In the scientific discourse on development research in indigenous farming communities in the Andes there is widespread agreement on the necessity for a genuine participatory community research approach. However, it has often been difficult to successfully implement and operationalize this postulate. In some instances, western-based scientific concepts and methods could not be harmonized with the value or knowledge systems of small peasant families and the wisdom and experiences of indigenous populations. Quite often, scientists intruded or were “parachuted” into environments and communities without being invited, and then left the region without sharing their findings with local populations. It is obvious that a partnership approach leading to sustained dialogue and cooperation between researchers and local communities requires a considerable amount of patience, listening skills, and respect.
Taking this into consideration, the “Local Development and Democratic Participation Model” formulated by the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program (SANREM CRSP) has made a significant contribution to “agricultural sustainability and the management of natural resources in indigenous and peasant communities” (p xi) in the Andean realm. This book presents the results of 7 years of joint research and cooperation between the SANREM team and UNORCAC, the indigenous organization of the Cotacachi region of the northern Ecuadorian Andes, the native mayor of Cotacachi, and the Kichwa people of Cotacachi. It is skillfully compiled and edited by the reputed anthropologist Robert E. Rhoades, who coordinated this multidisciplinary and cross-cultural research program—and it is also available in Spanish (Rhoades 2006).
While the natural and social research was largely based on the principles and concepts of “western” science, the importance of the wisdom of ancestral indigenous knowledge and of traditional livelihoods, agricultural systems, and social organizations was recognized. The major objective of the study was to make “a contribution to understanding the intersection of two emerging concerns in international development: sustainability and self-determination of indigenous communities” (p 1). In addition to the scientific goals of the research, it was hoped that this work could contribute to the search for solutions to pressing environmental and social problems and provide guidance for local decision-making, planning, and resource management for a better sustainable future.
The multi-year focus on a single specific environment and community takes into account the fact that a genuine partnership approach requires a gradual and patient mutual understanding and learning approach and reflects the need for in-depth locally-based research and development strategies: “... the pursuit of sustainability is a local undertaking not only because each community is ecologically and culturally unique but also because its citizens have specific place-based needs and requirements” (p 1). The process of mutual learning and understanding was facilitated by “repatriating” the findings back to the local community in the form of an extensive local data bank, a “Digital Atlas of Cotacachi Canton,” a multilingual text, a “memory bank,” and the assistance given in making a “County Natural Resources Management Plan.”
It is a particular merit of the book that it accounts not only for the positive experiences and success stories of the researchers, but also for their limitations and difficulties. Major lasting results of this long-term and interdisciplinary research have been its outstanding contribution to the understanding of sustainable rural development in the Andes, to our grasp of the complex interconnections between local identities and global processes and forces, and to recognition and respect for the heritage and wisdom of an indigenous community. Beyond these scientific results, it is the applied merit of this participatory research that it has contributed to enabling or encouraging the Cotacacheños to take “their destinies in their own hands without turning insular” (p 7).
The participatory scientific approach is also reflected in the presentation of the research results and the organizational structure of the book. A total of 31 contributors present their findings and experiences in 21 chapters and a foreword. The latter is written by the reputed mayor of Cotacachi County, Auki Tituaña Males, who underlines the community's full support for the research project based on the “Local Development and Democratic Participation Model,” and appreciates the fact that the research team has made the “customs and traditions and ways of being in nature” (p xii) a central part of their studies.
In an introductory chapter, the editor discusses the objectives of the research program, the research partnership approach and methodology and the operationalization of the research procedures. Part I, on “Time and Landscape in Cotacachi,” discusses the processes shaping the local landscape, the historical ecology of the region, climate change, and the land use changes in the Cotacachi region, and the “Cotacachi Landscape of Memory.” Part II addresses various aspects of the biological diversity and agrobio-diversity of Cotacachi, the importance of home gardens, and the links between biodiversity, food, and culture. Part III focuses on the vital importance of soil and water for the sustainability of Cotacachi, particularly the crucial factors of water availability, water quality, watershed management, and community-based water monitoring.
The last part of the book is a synthesis of its central theme, “Negotiating Development with Identity.” Going beyond the Cotacachi focus but based on the local empirical experiences, a comparative analysis of agricultural change and intervention in Northern Ecuador is presented. In addition, the topic of circular migration and community identity is discussed, as well as the important issues of “Social Capital and Advocacy Coalitions.” A summarizing chapter by Robert E. Rhoades and Xavier Zapata Ríos attempts to enlarge the participatory research experience in Cotacachi, proposing a “Future Visioning Method” which “compares scientifically generated Land Use Change (LUC) scenarios based on robust, predictive models with visions of the same landscape created by local people” (p 299). The authors emphatically state that “scientists must recognize that local people will live by the consequences of planning and outside scientists will not,” and that “highly rational and ‘scientific’ external models of the landscape resources may prove to be meaningless or irrelevant to local people” (p 299). This method can therefore present “alternatives to the future from both scientific and local perspectives and establish a clear platform for debate and planning” (p 299). In the concluding chapter, the editor summarizes the experiences gained from the research program, discussing in particular the relevance, objectives, contents and methods of “Sustainability Science in Indigenous Communities” (p 307). He underscores the need for reconciling local and global agendas in sustainability research and for rural development initiatives in the Andes.
The book contains useful and not always easily accessible references for each chapter—an impressive total of 426 titles in Spanish and English. Unfortunately, no recent literature in German and no references in French have been included, although a number of relevant contributions in these languages exist. The volume is richly illustrated with 127 figures, 4 color plates, and 53 tables. Given its rather high price (though the Spanish version is available for US$ 18), a larger number of maps and photographs in color would have been welcome. An extensive index facilitates browsing through the book.
In summary, this volume must be considered a pivotal contribution to interdisciplinary rural sustainability research, with an exemplary partnership approach between scientists and local stakeholders, and as a guideline for the design of, and methodologies for, rural development initiatives. The research team, authors, and editor have to be congratulated for their success. Despite its rather high price, this book merits a wide circulation in the academic world, within the international NGO community, and in government circles. The publisher should consider the publication of a more affordable paper edition and/or a CD-ROM version.