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Europe-LAND webinar and the High Atlas Foundation: The participatory approach.

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byKiran Johnson
onFebruary 12, 2024

From food security to biodiversity loss, land use and management lies at the heart of many sustainability challenges. The way that a given plot of land is used has an impact on the surrounding community and environment; in turn, the surrounding community and environment affects how effective the plot of land is at its current occupation. From both sides, a given plot of land will be better suited to certain purposes over others. In order to determine what this optimal use is, information is needed. Data must be collected.

A four-year research project, titled, “Towards Sustainable Land-Use in the Context of Climate Change and Biodiversity in Europe,” or Europe-LAND is doing just that. The project aims to expand the knowledge base on how land use decisions can be influenced to support policy goals angled towards adapting to climate change and biodiversity conservation, while also being mindful of the effects of land use on the surrounding community and its other stakeholders.

This comprehensive research project is paving the road to a future where land use can be perfectly paired with its surrounding community and environment, providing social, economic and environmental benefits to people and the planet.

On Tuesday, January 24, Europe-LAND hosted a webinar – the third of an ongoing webinar series – offering insight into their research processes. Franziska Wolf, deputy head of the Research and Transfer Centre at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW), in Germany, hosted the event. HAW is coordinating this research project.

Wolf explained that the project involves scientific partners in 12 different countries around Europe. They work together to research and spread understanding around factors that affect land-use decisions as well as increasing stakeholders’ awareness and engagement of climate change and other environmental factors.

This webinar discussed three key components of Europe-LAND’s research processes: the use of participatory modeling methods, where stakeholders apply their current knowledge to representations of real-life situations, providing researchers with information on their perspectives on land use issues; the importance of utilizing a participatory approach to engage different land use stakeholders and authorities; and a living lab approach, which enables stakeholders to collaboratively generate solutions for land use problems, based on their needs.

The first speaker, Veronika Gaube, discussed the project’s participatory modeling methods. She conducts research at the Institute of Social Ecology at BOKU, in Vienna, Austria. Gaube explained that participatory modeling is key in bringing stakeholders, experts and representatives into the process in order to enhance the quality of data, results, learning and implementation.

This type of modeling involves re-creating a real-life situation or problem, whether it’s a physical depiction or a digital portrayal. Stakeholders engage with this representation of reality, providing researchers with information on what the stakeholder’s perspective on a problem is and how they would handle it. This method is also a learning process for stakeholders, as they can consider problems that they haven’t experienced before.

Gaube spoke about the project’s participatory approach in the context of how different conditions can influence the decision making of agricultural actors, when it comes to land use, as well as how decisions related to food production, as a farmer, can impact ecosystems.

Europe-LAND’s participatory modeling process involves four workshops with the project’s participants – these participants are the land use stakeholders and agricultural actors. The workshops are interspersed with interdisciplinary research processes, like statistical questionnaires, digital modeling of scenarios, research perspectives and interviews with experts, where qualitative data is collected.

“It was specifically important for us to make this scientific model we developed to look like a computer game,” Gaube says about the digital model they are using to simulate real-life land use situations in their participatory modeling. This is what the participant interacts with, allowing the researcher to gain insight into a stakeholder’s perspective on a specific land use scenario. The intention was to make it easy for the participant to understand and use the digital model.

Danka Moravcikova, researcher and professor at the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra (SUA), discussed the project’s participatory research approaches. The methods involved in this approach include observation, narrative discourse between researchers and participants, analysis of secondary data (documents, media, artifacts, etc.), workshops, public meetings, focus groups and interviews. The purpose is to investigate and analyze the current social reality of different stakeholders in a situation related to land use.

She highlighted the importance of participant reflection in this process: each participant in the research is influenced by their socio-economic background, among other factors, which leads them to make different decisions.

Moravcikova also discussed the qualities that a researcher involved in this process should have, including respect for others’ knowledge and expertise of experience, the ability to be comfortable with discomfort, self-awareness and the ability to be confronted as well as the confidence to identify and challenge power dynamics.

Lastly, Sima Mihaela, senior researcher at the Institute of Geography at the Romanian Academy, spoke about the project’s use of a living lab. This is a research method used for developing, testing and scaling up innovative solutions for land use, climate change and biodiversity challenges. It is used to demonstrate the feasibility and impact of ideas that are tested.

The living lab draws on user-centered and participatory research, and takes place in a real-life setting. Multiple stakeholders participate in it, and it is intended as a space for co-innovation.

This approach has many advantages, some key ones being the way that it prioritizes user engagement to shape and drive the innovation process, resulting in solutions that are based on user needs and preferences; its inclusion of multiple stakeholders; the use of real-life conditions; and how it encourages knowledge sharing between participants.

A growing number of high-impact organizations are adopting this participation-based approach, as it’s an effective way to fully understand problems and create long-lasting solutions. The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) is a Morocco-based non-profit that focuses on community-centered sustainable development. A large part of their work is concentrated on female empowerment.

HAF’s “Imagine” empowerment approach encourages female community members to consider new situations, regarding seven areas of their lives (emotions, relationships, sexuality, body, money, work and spirituality), through workshops led by HAF’s psychosocial empowerment trainers. Attendees focus on expressing and developing tools to manage trauma and pain that they have faced — the September 8th, 2023, earthquake in Morocco caused many to lose their homes and loved ones.

“What follows is the consideration of new opportunities or ones that have been long-held with a new determination to achieve the self-described goals of the participants,” HAF President Yoseff Ben-Meir writes in a blog post that relates the organization’s clean water initiative to women’s empowerment.

Each of HAF’s community initiatives is launched with a female empowerment workshop.

Ben-Meir writes, in the same article, that the Imagine empowerment approach is the centerpiece of HAF’s strategy for achieving sustainable development: “HAF ultimately seeks projects determined and managed by local communities, and this empowerment methodology, which is about personal and collective exploration and confidence building, leads to the outcome of development identified and managed locally.”

For example, HAF’s earthquake relief initiatives provide a safe space for women to express their grief, with different objectives for each succeeding workshop that reflect the different stages of emotions that the women feel.

These workshops increase the effectiveness of the participatory approaches that HAF uses in their sustainable development initiatives. The organization’s sustainable solutions are based on what problems arise during community meetings, catering to the specific needs of the locals, although communities can also request to have a project done. It’s crucial for the community that women are able to voice their needs during these meetings, and be fully integrated into the sustainable development solutions that arise.

For Europe-LAND, the participatory approach enables them to gain in-depth knowledge about the dynamics of land-use change and its influencing factors. They can assess the effectiveness of different land management practices holistically. At HAF, this approach pushes community members to visualize and realize their own goals, creating sustianable futures for their communities.

Kiran Johnson is an undergraduate student at Northeastern University, majoring in journalism and environmental science, and an intern at the High Atlas Foundation in Morocco.