Inviting more people to the table: The pros and cons of ‘participatory monitoring’
Ndang'ang'a, P. K., Barasa, F. M., Kariuki, M. N., and Muoria, P. (2016). "Trends in forest condition, threats and conservation action as derived from participatory monitoring in coastal Kenya." Africa Journal of Ecology, 54: 76-86. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/aje.12272/epdf
The coastal forests of Kenya are home to a wide array of plant and animal species, many of which are considered threatened. The unique assemblage of species coupled with increased deforestation, selective logging, agricultural encroachment, hunting, and human disturbance makes the these coastal forests areas of high conservation priority. Monitoring trends of deforestation and other threats, condition of the forests in respect to important plants and animals, and progress of conservation plans is an important step towards environmental health and improvement. Researchers collecting data in forests like those of coastal Kenya have often run into problems including lack of funding, adequate staff, and time.
In a recent study published in the African Journal of Ecology, researchers examine a new technique, participatory monitoring, which involves giving data collection responsibilities to local people. This use of simple and inexpensive data collection techniques is thought to be more successful in the long term. The primary objective of this study was to examine specific indicators of forest health in Important Bird Areas, or IBAs. To understand what conservation actions were needed, a second objective was to test the effectiveness and reliability of the participatory monitoring framework.
For the study, researchers from BirdLife International and Nature Kenya in Nairobi, Kenya defined several variables that could be measured by local people, who were trained before going out into the field. These measurements were tracked from 2004 to 2011 so conservation efforts could be regularly assessed and threats to bird habitats could be addressed. In 12 forest sites recognized as IBAs, observers scored each variable between zero and -3 based on a set protocol. The amount of habitat disturbance was one measurement. Another considered threats to the habitat: whether it was a current or past problem, whether it affected the whole forest, and how fast it was damaging the forest. The third measurement considered how much of the forest had current conservation actions in place and whether these plans were successful.
The results from the participatory monitoring program show an overall worsening of Important Bird Area forests in coastal Kenya between 2004 and 2011. Illegal logging is the biggest threat across all forest areas surveyed. However, the authors note a wide variation of data due to the involvement of many local people. This aspect of the program is problematic because it could lead to inconsistent data and questionable results. Despite this drawback, more people were engaged and made aware about what was happening in their forests. It also brought together several community action groups and organizations such as the Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Forest Service. Relationships established by this program can serve to improve conservation methods by uniting multiple ideas and perspectives. Even though the data collection was not as exact as it could have been with trained biologists, participatory monitoring has definite potential for future long term conservation plans.
While this paper noted the possible unreliability of data collected by local people, the researchers stressed the importance of educating people, spreading awareness of forest degradation, and building relationships between the community and outside organizations. These outcomes could help improve forest restoration. The results showed continual forest deterioration and illegal logging needed to be addressed. Therefore, more protection measures are needed, especially those that engage local communities. In general, however, this report shows that educating more people and getting them to care about forest health may be the biggest win and most promising possibility for more long-term conservation.