3 Community-Based Monitoring

Since the time that the Western European civil society natural history organizations undertook formative field studies in the 18th century, to the sportsmen organizations of North America that helped spur the demise of market-hunting in 19th and 20th centuries, to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon currently carrying out GIS mapping initiatives, citizens have often had a significant and meaningful role to play in conservation (Fernández-Gimenez et al. 2008, Reiger 2001, Tripathi and Bhattarya 2004, Withers and Finnegan 2003). Yet just as science in general comes in many shapes and sizes and under a variety of distinct monikers, the manifestations of scientific research that hinge upon citizen involvement are numerous and varied. Community-based monitoring is but one item on this long list that also includes community-science, citizen science, participatory research, community co-management, and civic science (Fernández-Gimenez et al. 2008). The key differences among these endeavors is often found in the degree of influence that resource managers and scientists wield, the manner in which community or citizen is defined, and the specific questions or goals the stakeholders wish to address.

Community-based monitoring, broadly defined, is ecological monitoring that in some manner directly incorporates local community members and/or concerned citizens. The traditional approach is for scientists and resource managers to develop protocols that they deem most likely will generate rigorous data and then transfer the necessary information to communities for them to carry out the protocols (Fernandez-Gimenez 2008).   A successful transfer of knowledge either entails the stratified sampling of communities and citizens to ensure that only those most apt to conduct science are invited to participate or the provision of a thorough training in a workshop format (Fernandez-Gimenez 2008). The goals and objectives of such monitoring programs typically address the needs of resource agencies, scientists, and citizens that highly value Western science (Fernandez-Gimenez 2008). This approach, however, perhaps ideal in terms of the rigors of the scientific world, has waned in efficacy in recent years as community-based monitoring programs (CBMP) expand into more remote locales with communities and citizens that are less familiar and comfortable with the objectives and rigors of Western scientific inquiry (Sheil 2001, Spellerberg 2005). In order to implement programs effectively that are viable over the desired space and length of time in these new contexts, non-traditional, arguably less scientific designs have become more common (Fraser et al. 2006).

A Conflict Over Benefits

Ecological monitoring is complex and increasingly sophisticated with each new publication and technological development. To be able to generate convincing inferences grounded in strong data, monitoring program designs require a high level of scientific rigor, powerful statistical design and analysis, and the consideration of specific, science-based questions. This is particularly true as contemporary scientific research reveals the enormous extent of the uncertainties and complexities we confront when we endeavor to monitor or even understand ecosystems and leads us to question many past assumptions and mandate even more powerful, precise techniques (Kay and Regier 2000, Resilience Alliance Website 2008). It should surprise few that the interface between the newer, arguably less rigorous community-based monitoring program designs and the increasing demand for more rigorous science is an area ripe for tensions. Indeed, especially with tenure and promotion driven demands for rigor, many scientists are hesitant to to value monitoring protocols as particularly useful or ecologically meaningful when they are designed to satisfy the objectives of citizens unfamiliar with Western science and its associated monitoring techniques. So why might it be worthwhile to continue working with and encouraging the design of community-based monitoring? Well, because a CBMP’s contribution to science is but one of many important considerations; there are also a variety of economic, ethical, educational, and functional reasons to design and implement a CBMP. In some contexts, these reasons may be strong enough to compensate for deviation from the institutional ideal.


At times, developing community-based monitoring programs in lieu of scientist-managed programs is either the best fiscal option or, given severe budget constraints, the only option. Natural resource agencies and universities have often been faced with financial constraints. The fiscal challenges have led to notable increases in community-based monitoring. In Canada, for instance, environmental agencies suffered budget declines of 30-60% through the late 20th and early 21st century, an amount substantial enough to begin to compromise their capacity to remain viable institutions (Plummer and Fitzgibbon 2004). Confronted with the threat of becoming an institutional anachronism, considerable expense-cutting actions such as phasing out a number of its programs, including many monitoring initiatives, seemed all but inevitable (Whitelaw et al. 2003). Yet given the agencies’ and the public’s mutual need for information about the local environment, rather than cutting programs altogether, more economically efficient alternatives were sought and found. Since the 1990s, natural resource management across Canada has been marked by the devolution of monitoring and resource management responsibilities to citizens and communities (Whitelaw et al. 2003).   This strategy has effectively reduced costs, prevented data gaps in monitoring programs, and allowed resource agencies to retain a fairly comprehensive understanding of Canada’s resource base despite their fiscal crisis (Plummer and Fitzgibbon 2004, Whitelaw et al. 2003).

