ensuring long-term resource sustainability. But validating participation as an approach may force organizations to evaluate the treatment of their own employees and examine who has been incorporated and who has been omitted from decision making and planning.

Gender and Participation

Gendered approaches to participation were also codified at UNCED. Principle 20 states: “Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.” Women’s participation is widely recognized as critical to sustainable development and environmental management. Women’s participatory approaches will access women’s knowledge about sustainable environmental practices and draw on women’s abilities to protect the environment. In their roles as housewives, mothers, and resource managers, women’s participation in resource-use planning will maximize the benefits of intended improvements. Women can also increase project efficiency by contributing their labor.

As the role of the state in resource provision (e.g., water supply) or management (e.g., of forests) has come to be seen as inefficient and expensive, gendered approaches to participation are intended to increase local women’s investment in resource control and management. Women’s empowermentthrough-participation is also sought through a “bottom-up” approach that incorporates women in decision making and planning at its earliest stages. Women’s participatory approaches often pursue an agenda of creating lasting social change, e.g., sustainable resource management and social equality through women’s participation and empowerment.

Gendered participatory approaches have similar goals to participation in general; but without specific attention to gender, community participatory approaches to natural resource management may increase women’s exploitation, constrain self-determined change, and repress local, gendered meanings of resources. Participation may make a difference for women if approaches challenge assumptions about gender, environment, and relationships between women and nature. But participation has been criticized for taking for granted gendered relationships to natural resources, thereby reproducing inequality. Participatory interventions involving natural resources often base themselves on existing gender-resource relations. Women’s work and roles involving environmental resources are accepted as the norm, instead of being interrogated for the ways in which they are exploitative. Without calling these assumptions into question, women’s work burdens are increased, or their reasons for their practices are misunderstood. Too often women are targeted as a category, i.e., as a unified group with unchanging, essential characteristics, powerless and without agency. Participatory approaches that do not seek to question existing gender roles, nor view women as individuals (e.g., consider class, race, age, etc.) are likely to reproduce existing social inequalities.


  1. Bina Agarwal, “Participatory Exclusions, Community Forestry, and Gender: An Analysis for South Asia and a Conceptual Framework,” World Development (v.29, 2001);
  2. Robert Chambers, Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last (Intermediate Technology Publications, 1997);
  3. Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari, Participation: The New Tyranny? (Zed, 2001);
  4. Samuel Hickey and Giles Mohan, Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation (Zed, 2004);
  5. Ann Long and Norman Long, Battlefields of Knowledge: The Interlocking of Theory and Practice in Social Research and Development (Routledge, 1992);
  6. Majid Rahnema, “Participation,” in W. Sachs, , The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power (Orient Longman Limited, 1997).

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