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Friday, March 3, 2017

We breathe with the Earth


Recently, I had an interview with Hamshahri, the major national Iranian Persian-language newspaper, on our community-based initiative. I tried to talk in a simple language since this was going to be read by general public. It was published on 25 February 2017. Zahra Taalaani, the journalist, interviewed me and prepared the text. I decided to translate the text into English. Here is the text.

We breathe with the earth
Every day, facts and figures on environmental degradation by human beings are published in the media, and officials or activists warn about the protection of environment or natural resources.
They believe that any environmental loss affects human beings more than others, because resources are limited and the life is endangered. Saeid Nouri Neshat, an environment activist, accompanied by a team, are working, more than three years, to empower local people in villages, not only to find a "way" or a "method" for conservation of their environment by them, but they can have a better livelihood. He calls this method 'facilitation'.
The increasing destruction of forests and pastures, excessive utilization of mines and natural resources, drought and the climate change, are happening due to the modern human lifestyle that has eroded the "earth" as our habitat. There are different ways to protect the environment but Saeid Nouri Neshat believes that empowering individuals, especially in rural areas, is the best solution for decreasing the destruction of forests and natural resources.
"I was involved in environmental activities, but then I understood that if people are causing damage to the environment, it is because of their economic pressures in their life", he says. "I found out when they have a better livelihood or a diversification of livelihoods, then the resources are better conserved." In other words, there is a direct relationship between the poverty reduction and environment conservation. Therefore, they started to focus on empowering people in the target areas. They helped them to understand their roots, to recognise their assets and to help each other to come out of the poverty.
He emphasized that the most important issue is to engage local communities and to promote group activities among villagers. It is, however, very difficult and has its special delicacy. There are certain helpful potentials in local culture and Islamic beliefs of rural people. The group sessions are usually held in mosques and hoseiniehs in villages; people are sensitized to the situation of their local communities and become ready to implement a series of activities in their own families or in their own village. In this way, they experience “participation”.
Saeid Nouri Neshat, or as the villagers call him “Uncle Saeid”, says about his special way of entrepreneurship: “it is not only entrepreneurship, it has to encompass other aspects of life. In other words, one cannot be active in economic issues; one cannot expect the situation remains sustainable; people have to think about other social problems that might even be the reasons for the unwanted economic status.” He continues that in one village, the produced chilies were first sold to the salesmen and the dealers – and the people could not earn enough money. But now, they are working on processing their chilies, using the guidance by the local group. In this way, they can earn more. They have held two chili festivals by now. At the present time, the facilitators have been working in eighteen communities in three provinces of Kermanshah, Semnan and Gilan. The provincial NGOs (Tanin Tabiat Tirgan in Shahroud; Hafezan Tabiat Payedar in Anzali, and Paraw in Kermanshah) and their facilitators are assisting in community work and livelihood activities.
Nouri Neshat explains about their methods of intervention and adds: “we try to be among people with a mind free from any imposed pattern or model; we help them to come together, and encourage them to talk about their existing livelihoods and interests. Our major concern is to maintain rural solidarity for achieving the goals set by themselves”. One idea is to establish revolving credit funds or local development funds. In many villages where they are active, such small funds have been formed out of rural savings and these funds are helpful for their economy.

Their colleagues have gained invaluable experience during the past years and this has facilitated their work. “Working at communities is time-consuming and one cannot expect to attain the results exactly at the time once designed in the project”. The experience has proved that the community work goes on slowly. The facilitators have to be patient and have to encourage local people to take the steps of empowerment gradually. Also, they have found out that the women are more inclined to participate in social activities. This is possibly because women have more free time, or they regard “participation” as an important issue or they enjoy participating and group activities more than others. Nouri Neshat says that they tried to form men’s groups too; only in one village, a group composed of men shaped, however, even in this group, the activities were more or less focused on producing handicrafts by rural women. In other villages, there are registered cooperatives with women and girls as their members.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Local knowledge reviewed in Nepal workshop

Today I attended a workshop on indigenous and local knowledge in Nepal held by IPBES - UNESCO. I am so happy since not only I learnt about the features of local knowledge, various papers were presented on cases of local knowledge in different Asian countries. My paper was about the local knowledge of Qanat in Iran, and I presented the results of the workshop on Qanat which was held in Kerman city by the Boompajuhan Society in September 2016. The report was prepared by me, Nina Aminzadeh and Mehdi Almasi.

