Community based monitoring, in all its forms, has so many variables that it is virtually impossible to devise a single one-size-fits-all approach. Every component that goes into the design of a community based monitoring program needs to be specific to a particular country, region, culture, community needs, science needs, and government regulations just to name a few. In the end, it is critical to understand how these components work together to ensure project success.
Many researchers leading community based monitoring projects are individuals who are passionate about this work, who are independent thinkers and are not afraid to break the barriers. They don’t always work “by the book”; rather they design “the book” of community based monitoring practices. Some of those practices and advice are featured in this Handbook and hopefully will serve as an encouragement to others to continue these discoveries and to write new chapters in “the book” of community based monitoring.
Most of the recommendations singled out as the most important by the interviewed project leaders in Section 3 deal with the processes of community based monitoring, such as project design, organization and human relationships. Not surprisingly, most of the identified difficulties also arise from the deficiencies in these processes. It is worthwhile to note that almost all cited challenges are similar to the ones faced by many other research projects operating in remote locations, such as difficulty in finding qualified human resources, dealing with complex logistics, building rapport with local government and residents, and searching for sustainable funding. This shows that failures and successes of community based monitoring projects, in many cases, depend on the same factors as any scientific or natural resource management activities.
One conclusion is crystal clear: community based monitoring is here to stay. As the reviews have shown, there are many successes, but also there are many problems, which need to be addressed. There is a consensus among researchers on some issues, while on other issues researchers take opposite sides. What are some of these issues?
There is a great range in projects’ size and funding level. The reviewed projects ranged from three thousand US dollars to several hundred thousand dollars per year.
Do Smaller Less Expensive Projects Have Better Sustainability?
Several long-term monitoring project leaders emphasized that modest funding and manageable size are keys to their long-term sustainability. This statement appeared to be correct, as the longest reviewed projects are relatively inexpensive (See Table 1). However, all these projects are organized and run with substantial involvement from government agencies that provide offices, staff, and technical support. Had this support been calculated, the total cost of the projects would have been much higher. The longevity of these projects is most likely explained by the government involvement. Another important factor is project’s ability to provide regular and community relevant results. So, partnering with government regulatory agencies is a positive step towards sustainability.
Do Project Products and Results Differ in Projects of Different Size and Funding Levels?
The most significant advantage of larger projects is in the final products, which offer better organized and higher quality data, and other products, such as books and films. Since these project teams usually have better scientific expertise they are more likely to make discoveries and advance science. At the same time these project may have a more difficult time taking root in the communities.
The smaller projects are more adaptable. It is easier for a smaller project to pick up activities when funding is not consistent and there are gaps. However, if funding is not sufficient, there may be difficulty in attracting and retaining staff and participants, accumulated data may not be properly processed and therefore may remain useless for a long time.
Many projects start small, as pilots, and expand slowly. This was pointed out as a good strategy by several interviewed researchers. Since community based monitoring is a new research field many projects are sailing in uncharted waters. Testing pilot ideas, refining design and then expanding is a good progression to success.
The interviewed leaders of small projects thought that being small was good. At the same time every one expressed the need for more sufficient funding. No leader of larger projects pointed out that downsizing would improve the project. The morale here may be that every researcher is setting up goals that are commensurate with available funding.
Ultimately, every program deals with two major challenges: how to fund work and how to sustain funding. Most of the long-term monitoring projects are funded by various government regulatory agencies that operate on annual funding cycle. They have modest budgets but enjoy the benefits of government infrastructure, such as local offices and staff. Projects funded by competitive grants often have larger budgets and more ambitious goals. These projects are better equipped to develop and test new methods and approaches. It would make sense if a community based monitoring project begins as a competitive grant research project. Successful projects that demonstrate results that are deemed valuable for the society should be transferred to appropriate government regulatory/maintenance agencies and “adopted” by the communities through the direct involvement of village or other local governance entities. Until this chain of command develops, the sustainability of community based monitoring programs will remain a problem.
Many community based monitoring projects use various types of interviews as method of data collection.
How do local residents-interviewers compare to visiting researchers?
In the social sciences, the discussion about the effectiveness and appropriateness of local residents interviewing other people in their communities is not new and there is no consensus. There are successful projects that do not use local residents and then, there are projects that do. Some scientists believe that a person who has no academic training cannot perform as well as a researcher or a graduate student. Another opinion in favour of visiting researchers is that a stranger may get more information as people would make an effort to explain things that are obvious to locals. Other researchers see a tremendous potential in local residents and advocate hiring and training them. There are many social benefits in that. A younger person interviewing an elder will not only collect information for the project but will likely learn something new about his/her own culture and traditions. Obviously, local residents who are not researchers will require training, and there will likely be more work needed to address technical irregularities during data processing. Every researcher needs to weigh all the pros and cons and decide what works best for his/ her project and its budget.
Another contentious issue is whether to pay or not to pay to local assistants and participants.
Are paid employees better than volunteers?
There is no consensus here either. They may not be better but providing compensation may be the only way to retain local residents working in the project. There is a definite division in opinions between North America and Europe. Volunteerism is not typical in North American Arctic communities. In many surveys, respondents expect to receive small payments or gifts. The only reasonable solution is to follow the practices established in the community.
All projects recognize the importance of finding and retaining qualified individuals to oversee project activities in the villages. Unfortunately, it remains incredibly difficult to do this. Some projects stalled altogether in the absence of such people. Poor infrastructure in many villages makes it challenging to run projects. Dependence on only a handful of capable individuals becomes an Achilles’ heel of many community based monitoring projects. Hopefully, the growth of community based monitoring projects will lead to an increased interest from the best qualified people in the communities. It is also important that community based monitoring projects, large and small, are funded at a level that makes them competitive. Building capacity for running community based monitoring projects by local organizations is critical.
While these issues have not been brought forward in most of the interviews, it should be noted that there is a need for comparative analysis studies on the accuracy and effectiveness of community based monitoring activities to advance the theoretical basis for its implementation in scientific research and natural resource management; and there is a definite shortage of scientists who are comfortable working within both “soft” and “hard” science disciplines.
There is a need for a new generation of scientists with multi-disciplinary academic backgrounds; there is also a need for a new generation of local residents who are as comfortable working in community based research projects as they are in harvesting activities. The research and natural resource management agencies need to work together with local governments to better integrate community based monitoring practices in the everyday life of the communities. Local knowledge, which is a foundation for community based monitoring, is holistic, and so should be the academic education and government approach to community based monitoring.
In the meantime, self-education and experience sharing are the keys. Fortunately, there are many resources and many successful projects. This Handbook will hopefully be one of them.
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This Handbook would have not been possible without generous sharing of the experience by the project leaders who agreed to be interviewed for this publication. Many thanks are offered to Dr. Gary Kofinas, Dr. Evgeny , Dr. Lilian Alessa, Dr. Einar Eythórsson Dr. Svanhild Andersen, Dr. Else Grete Broderstad, Mr. Shane Penny, Dr. Shari Gearhread, and Mr. Tero Mustonen.
Dr. Andrea Grant-Friedman is recognized for her contribution to this publication, as well as AIA staff, Mr. Jim Gamble and Ms. Hanna Eklund, for their assistance.
Mr. Michael Svoboda and Mr. Mike Gill provided much appreciated guidance and advice. The generous financial support of Environment Canada is acknowledged with great appreciation.