September 26, 2014

Worth More than a Thousand Words: Photovoice in Multi-Stakeholder Decision Making

Greg Spira, Cuso International

People often say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Advocacy campaigns frequently present stark images that ostensibly speak for themselves. These images are highly evocative and effective at provoking outside action. But are a thousand words really enough?

Within large landscapes, individuals, communities and diverse interest groups possess distinct perspectives and visions of how opportunities and risks should be managed. Small-scale farmers and indigenous harvesters of non-timber forest products rarely appear alongside mayors and mining company representatives to decide how natural resources in an ecosystem will be managed sustainably. The gap seems too vast and the positions appear diametrically opposed.

Cameroon Photovoice Photo

“Here in our commune there are problems with pollution from WIJMA and COAPALM, a large plantation that produces palm oil. There is toxic waste from their factory that is dumped directly into the water. The river is completely polluted. This is a big problem because, from there, the small rivers flow directly into the Lobé River where most people earn their living by fishing. We don’t know how many fish or plants will be killed […] The biggest challenge to getting potable drinking water is to meet with the big companies, WIJMA or SOCAPALM and to tell them “Guys, look at what you are causing. Can’t you build wells to heal the communities that are next door?” Anonymous Photovoice participant, Campo Ma’an Model Forest, Cameroon

In Cameroon, a photography-based dialogue method, known as Photovoice, has proven to be an effective tool in triggering the tens-of-thousands of words needed to bring diverse stakeholders together. Photovoice is a community-driven participatory action research method that brings photography and social change together. Projects begin with the belief that members of grassroots communities possess invaluable insights into the complexity of social issues and factors affecting them. With this in mind, project organizers hand digital cameras over to diverse community members and stakeholders so that they can take pictures of and discuss their perspectives on issues, challenges, opportunities and impacts. Descriptions of each image are given by the person who took the photograph. Focusing on images helps involve individuals who often do not feel able to or comfortable with sharing their opinions—for example due to low-literacy levels or historical exclusion.

By initially focusing on describing photographs, rather than presenting positions, the entry into discussing issues becomes less polemic. Facilitated discussions ensue to build common understanding, draft action plans and plan projects. The goal is not to take beautiful images, but to take pictures that launch issue-focused discussions and identify solutions.

Helping build consensus

Indeed, Photovoice has helped build consensus for sustainable agricultural and forest-based development. Cuso International and the African Model Forest Network use Photovoice in Cameroon in the Campo Ma’an Model Forest (CAMAMF) located in Cameroon’s southern region, and in the Dja and Mpomo Model Forest (FOMOD) located in the Eastern region. Photovoice projects involve marginalized groups of women and Bagyéli and Baka indigenous groups in planning and assessing the effectiveness of the B-ADAPT project’s activities. This project works with nearly 2,000 women, youth and indigenous community members to increase agricultural productivity and create small businesses that promote sustainability and build resilience to the challenges posed by changes in climate.

Cuso International presented Photovoice as a participatory planning and M&E method that could be shared and systematized throughout the African Model Forest Network and among representatives of the International Model Forest Network in nine countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. A facilitator’s guide for Photovoice projects was published in EnglishFrench and Spanish.

Co-designing development programs

Cameroon Photovoice Photo

“This photo shows ndo’o, a non-timber forest product near the village of Eboundja. Ada is opening the ndo’o. …” Photovoice participant describes the photo at right.

Photovoice projects in Cameroon’s two Model Forests also brought together multiple voices to design local economic development programs. The method helped identify priorities of civil society organizations and local governments and ensured that sustainable natural resource management plans reflected the goals of community members, the private sector and conservation groups. The research question used in one Photovoice project asked participants to identify opportunities for economic activities linked to agroforestry and non-timber forest product (NTFP) harvesting. One Bagyéli participant voiced his photographic response as follows: “This photo shows ndo’o, a non-timber forest product near the village of Eboundja. Ada is opening the ndo’o. We call it the white diamond of the forest because when we sell it we can make lots of money. Today the Bagyélis no longer have easy access to collect these non-timber forest products. You can make lots of money, so we have competition from the others in the village. So selling is our biggest problem. We can collect a lot, but to make a lot of money, it’s hard. The buyers treat the Bagyélis differently from the others who get higher prices […] To solve these problems we, the Bagyélis, need to organise, stock our products and sell in groups” (photo and text credit: anonymous Photovoice participant, Campo Ma’an Model Forest, Cameroon). From this project, Cuso International and the Campo Ma’an Model Forest followed the local solution identified and supported the creation of a group sales system for NTFP and agricultural products.

Cuso International gratefully acknowledges the financial support for Photovoice projects provided by the Government of Canada through Natural Resources Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. The B-ADAPT project is funded through a grant from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
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