The international Center on Qanats and Historic Hydraulic Structures gives a definition of 'Qanat’ as “an underground gallery that conveys water from an aquifer or a water source to less elevated fields. In practice, a Qanat consists of a series of vertical shafts in sloping ground, interconnected at the bottom by a tunnel with a gradient more gentle than that of the ground. The first shaft (mother well) is sunk, usually into an alluvial fan, to a level below the groundwater table. Shafts are sunk at intervals of 20 to 200 meters in a line between the groundwater recharge zone and the irrigated land. From the air, a Qanat system looks like a line of anthills leading from the foothills across the desert to the greenery of an irrigated settlement.” This is mostly a physical definition for Qanat, and to my point of view, it does not give an anthropological or cultural view of the Qanat system. It does not illustrate the intangible aspects of this ancient irrigation system. Especially when local management of a Qanat is studied, then certain social aspects of Qanat are revealed. The experiences of women in Takaab region in Kerman province - as explained by my colleague, Nina Aminzadeh, show how Qanat can act as an issue for solidarity.

I had also the chance to learn about the local knowledge on management of pastures of the Bakhtiari tribe in Zagros Area in Iran. She properly explained how the land reform has affected the whole system of nomadic management of natural resources during the past five decades and with settlement of part of their population in villages, the process of overgrazing has also increased.

There were other presentations from Pakistan, India, and Nepal. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Local Knowledge in UNESCO Workshop in Thailand

I had a great chance to attend the Indigenous and local knowledge dialogue workshop for the IPBES regional assessment for Asia-Pacific which was held in Chiang Mai, Thailand from 26 to 28 June 2016. The workshop was held by the IPBES supported by UNESCO, UNEP, UNDP and FAO. There were three groups of participants in the workshop: experts of local knowledge who were assigned to write down the chapters of a book on indigenous and local knowledge for Asia and Pacific region; those who were holders of the knowledge from local communities; and those who had access to the local knowledge or have written about that in their own countries. Therefore, the workshop was like a dialogue to see how the chapters have to be written. The participants were from Iran, Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, India, The Philippines, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

I am not going to give a full report of the workshop; I think those responsible for the workshop will prepare a report and it can be accessible through the IPBES website. In fact, the workshop was a good learning point for me; to learn more in deep about the local knowledge. One major lesson learned was about the system. Before, I knew that any local knowledge has its own value within a local system; during the workshop, I could feel it; you cannot talk about Qanat in Iran without talking about the local management system that governs it. When one of the colleagues was presenting about the irrigation system based on the local knowledge, I found out how the decision-making process within a local system can have a major role in using the local knowledge. The government could launch a parallel system to the one existing in the local context but it is not clear how these two can work together. The local system plays a major role in practicing the local knowledge. This can also be seen among nomads in Iran where the existing local system brings together all tribal members and without that, the local knowledge will loose its intrinsic value.

For workshop organizers and the authors, the role of women in protecting the local knowledge and their active participation in local systems and management activities was of great importance. I had a chance to talk about the role of women in a project on Qanat revival in Takab, and I was happy to mention that how women have been able to have shares of water from their Qanat.

There were discussions about the policy-making and how the holders of the indigenous and local knowledge have to affect the process of policy-making. I had the chance to talk about the issue in one of the workshops, and I tried to discuss the issue while using the model of a political system raised by Easton.

Other important issues were the local knowledge on seeds and agriculture, watershed management, local knowledge in oceans (raised by the participant from the southern India), drivers in promoting or obstructing local knowledge.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Two important principles in community work

1) Work in groups
The facilitator who is alone, and who goes to the community individually, may be successful however, let’s do not forget what promote what we live. We are going to train people to be together while we are alone. People learn from our behavior, and thus, I recommend that we have to be together too. It means that instead of one facilitator, be a team of facilitators who work together. This is our very precious experience when we were involved in poverty reduction project of the State Welfare Organization in Iran years ago. The facilitating bodies were the social work clinics in provinces. The clinics were run based on an individually managed entity. Therefore, they were somehow promoting individual management and work among communities. Just imagine: lonely facilitator talks about working together. It does not work. Even in our dialogues with some of the managers of the clinics, we heard they said: “there is not a culture of group activities in Iran, how you are trying to promote community work”. This is important to add that there should be a belief in community work too. Not only facilitators have to work in a team, they have to believe in team work. They must talk about their real experiences of success.

2) Do not be frustrated even if people are frustrated
In certain cases of community work (this is about Boompajuhan activities in communities), we found that people were not interested to continue: they are tired or they have not been successful in gaining the attention of others to their precious work or they could not move forward. In certain instances, you might hear that we could not continue since it has been useless. The facilitators have to be patient, and try to have meetings (or processes) with people to find solutions together. This is a problem like many other problems of the village that might have been resolved. This could have a solution too. Then encourage your local group to have a meeting. The members of the local group could talk about that. A structured dialogue could help them to understand the causes of the situation. Be patient and do not become frustrated.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The difference between a community and a neighborhood

A simple answer to the question on the difference of “community” and “neighborhood” could be a reference to the notion of “geography” since neighborhood has a strong geographic element, however, the first and the most important element in a community are the united people (or people bound by something) that may be in close proximity (like a neighborhood) or may not be. In this case, some may add that a neighborhood is a geographical notion while it is sometimes used in a physical sense, while community is a sociological one. Some may add that in a community, people are somehow united (by a common goal or a common ground) – they might have shared activities or even group events – where the people feel a sense of belonging. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has a boundary while there might be no reference to boundaries when we are talking about communities. For instance when you are referring to a neighborhood in a street (the street acts like an official designation – which means officially the street exists), then this street is a like a boundary that defines the neighborhood.

