Experiences on integration of local knowledge in monitoring environmental conflicts caused by unsustainable agriculture

February 06, 2020.  

Summary of a workshop held at Tropentag in Kassel, Germany, on September 17. 2019. The workshop was organized by the Doctoral Studies Support Program (DSSP) at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) of the University of Bonn in collaboration with the Institute for Environmental Studies (IDEA, UNAL Bogotá, Colombia).

Over-exploitation of natural resources for agricultural production constitutes a main trap for sustainability and, very often, triggers environmental conflicts. Due to an increasing number of environmental observatories in tropical countries the impacts of agricultural practices on ecosystems and livelihoods are made visible. However, there is often a gap between scientific knowledge (e.g. research data availability) on the one hand and local knowledge of natural resources management on the other. Universities in Germany and in the global South are cooperating to fill in this gap, but they need more platforms to strengthen their collaborative research and partnership.

Main conclusions of the workshop

1              Interdisciplinary research and different research approaches required.

Throughout the workshop several experiences were shared among researchers working on Environmental conflicts from both disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives. The workshop focused on environmental conflicts triggered by an over-exploitation of natural resources for the sake of often unsustainable agricultural production. First, a group of key notes introduced interdisciplinary experiences form Colombia, Ecuador, and India in monitoring environmental conflicts. The experiences highlighted the relevance of interdisciplinary approaches, which involve integratory methodologies capturing both participatory methods (to make local aspects of the conflicts visible) and the organization and application of technical methods.

2              Gap between scientific knowledge and local methods.

It was confirmed that, in monitoring environmental conflicts, there is often a gap between scientific knowledge (e.g. data availability) and the way local people manage natural resources and face environmental disruptions. Universities in Germany and in the global South are cooperating to fill in this gap, but they need more platforms to strengthen their collaborative research and partnership. Several experiences were shared at the working tables, including cases from Colombia, Chile, México, Brazil and Peru, and enriched by participants with experiences in Germany, Australia, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Myanmar. The presentations highlighted the need for a more engaged research in the field (e.g. longer periods of time, understanding of local practices, capacity building) and call attention to the great variety of locally adapted methods.

3              Monocrops, industrialization of agriculture and extractive activities disrupt local livelihoods.

The role played by several extensive monocrops (e.g. oil palm or eucalyptus plantation), were highlighted and pointed to as triggering the disruption of local forms of socio-economic organization based on local or traditional agriculture. It was reported that, very often, local agricultural forms rely on their own technologies and mechanisms to protect the surrounding ecosystems as well as on linkages to economic practices alternative to industrial monoculture. Besides, other non-agricultural extractive activities such as mining, cause several impacts on the social organization of smallholders and agriculturalist communities.

4              Local communities are often isolated in decision-making processes.

Moreover, the processes of participation in socioeconomic and environmental territorial decision-making is a difficult institution, which increasingly isolates local communities and gives privileges to larger corporate actors. Besides, policies also play a major role in integrating local practices and knowledge not only in research but also in fostering sustainable agricultural practices, but often they result in unintended and contradictory outcomes. All these factor are part of the broader process of the generation and dynamics of environmental conflict.

5              Monitoring environmental conflicts faces a number of challenges.

The idea of monitoring environmental conflicts seeks to make unsustainable practices with several environmental repercussions visible, as they often end up in disrupting people’s livelihoods. However, there are several challenges in monitoring environmental conflicts. Throughout the discussions, a wide range of methods to help in this process were highlighted. They include ethnographic methods such as in-depth interviews, participatory mapping and observation as well up to date techniques and technologies such as board game conflict simulations or social media information. The integration of participatory methods with geospatial information and digital technology would help in implementing transdisciplinary methodologies. For this, several suggestions involved the use of new technologies (e.g. 3d models or smartphone apps), focusing on participatory interaction or collaboration, and respecting local innovations and knowledge. Yet, some gaps and obstacles remain unsolved, including the dialogue of different knowledge realms inside and outside academia, stablishing non-hierarchical knowledge building structures that avoid knowledge extraction, among others.

6              Extended research and collaborations beyond academia is required.

Fostering the monitoring of environmental conflicts could contribute to reversing unsustainable agricultural practices. However, the need to further develop the concept of environmental conflict monitoring is a challenge that requires extended research and collaboration. Besides, integratory interdisciplinary approaches are important, but there is a major challenge to reach out beyond academia. The contributions made in the workshop have outlined insights in how to step forward with innovative ways to integrate multiple methods and knowledges into sustainable practices.


Read/download the full summary including program and list of participants (see link below).


Dennis Lucy Avilés Irahola

Dr. Dennis Lucy Avilés Irahola