This was originally published on the Water, Land and Ecosystems Mekong blog.
Scientific research traditionally belongs to the realm of academia, locked in a shining ivory tower and accessible only to those with special credentials and skills.
How then do you incorporate and involve local communities that might benefit from the research, given that they have no official academic credentials and may not even be able to read and write?
Thaibaan Research was created in Thailand as a way to support villagers to design and carry out research projects that they find important to their daily lives.
'Why are there fewer fish in the river than when I was younger? What are the best irrigation techniques for my neighbors and I to employ so all of us benefit from our water supply? What can we do with an invasive snail species that would reduce the harm these pests do while benefiting our livelihoods?'
These are all questions that have been asked by Thaibaan researchers in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam. Villager-led research is an effective way to involve local communities while giving them the agency to voice their own findings with authority and a backing of evidence.
What is the role of this local knowledge?
How can it reach a wider audience and influence decision makers or development investors?
A unique partnership in Viet Nam is tackling this question. A Thaibaan research group has linked up with researchers at Can Tho University to weave academic research with community research into a rich tapestry that enhances and improves the work of both parties.
Dr. Ngo Thuy Diem Trang of Can Tho University has been conducting a study that looks at the impacts of irrigation on communities in and near the Viet Nam Delta. Some of the communities are further upstream where there is primarily fresh water, and some closer to the ocean where the water is brackish. The preliminary findings of her study are that in the communities closer to the ocean, there is a greater conflict over water use, primarily between irrigation and aquaculture.
Multimedia Presentation: Impact of Irrigation on Livelihoods of Fishing Communities
At the same time that Dr. Trang and her colleagues are carrying out their research, the Center for Water Resources Conservation and Development (WARECOD) is working in these communities in the delta to set up Thaibaan research groups. Some of the research groups are exclusively women, and all of them are ethnic minorities. A large number of the village researchers are illiterate, and some don’t even speak Vietnamese.
How can a villager become a researcher?
Given these obstacles, the representatives from WARECOD have to find ways of communicating the skills that will be needed to conduct research to the new Thaibaan groups. In addition, once the research has begun, they must find a way to communicate the results to an outside audience.
Ly Duc Tai of WARECOD showed a group of participants at the Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy two games that are used in the research groups to initiate the training process. In the first, the group stands in a circle and, one by one, each person has to say their name and a fact according to a theme, like their favorite fruit. The trick is that each successive individual has to say the name and favorite fruit of all of the people who came before him or her. The last person in the group has to remember the names and fruits of all of the participants in the group, which is no easy task.
“This teaches listening and attention to detail,” said Tai. “The villagers are much better at it than you. For them, it’s easy!”
In the second game, participants had to collectively count to 20. Each number can only be said once by one person. If two people accidentally say the same number at the same time the group has to start all over again at one. Our group struggled to count to 10.
“This game teaches coordination and teamwork,” explained Tai. “Our research groups can count up to 15 with no prior planning or mistakes. They’ve really learned to work together and to take cues from each other.”
After this demonstration, Tai showed us the photo voice gallery. Since many of the villagers are illiterate, the method used to record research results are to have them take pictures and make voice recordings. In this way, the Thaibaan researchers can clearly demonstrate their observations in real time without having to write anything down.
How is the partnership mutually beneficial?
Dr. Trang pointed out that the academic research provides a macro picture of an area. Given this ability, the university researchers are able to make comparisons between communities in a way that the Thaibaan researchers cannot. In addition, the credibility of the university’s research is more readily accepted, both in the scientific community and at government levels. By incorporating the findings from the Thaibaan research into the academic study and presenting the results in tandem, the university is able to lend credibility to the community researchers.
However, Dr. Trang was eager to point out that partnering with WARECOD was strategic for the university as well. “The Thaibaan research is more in depth and bottom up,” she said. “By hearing the villagers’ results, we are able to corroborate our findings. In addition, by involving local people in the monitoring and management of their resources through Thaibaan, we can build their capacity and awareness. In so doing, we not only have a very clear view of what’s happening on the ground, but when our academic research yields results and recommendations, we have an aware and capable population that is willing and able to take action. This means whatever interventions we propose are more likely to be successful.”
The project is going to have a number of dissemination events in the coming months. One will be in November at a local temple festival in one of the research villages, where an exhibition of the photo voices will be held to raise community awareness. The other will be at a University in December, where the photo voices will be presented alongside the preliminary academic research results for a mixed audience of university scientists, local government officials, and students. The villagers will also be invited to present their work.
“We need all of the stakeholders to be involved and to understand what is happening to our delta,” said Tai. “This partnership can bring everyone together, and ensure that we are not only doing better research, but that the voices of the community are heard.