Others may add that a community is composed of certain number of neighborhood while a neighborhood is a community. In fact, each neighborhood may be one sub-community – if a community is composed of more than one neighborhood.

There might be consideration of rural and urban communities when we are discussing about the difference about a community and a neighborhood. In urban communities, neighborhood is important to consider while in rural communities people are living in neighborhood while there might be a sense of solidarity among people, which means a community is a neighborhood too.

There are also those who believe that there is no difference between the two notions: neighborhood and community can be used interchangeably – exactly when they are refereeing to those who are living in proximity and especially when people are from one race or ethnicity.
Photo taken from the book:
Facilitation of the poverty reduction processes:
a community-based approach (2014), published in Iran in Farsi
the picture has been designed
by Maryam Mansouri (Yazd)

In certain urban projects, neighborhood gains more important while whatever you do can be call a community-based activity with a powerful neighborhood component. Recognition of this fact can be important since neighborhood may have certain implications in the work. For instance dividing the community into neighborhood blocks can be done by the people themselves and they can even find names for their neighborhood sub-community. This is especially an important part of any community-based activity in a mega city like Tehran. I have noticed that you can not facilitate a meeting on a common issue in a community where people are from different neighborhoods, while when they are from one neighborhood, then the social capital (the level of trust) increases and the discussion or any further community-based research action moves more smoothly.

In conclusion, I request my facilitator colleagues in a big city like Tehran to pay a special attention to the notion of neighborhood in their community-based activities.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Shamans and Midwifes in Senoi Temiars - About the lecture by Prof. Sue Jennings

Yesterday (3 April 2014), I had a chance to be present in an exciting lecture by Prof. Dr. Sue Jennings entitled:  From Top To Bottom: Complementary Roles Of Traditional Temiar Midwives And Shaman”, that was held by the Gender Studies Programme of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (University of Malaya) as part of its Gender Seminar Series - jointly with the Center for Malaysia Indigenous Studies.

The whole lecture was about the maintenance of health and healing practices among the Temiar peoples that are performed by experienced village mid-wives and shaman. The mid-wives main role is the assurance that newly-delivered mothers are out of danger, and immediate bonding (attachment) happens between the new-born and the mother. In contrast the shaman is concerned with the upper body, in particular the strengthening of head-souls. Nevertheless, everyone takes responsibility for not creating situations that could cause illness or misfortune to others. 




The important thing about the seminar was that the information offered by her, was the results of her doctoral fieldwork with the Senoi Temiars and her continued contact with them as an adopted member until the present. She has been there with them with her three children. She explained that when she was adopted as a daughter and became a family member, she could live in the community. She talked about the blood of a child birth (which makes women powerful), low mortality rate among them (possibly because they are using such traditional ways of giving birth) and the three shamanic seances of playing, healing and tiger (by major and minor shamans). 

The tiger seance was of particular interest to me, since she explained that Shaman trances in a shelter that is built inside a house or the area where the dance is performed. She said that the dance brings to our mind that there is always a little tiny tiger inside us.

She also explained about the small children and how they are socialized into the roles by the Shaman and midwives (since the very early time child starts to interact and somehow it helps the baby to develop his or her personality). By showing certain pictures she said how quickly the children take the family roles. 

She also explained about midwifery and how she does her own role during the birth; especially she said about the symbolic washing of mother and then the child. She said that she has not seen any involvement of men in child birth: "they stood outside smoking waiting to receive a news". 

Moreover she talked about non-violence culture among the locals; naming of children and parents (how the child birth affects the naming); the effects of people's culture on her own family members.

She invited us to read the chapter written by her about the dance and shamans: Jennings, Sue (1985) "Temiar dance and the maintenance of order"  in Spencer, P. (Ed.). (1985). Society and the dance: the social anthropology of process and performance. Cambridge University Press. I have not seen the chapter yet, and I hope I can be able to read the chapter as soon as possible.

This is the website managed by her: http://suejennings.com/

Sunday, March 30, 2014

When all participants can participate in all topics...

In Farsi, I call it "Miz-e Dav-var" that can be translated as "rotating table". It is a facilitation technique. In English, it has got different names: Carousel technique or Rotating Review, World Café, Knowledge Café or Charette procedure. It is a brainstorming technique used by facilitators, when there are different subjects in a session and all would like to participate. 

