In conservation, natural resource management, disaster risk reduction and various other fields, community-based approaches have been very popular, bathed in a glowing light of all that is participatory, bottom-up and democratic.  But they have also attracted a widely accepted and often repeated set of criticisms.  These common criticisms fall into three main categories:

  • Excessive focus on the local. A community is imagined as a relatively small spatial unit—quintessentially, a village—and community-based approaches generally operate at this level, too often underestimating political, economic and ecological processes at larger scales.
  • Assumption of homogeneity. Once it has been decided that an organization will “work with the community”, it becomes easy to treat “the community” as a homogeneous entity.  The organization’s partner is conceived of as a singular entity—the community—and diversity and difference within the community are largely ignored.
  • Neglect and avoidance of matters of power, inequity, and oppression. Community-based approaches are often described as an alternative to top-down approaches dominated by the state, and they aim at empowering communities in relation to the state and other large, powerful actors.  But the role of power within communities tends to receive little attention, the implicit assumption being that communities are harmonious, egalitarian, and united.

On the whole, unfortunately these criticisms of so-called “community-based approaches” are valid.


False dichotomies in the critique of community

However, the kind of Western thought that is engrossed with questions of conflict and power and that analyzes all social interaction in terms of conflicting interests must also be carefully examined.  It advances a particular conceptual framework that is built on assumptions of its own while downplaying certain important aspects of social reality.  And when the criticism of the concept of community is taken to extreme, it can promote a false dichotomy.  The fact that communities are not homogeneous, unitary entities; the fact that people who live in proximity to one another can have different interests and norms, are likely to have differing positions within a social structure and differing degrees of socio-political power; and the fact that important processes happen at levels that have nothing to do with the local—none that implies that community does not exist or that its presence, or absence, is irrelevant.

I want to suggest that community can and does exist, and that in fact its existence is important.  In initiatives for natural resource management, environmental protection, landscape governance and the like, much of the attention of professionals is on organizations and institutions.  Obviously, stakeholder groups, community organizations, government, and other kinds of organizations are among the pivotal protagonists in these processes.  But a community is something different than its organizations and institutions, something that has its own dynamics and characteristics, and we seldom think very carefully about the role of the community as protagonist.  Paradoxically, even community-based approaches often fail to really engage with community.  Instead, a community’s organizations are treated as a proxy for the community itself, and what we call “community-based approaches” are usually approaches that focus on community-based organizations, not on communities in their own right.  I want to suggest that, alongside organizations and institutions, community can also be a protagonist in sustainable development processes.Paradoxically, even community-based approaches often fail to really engage with community. Instead … what we call “community-based approaches” are usually approaches that focus on community-based organizations, not on communities in… Click To Tweet


Community as protagonist

I need to pause here to clarify just what I mean with this term community.  Community is about norms, culture, collective spirit and our interconnectedness as human beings.  The caveats mentioned above are valid:  not every important social process happens at the local level; villages and neighborhoods are seldom if ever homogeneous; and we need to be ready to engage with questions of power and to challenge inequity.  However, not all difference is disparity, and if we can recognize our interconnectedness, we can work towards a type of unity that embraces and thrives in diversity.  Moreover, if we can challenge injustices, then we are creating the conditions for realizing our interconnectedness and creating community.  And this can be particularly transformative when it takes place in relatively small geographic units where people are woven together by a sense of place.

Within landscape approaches, a strategy that includes engaging with community will look somewhat different than one that only involves engaging with groups, organizations and institutions.  Whereas plans, negotiations, rules and management systems are the stuff of organizations and institutions, the stuff of community is culture and values.  A key feature of an approach that engages with community would be the use of the arts—drama, storytelling, music and others.  But of course, culture is more than just the arts.  This kind of community-based approach would also build on positive local values, would promote deliberation around values, and would make a sustained effort to nurture new shared values.  It would help the people who are connected to the landscape to work together not merely to resolve differences, not only to craft a shared vision, but also to consciously shape a shared culture.

I have suggested before that the spirit of landscape approaches is finding and creating harmony in the diversity of people, land uses, ecosystems, and resources that are connected to any landscape.  One way to think about this aim is that it is a process of building community.  Even if you are engaging with a large landscape that contains many “communities” as well as other kinds of stakeholders, at the larger, landscape scale the task is still one of recognizing interconnectedness, finding and creating harmony, and building community.

This may sound like a naïve vision of an imaginary Shangri-La.  I certainly recognize that the kind of unity in diversity that I’m describing is not something that can be realized overnight.  In most cases it will require a long-term process of building trust and addressing injustice and conflict.  But doing so will gradually make our interconnectedness more apparent, and in a mutually reinforcing process, the more that people come to recognize our interconnectedness—the interconnectedness of human beings with nature, and our interconnectedness with each other as human beings—the greater will be the motivation to undo injustices, resolve conflicts, and find ways to live in harmony with the natural world.  When such motivations come to be embedded in shared norms, values, and ways of thinking, then they are moving into the realm of culture.  And when both kinds of protagonists in a shared landscape are mobilized—organizations crafting plans, rules and management systems, and a community growing its culture in the direction of interconnectedness—then landscape approaches will be more complete.