REM - Introduction to the Programme

Arthur Lyon Dahl


Unit A


This programme of units on rural environmental management is perhaps different from most of those that you may be familiar with. It is not intended to help you find a good job or move to the city. Its goal is to help you to ensure your future and that of your children and their children in your community. While it is scientific in its approach, it will not teach you something new so much as to restore your confidence in something your ancestors have done for generations. While developing countries have long depended on experts from industrialized countries, and they can make a useful contribution, you ultimately should become your own best expert on your land and water and other resources. After all, you live there, and the outside expert does not.

This programme is concerned with the environment. The environment is everything around you, the land where you live and farm, the river, lake or sea where you fish, the air you breathe, the plants and animals, and the invisible germs that make you sick. The science of ecology is the study of the relationship between you (or any other living thing) and your environment. It sees you as part of that environment in much the same way that many traditional peoples did not see themselves as separate individuals cut off from the world around them. The units in this programme will therefore show you a way of looking at the world around you, of understanding it with its possibilities and limitations. Above all, they will help you to learn from your environment, so that you can use it and improve it for your benefit and for those around you.

You might ask why you need to study the environment. Everyone, unless they are very young, realizes that their environment is changing. The forest may be disappearing, or it may be harder to grow good crops or to catch fish than it used to be. There may be more people now, or fewer if they have gone somewhere else. There are new kinds of knowledge, new technologies and new chemicals with benefits and dangers. Development has brought new kinds of changes that local people cannot understand or manage from their previous experience. The result is that important resources may be damaged or destroyed.

Studies by many organizations have shown that rural environments have many problems which are getting worse with each passing year, but sometimes so slowly that people do not always realize it, just as you cannot see the minute hand on a clock move. These problems affect the water we drink, and the food we eat, and sometimes even the air we breathe. These problems of the environment can make us poorer, and keep us from developing, and if they get too bad, even make it impossible to live on our land.

It would take many years to find enough scientists and experts to solve these problems (even if they could, which they sometimes cannot). You should not always count on governments; their resources are limited and they are not very good at looking at the long term. The only real solution lies with you, the people who own the land, and farm and fish and use things from the forest. You are the ones who, by your actions every day, can make your local environment better, or worse. But you are also in the best position to control your actions for your own good. You do not always need to depend on outside help. That help can be useful, but how much better to do things for yourselves.

In the past, when there was no help from outside, every culture and every village had local experts, often old men or women who knew every plant in the forest, and every fish in the water, and when and where to plant and harvest. Sometimes such a person was the master of the land, or the master fisherman; or he might have been the village sorcerer, magician or priest. Often every family had their own special knowledge, handed down from generation to generation. In traditional cultures, knowledge of the environment was closely related to religion and magic, but it was discovered in much the same way that a scientist works today, and it was passed on just as the scientist studies the discoveries and theories of the past before starting any research.

The knowledge of the environment accumulated in traditional cultures allowed most societies to live in harmony with their local resources. Where a resource was limited, they learned to control their use or do without it; if they did neither, they perished or emigrated. It is useful to remember that only traditional societies have demonstrated their ability to survive for hundreds of years. There is no certainty that western patterns of development can do much better in the long term, and considerable evidence that they may be much worse for the environment. Sustainable development for the future may have to depend much more on the knowledge and proven management practices developed and used by traditional experts in the past.

Today, unfortunately, few such traditional experts remain. The impact of more than a hundred years of missionaries, colonial administrators, school teachers and others who did not understand the value of this knowledge has destroyed much of this heritage. One aim of this programme is to help you to salvage and to appreciate what remains of this heritage, and to select from it what may be of use today in solving environmental problems. Ultimately, if you devote your life to it, you might again become the local expert able to help all your family and the village to live the best possible life with the resources at their disposal. This is why it is important that the leaders, chiefs and elders, and in fact the whole community, understand what you are learning and work together to improve community life.

Motivation is an essential requirement for success in management of your local environment. You must want to learn everything possible about your environment. This will require patience and many hours of hard work and careful observation. It means never being satisfied with what you already know, and always being ready to admit that you are wrong, or that you do not know enough.

You do not have to be highly educated. A natural intelligence and good powers of observation are much more important than years of schooling. Most local languages have names for the things in the environment, so western scientific terms are not so important unless you want to talk outside your local language group. If you can learn scientific words, so much the better, but that is not the essential thing. Understanding your environment and helping others to understand it is much more important. Many an illiterate fisherman or farmer has much to teach a distinguished scientist about his local area.

The only truly successful development is that which reflects the needs and goals of the people themselves, and that involves them in their own development. This programme will not by itself make development happen, but once you understand the principles explained here, you should be able to help make development more successful and sustainable by careful attention to the possibilities and limits of environmental resources in your own community.


*Why do you want to learn to manage your local environment?

What is the environment?

Why should people know about the environment?

What do you think are the most important environmental problems?

Can you do anything about environmental problems?

*Does your family have special environmental knowledge or responsibilities in your village?

*What do you want to get out of this programme?

*What do you hope to do after the end of the programme?


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Last updated 13 November 2006