For a definition, I quote from the website of readwritethink.org a part about Carousel technique or rotating review. The technique here has been used for students in a classroom:
"While taking part in Carousel Brainstorming, small groups of students rotate around the classroom, stopping at various “stations” for a designated period of time (usually 1-2 minutes).  At each station, students activate their prior knowledge of a topic or concept and share their ideas with their small group.  Each group posts their ideas at each station for all groups to read." (http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/brainstorming-reviewing-using-carousel-30630.html)

I read in selba.org that the technique of World Café has been created and developed by Juanita Brow and William Isaacs in their book The World Café. As explained in Selba.org the technique is as follows: 
"The big group is divided in small groups of 4-5 people sitting around a table with a paper tablecloth —to write, draw, or doodle in the midst of the conversation— and talking about a given subject presented under the form of a question. In each table there is a table 'host' who stays at the same table throughout the process. After 20-30 minutes the general host invites participants to change tables. The table host explains briefly the essence of the previous conversation to the guests who arrive for the next round. After three rounds of progressive conversation there is a dialogue among the whole group with the intention of gathering and recording key ideas, questions or insights that might be useful for action planning or other purposes." (http://www.selba.org/EngTaster/Social/Facilitation/FacilitationTechniques.html)
In Wikipedia, it has been written that the World Café originated at the home of Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in 1995 when a "large circle" conversation became disrupted by rain. It is called World Café since A café ambience is created in order to facilitate conversation. The knowledge café or K-Café (and sometimes conservation café) shares certain features with The World Cafe. I think it is good to have a look at this slide to know more about knowledge café: http://www.slideshare.net/dgurteen/introduction-to-the-knowledge-cafe



Of course, the technique may go back more deeply into history if we call it Charette procedure. I found the following part in Mind Tools
"The Charette Procedure (sometimes spelled 'Charrette')... involves organizing people into several small groups, each of which brainstorms ideas one-after-the-other until everyone involved has had a chance to contribute fully. Derived from the French word for wagon, it comes from the practice of architecture students in the early 1800s, who used carts to rush their drawings from one place to another to get final approvals. In much the same way, when you use the Charette Procedure, you take the ideas generated by a group, and cart them over to the next group, for them to be built upon, refined, and finally prioritized." 
After this introduction about the different names and history, I have to emphasize that this technique is not only talking, it is a technique of thinking and producing something that is created through brainstorming while everyone in the group has participated in the production process. and of course, it is a different technique from Open Space Technology where there are more people and it may take longer for several days. Meanwhile, speed geeking is a similar tool used for presentation.

I have used the technique several times in different contexts (villages and urban communities). It works. People love to become involved in such a model of thinking and working together.

The procedure for facilitating:  


  1. The content: how many questions are on the tables? Questions are related and fill in a bigger puzzle. 
  2. Arrange the setting and make ready what would be needed for each group (paper, markers, flip charts,...)
  3. Explain for the participants how the technique is going to be done.
  4. Divide the participants into small groups of 5 - 7 people (sometimes more; it depends how many participants are in your workshop and how questions have to be responded). If there are four questions and there are 24 participants, then you have four small groups of six participants.
  5. One person is chosen as group facilitator (it can be called host or recorder). Choosing can be done by the workshop facilitator or by the group; as he or she needs to have facilitation skills, it would be better to be selected by the workshop facilitator. 
  6. Provide each group with a discussion topic or question. 
  7. Establish a time limit (8 to 10 minutes) for the groups to generate ideas in response to the topic. The time limit can determined through looking at : 1) number of the questions; 2) how deep the questions are; 3) participants energy; and 4) and the time you have for the workshop.   
  8. At the end of the time period, we can do in two ways: a) Participants sit in their place and the group facilitator moves and takes the responses from their group and rotate to the next group. b) Each group of participants moves clock-wise or counter clock-wise and the group facilitators remain in their own place.
  9. Once the group facilitator joins his/her new group (for 8.a) or once each group of participants joins the next facilitator (for 8.b), the group is asked to review the information generated by the previous group and quickly add any other ideas or comments they have. 
  10. Repeat the the previous step, until each group has had an opportunity to discuss every issue. Some facilitators prefer that during the last rotation, each group should prioritize the most significant or important ideas generated on that topic. 
  11. The total group is reconvened. Each group facilitator summarizes the discussion and priorities generated by the topic. The workshop facilitator may connect the ideas if needed. The puzzle may become complete at his stage.
Revolving tables, Rotating Review, Carousel technique, Charette procedure, World Cafe or Knowledge Cafe all seem to be one facilitation technique: All Participants Participate in All Topics, and do not forget, it is not a decision-making method.

This method is useful when the facilitator is involved in carrying out a SWOT workshop. I have also used it in knowledge sharing workshops when there are five or six topics at the end.