One of our PhD students, Louise, spent some weeks in Argentina exploring the complex relationships involved in implementing a large-scale development initiative in the Gran Chaco. She sent us a postcard with her initial reflections.
Written by Louise Marie Busck-Lumholt
The Gran Chaco is divided between Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. It is a biodiversity hotspot which has undergone severe environmental degradation due to deforestation, cattle ranching, and agricultural expansion and intensification in the past few decades. The region is semi-arid, the summer is hot and rainy, and the winter extremely dry. There are many issues with weak border control and illegal trade of products and people. Throughout history, indigenous peoples have depended on the land for their livelihood and are therefore affected greatly by these challenges. The province of Salta has been especially impacted as its forests are subject to strong commercial interests while having a high density of indigenous populations with insecure tenure.
When I visited Argentina in August, the centre-left had just won the primary elections, raising the prospect of the return of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as Vice president for (the now elected) Alberto Fernández. Overnight, the peso took a deep plunge and there was a strong frustration among the Argentineans I met: economic instability had become business as usual in the country due to shifting government administrations, heavy bureaucracy, weak democratic institutions, a series of corruption cases, and more generally a trend of political incertitude. Multi-lateral institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have gained great importance by providing loans and funding and exert a strong influence on the pathways for development in the country.
This provides an interesting context for my research. My objective is to explore how institutional relationships and organizational behaviour influence flows of information and discourse in development projects, and how this can contribute to the level of distance between theory and practice. I focus on the Forest and Community project, a development initiative in Argentina. The project is financed by the World Bank, managed by the Ministry of Environment, and implemented in three selected Northern provinces: Santiago del Estero, Chaco and Salta. In theory, the Forest and Community project represents a participatory approach to the implementation of the Forest Law of 2007. This involves the development of community management plans that enable funding for the legally required land-use planning. The target group are mainly small- and medium-sized forest owners in indigenous communities and creole campesinos. To explore this case from different perspectives, I visited the administrative offices in Buenos Aires and then continued to the management teams and project sites in Salta to see an example of how project activities are managed locally.
When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I met with representatives from the World Bank and the governmental project administration to explore the decision-making behind the project design. I was presented with an impressive number of implementation manuals including templates and guidelines for community management plans and lists of activities that people can engage with by participation in the project. These include silviculture, eco-tourism, improved production and processing of timber and non-timber forest products, and better access to markets, etc. The immediate impression was a very comprehensive and targeted development initiative.
Project documents for the Forest & Community Project
Not surprisingly, the challenge of turning theory to practice became clearer the closer I got to the project site. In Salta, I worked closely with local NGOs and was surprised to see the very few people expected to implement such a comprehensive project, in a work environment under strong pressure and insecurity associated with shifting governments and potential budget cuts. After spending weeks trying to understand formal procedures, legislation, and policies, I finally got to visit the project site and talk to the Creole Campesinos and indigenous Wichí communities in Salta. The lands appeared extremely dry and pets and livestock were skin and bones. Comparing the detailed and colourful project manuals to the tough reality that surrounded me in the Chaco’s dry season, the challenge of developing an ambitious but realistic project became even clearer.
Discussions with representatives from local NGOs
The Wichí community members I encountered were frustrated after years of project formulation processes, workshops, participatory exercises, and surveys. In their opinion, it would rarely lead to concrete changes in their daily lives. Many of the people I talked to did not even know that there was an ongoing project being implemented in their community, and those who did were quite skeptical. Their message was simple: We need water. Without water, how do you expect us to participate in anything? As far as I understood, they felt their most basic needs being systematically lost in bureaucracy, politics, and complex project procedures.
Wichí community members
I left the field with several questions about the nature of participatory development and forestry projects: Whose needs are being served? How is this apparent bias in focus influenced by the type of participation introduced? Participation is often treated as something inherently desirable, but from conversations with local NGOs there seems to be a struggle balancing the rightness of the approach they need to follow and the delivery and monitoring of results that is expected on the ground. My next fieldwork will be conducted in Washington DC to explore whether and how local responses are considered among some of the multi-lateral institutions contributing to set the agenda of such development interventions.
Photo credits: All photos are taken by the author, Louise Marie Busck-Lumholt