Community-based Environmental Management: Empowering People with Environmental Understanding

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 28. May 2011 - 12:43
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Bahá'í Development and Environment Summit
Sidcot, UK, 15-18 August 1999


Arthur Lyon Dahl*
[Draft notes for the presentation at the Conference]


(The presentation at the IEF Conference was illustrated with slides and examples)

Most decisions on the exploitation and management of environmental resources are taken at the local level, and often by individual resource users or local community leaders. One of the most important steps that can be taken to halt or reverse the present erosion of natural resources and environmental quality at the local level is to empower people with environmental understanding. The following reflections on this process are based on the author's thirty years of experience in translating the processes of the science of environmental management into methodologies and forms appropriate for community-based management in developing countries. They illustrate the principle that science and the scientific process can be accessible to everyone.


The statement of the Bahá'í International Community on "The Prosperity of Humankind" provides a new vision of the role of science in society. It describes the two basic knowledge systems, science and religion, which have been most effective when, each in its own sphere, they have been able to work in concert. Our future prosperity requires that both individuals and groups in every sector of society must be able to acquire knowledge of both kinds and to apply it to the shaping of human affairs.

In the context of social and economic development, the issue is how scientific and technological activity is to be organized and expanded, so as to enhance the capability of the world's peoples to participate in the generation and application of knowledge. "Instruments of social and economic change so powerful must cease to be the patrimony of advantaged segments of society, and must be so organized as to permit people everywhere to participate in such activity on the basis of capacity.... Development strategy, while acknowledging the wide differences of individual capacity, must take as a major goal the task of making it possible for all of the earth's inhabitants to approach on an equal basis the processes of science and technology which are their common birthright."1


There are two challenges in making science more accessible to people everywhere. One is to improve the physical access to scientific knowledge, and the other to simplify the way that knowledge is presented to make it easily understandable.

Science represents an accumulation of information that is generally first published in scholarly scientific journals, then summarized and synthesized in reviews and textbooks, and complemented by databases, data compilations and reference collections. Working scientists need access to a good library, and these are not easy to reproduce everywhere that they may be needed. However the revolution in information technology is gradually removing this physical problem of access, as world communication systems expand and more scientific knowledge becomes available in electronic forms. It is now becoming technically possible for the world's scientific knowledge to be accessible from anywhere in the world with Internet access, even if there is still a massive problem of converting the scientific literature to electronic formats that can be consulted at a distance as one would in a library.

For scientific knowledge to be understandable by everyone who needs it, translation will be necessary into presentations that are more easily understood. There is no inherent reason why science should be the domain only of a few highly-trained intellectuals with university diplomas. The essentials of scientific principle and process can often be learned and applied without the specialized scientific vocabularies that experts have built up. Much can be done without complex chemical formulae, the Latin names of species and the often arcane terminologies that serve as invisible barriers to "non-specialists". Information can be communicated through pictures, maps, graphics, films and animation even to illiterates. For instance, rural villagers know their own environment, and can easily learn to understand and interpret a satellite image of their local area since the ground truth is in their head.

The most important step is learning to think in terms of process. The ideas of cause and effect, of interacting elements, organisms or systems, and of evolutionary change and development are at the heart of the scientific method. Mathematical and chemical formulae, systems diagrams and other scientific representations capture or define various processes. "If this condition exists or interacts with that, then the result will be so-and-so." Systems of education should focus on developing skills and applications in this area accessible to everyone.

One preconception that must be overcome is to think that science is the preserve of modern Western society. While it is common to encounter the intellectual arrogance that only peer-reviewed information in the best journals qualifies as science, there are in fact real treasures of science within traditional cultures and indigenous knowledge. Such knowledge has been built up over generations of careful observation, and while the intellectual framework within which it was interpreted may have been very different (and was probably characterized as sorcery, magic or worse by missionaries and colonial administrators), there is much in it that is valid and applicable even today. Traditional peoples had highly sophisticated systems of forest resource use, agriculture, hunting, fishing and the use of available materials for tools, shelter and transport. There were often even specialist holders of traditional knowledge with roles comparable to modern scientists and engineers, such as the master farmer, fisherman, healer or boat-builder, whose skills and knowledge were passed down from generation to generation just as science is today2 . This is a foundation upon which new approaches to the generalization of science can be developed.


A set of training materials in rural environmental management developed 15 years ago for the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme illustrates some of the approaches that can be used to build environmental understanding at the local level 3. These materials have recently been revised to make them appropriate to all small island developing states and are available on the world wide web ( Even such scientifically challenging tasks as monitoring the state of health of coral reefs, among the world's most complex ecosystems, can be presented in simple methodologies suitable for use by local fishermen, women's and youth groups, and the tourism industry4. Audio-visual supports such as films and videos can be used to communicate the processes of environmental change and the causal factors that drive that change5.

Some examples of the kinds of scientific concepts of process essential for the management of local environmental resources are the geological processes involved in the evolution of islands (as originally described by Charles Darwin), the physical processes of the water cycle, the kinds of ecological processes that ensure the diversity, productivity and efficiency of coral reefs, and the environmental processes related to human waste disposal and pollution.

A more recent application of these approaches to local science for sustainable development can be found in the South Pacific Biodiversity Conservation Programme, a UNDP/GEF programme implemented by the South Pacific Regional Environment Progamme over the last 5 years in 14 Pacific island countries, which has established a wide range of conservation areas for biodiversity protection combined with local sustainable development on customarily-owned lands and reefs, managed by the local villages themselves.

These examples demonstrate that community-based environmental management is possible when people are empowered with environmental understanding. They represent some small steps towards that ideal of a new vision of science accessible to all as their common birthright.

*The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations Environment Programme.


1. Bahá'í International Community, 1995, The Prosperity of Humankind, section IV.

2. Arthur Lyon Dahl (1989), "Traditional environmental knowledge and resource management in New Caledonia", in Traditional Ecological Knowledge: A Collection of Essays, R.E. Johannes (ed.), p. 45-53, IUCN, The World Conservation Union, Gland and Cambridge, November 1989. Based on work prepared for the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), and revised from A.L. Dahl, "Traditional environmental management in New Caledonia: a review of existing knowledge" , SPREP Topic Review 18, South Pacific Commission, Noumea, New Caledonia, 1985.

3. A.L. Dahl, 1985, Training materials for rural environmental management [48 units and supporting audio-visual materials]. South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, South Pacific Commission, Noumea [unpublished]

4. A. L. Dahl (ed.), 1981, Coral reef monitoring handbook. South Pacific Commission, Noumea. 21 p. Reprinted as SPC/UNEP, Coral reef monitoring handbook. Reference Methods for Marine Pollution Studies No. 25. UNEP, 1984. 25 p.

5. For example: Arthur Dahl, Martine Caillard Dahl and Philippe Huneau, 1980, Story of an island: managing your island environment [45 min. educational film]. South Pacific Commission, Noumea.

Last updated 28 May 2011