by Zoe Young, InsightShare Associate
It’s not a highly paid job facilitating Participatory Video (PV): there’s a lot of hard work and responsibility, and the challenges can be pretty intense. But for someone devoted to human rights, diverse cultures and conserving the wild, (and with a research and film making background), I can’t imagine a more perfect role.
Recently I completed my first project as an InsightShare Associate. Freshly re-trained as a PV facilitator, I was helping an international team pilot research on cultural conceptions of environmental justice, providing cameras and training to Tanzanian farmers to express what fairness means to them.
Led by a team including Adrian Martin, Nicole Gross-Camp and Iokinhe Rodriguez from the School of Development at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Conservation, Justice, Markets is an international-scale exploration of comparative cultural conceptions of environmental justice. Communities living among protected forests in China, Bolivia and Tanzania are the subjects of research using interviews, questionnaires, economic games and a range of other tools to elicit local ideas of fairness in relation to managing - and making money from - their local woods.
Ever since my own stint as a university researcher exploring global environmental finance and politics in the 1990s, I’ve been painfully aware that conservation has to start by finding out why plants, animals and our healthy human habitat are being destroyed. Only then can those of us with access to political power identify strategic action for change. Understanding the processes at work requires not only thorough scientific and economic baseline data and analysis, but also an awareness of power politics, psychology, anthropology, cultural humility and more. I found that the best way to gain this understanding is to really listen to people with the most immediate knowledge and concerns in the field – who often have next to no political power.
In light of my background as an author (see ‘A New Green Order?’) and documentary maker (see ‘Suits and Savages’) focused on the politics of finance and conservation, I was invited to propose a video element to the Conservation, Justice, Markets project. My suggestion was that video could potentially be used as a research tool in the project from the start, rather than merely an add-on documentary output, and I put the UEA team in touch with InsightShare.
I first met Nick Lunch of InsightShare nearly fifteen years ago, when he came to a grassroots video activist weekend I was hosting in Wiltshire. Since then, I have remained intrigued by work he leads alongside his brother to empower and give ‘voice to the voiceless’, using modern audio-visual technology in Participatory Video. InsightShare is a social enterprise that works with researchers, development agencies and non-governmental organisations to enable marginalised groups to make films. People who may have never touched even a phone before are facilitated to do everything from operating the video camera and filming each other to deciding on their own edit and consent to share their movie.
My motivation to work in such ways came through experience making the documentary Suits and Savages with Dylan Howitt in the late 1990s. Working with indigenous forest dwellers at Nagarhole national park, Southern India, we produced a video letter from them to the World Bank - who were financing an ill-prepared ‘eco-development’ project in indigenous peoples’ lands. I came to wonder whether the exchange we constructed between the forest and the Bank could have been more powerful locally, had the forest dwellers been able to make and screen a film themselves: on their own terms. We couldn’t have done it with that project, which was a case study for my research into the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility, summarized in my book A New Green Order?. But when the opportunity arose, I could begin working with InsightShare’s PV.
Image: Shooting a Follow up to ‘Suits and Savages’, with the ombudsman who investigated corruption in the India Ecodevelopment project at Nagarhole.
Following an initial facilitator training along with colleagues from Carbontradewatch, my first experience of PV in the field was working with Brazilian campesinos besieged by monoculture tree plantations of a type excused by the ‘carbon trade’, and I organized screenings and presented PV community films from around the world in the ‘Right to Development’ forum at the United Nations .
I see PV as a potent research and empowerment tool for working with marginalised groups to agree and express their needs and values in their own terms, and then bring their films onto platforms where the people themselves may not be able to attend.
So how does it work? As PV facilitators we carry a camera kit to a corner of the world, work with local contacts to arrange a representative group and venue, and then hand the camera kit to the workshop group. With some elementary guidance on basic camera use, storyboarding, and editing, the principle of ‘each one, teach one’ enables the group to learn from their successes and mistakes and thus to teach themselves. The mantra ‘mistakes are great’ helps everyone to soon feel like an expert in a collective process of community self-expression.
Image: Kisangi villagers plan their film
Piloting PV for Research in Tanzania
Calling on InsightShare for this project brought us the invaluable support of senior facilitator, Soledad Muniz of Argentina, who trained the UEA team before they left Norwich for Tanzania. Her warmth and efficiency forged our clear path through a multi-layered job of work. The community we worked with was based around a village called Kisangi, an hour or so inland from Kilwa on the fringes of the vast Selous national park.
On our 4-wheel drive each day we passed beautiful great baobab trees - Mibuyu is their name in Swahili, the East African Coastal tongue. The team of researchers included Bolivian, Argentinean, Chinese, Venezuelan, North American, British and of course Tanzanian, so we enjoyed learning each other’s languages on the go.
It was always going to be a challenge for the research team to pilot the use of PV to research local conceptions of a nebulous ethical concept like justice. Challenges were rife: What words do they use in Swahili, how are those translated into other tongues? What is the social, religious and political context of fairness in this area? How do we introduce the research questions and ensure the community films addressed it, without overly skewing the community’s process from the start? How do we generate and can we standardise lessons from this pilot site for the ongoing fieldwork in Bolivia, China and other sites in Tanzania?
I think it’s fair to say that the work exceeded our slightly anxious expectation. .Click here to view the photostory of the project.
The screening of the two films created was held outdoors, under the great trees in the centre of Kisangi village. A local DJ, Franco’s Disco Sounds, played loud and funky tunes prior to the screening, so women and children began dancing in a circle - Sole and I joined in with joy.
Image: Screening set up beneath Kisangi’s trees
The films impressed members of the international UEA research team who had arrived later and not been part of the PV process until then. The core group of researcher-facilitators felt their work had generated valuable research findings even from this pilot phase. And even though the Kisangi community’s needs were not the driver for our pilot project in their woods, they too were happy with the results. Our facilitation team collaborated nicely though some of us had never met before we began fieldwork, and we all learned a great deal. Logistics and timetables were at times of necessity a little ad hoc, but overall enabled us to achieve a lot within a very limited time. Mostly, we look forward to seeing what the researcher trainees do with their new skills in PV as they run their own PV projects in the managed forests of Tanzania, Bolivia and China.
And as for me? I’m basking in a glow of pleasure from seeing an inspired idea of mine made manifest in an international research team using PV to explore environmental justice on the ground. I am also honored to have ‘passed’ my first PV training role working directly with InsightShare. Now that I am an ‘IS Associate’ I’ll working with them to identify and run more exciting grassroots projects here on in.
There are many other fields we would like to bring this tool to bear upon: we may take PV to the upper Amazon to share bio-cultural knowledge of seeds for indigenous food sovereignty and sustainability given climatic change, we may work document fragile heritage buildings across Africa. One day we may even work with the people accused and accusing of ‘witchcraft’, through my connections with the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN). Do you have an idea for using PV? If so, be in touch!
I may not be much of an academic any more, but my research continues. I’m happy that now it takes this potent form: sharing both the investigative process and the insights with some of the world’s least powerful people, while using uniquitous technology to enhance democracy – thanks to InsightShare.