Although some of the motives of this devolution have been questioned (Plummer and Fitzgibbon 2004), Canadian community-based monitoring has emerged in a fascinating diversity of forms over the past few decades. A large number of communities are involved in the attempt to establish the Canadian Community Monitoring Network (Figure 3.1). From the successful monitoring of bowhead whales by the Inuit (Berkes et al. 2007), to Community Environment Watch’s successful work with school groups (Sharpe et al. 2000), as well as a number of unviable efforts (Fraser et al. 2006, Sharpe and Conrad 2006), Canada’s budget reductions have resulted in a scenario that is ripe for research and driven by an exciting need for scientists, resource managers, and communities to learn and work adaptively in the field of community-based monitoring. In the contemporary economy, monitoring in a sparsely populated country such as Canada would likely be more expensive and less extensive without these initiatives.

Figure 3.1 In Canada, as of 2003, a surprisingly large number of communities were committed to participating in the Canadian Community Monitoring Network (redrafted from Whitelaw et al. 2003).
Figure 3.1 In Canada, as of 2003, a surprisingly large number of communities were committed to participating in the Canadian Community Monitoring Network (redrafted from Whitelaw et al. 2003).


Ethical considerations can outweigh perceived scientific deficiencies and make community-based monitoring the most appropriate choice. Broadly speaking, the movement over the last several decades away from traditional, top-down techniques toward strategies that involve citizens has not been exclusive to community-based monitoring but has been occurring throughout the world of natural resource and protected area management and conservation (Phillips 2003). One of the fundamental causes of this shift has been the realization by many conservationists and resource professionals that traditional, command-and-control strategies are ineffective in many new conservation frontiers, such as inhabited landscapes and in communities unfamiliar with Western concepts of science and monitoring (Phillips 2003). The need to better navigate the interface between the environment and humans has necessarily led to an array of interdisciplinary approaches to conservation science that incorporate anthropology, psychology, geography, and sociology, and encourage collaboration among researchers from these fields (Berkes 2004, Saunders 2003).

These new conservation partners often make powerful arguments based on democratic and educational theories, that resource managers and conservationists have ethical obligations to involve communities and citizens as comprehensively as possible in the decision-making processes related to our shared, finite resource base (Chase et al. 2004). Further, empirical data have shown that, relative to more exclusive approaches, supporting local governance and empowering communities in the context of resource monitoring and management can have a more desirable impact on social capital, particularly the long-term ability of community members to network and self-organize, can increase local satisfaction with monitoring and resource management in general, and can encourage more sustainable local land-use decisions (EMAN and CNF 2003). Given these positive impacts, in many cases it is the institutional obligation of resource professionals and conservationists to embrace new approaches that involve citizens and communities (Halvorsen 2001, 2003; Meretsky et al. 2006).

Such ethical obligations are often underscored in scenarios involving indigenous peoples. Many resource agencies have controversial pasts in which they evicted or excluded such communities from their traditional lands by forcefully designating the areas as public, erecting literal or figurative fences to forbid access, and assuming full control of management and monitoring (Spence 1999). In the contemporary landscape in which the presidents and prime ministers of developed nations have begun issuing formal apologies to indigenous peoples to atone for these historic injustices, continuing top-down monitoring programs would be inappropriate in many cases (Smith 2008). If resource managers and conservationists are to have any influence on monitoring initiatives on these traditional lands, it should be in the role as a facilitator between the Western science of ecological monitoring and the local ecological knowledge of indigenous communities and any such arrangements must be agreed upon by locals. This is increasingly recognized in conservation circles (Meffe et al. 2002, Phillips 2003).

Education and Community-Enrichment

The topic of human-environment bonds has received considerable attention in academia.   For instance, there is an ongoing debate that deals with the causes and implications of the ebbing interaction between our country’s youth and nature (Louv 2006, Stanley 2007). Perhaps the most well-known contributions are those that explore the concept of “nature-deficit disorder” (Louv 2006; 2007). Although this concept remains largely inconclusive, actively nurturing human-environment bonds has been linked to the attenuation of a variety of mental and physical health impairments such as obesity, attention-deficits, and depression; to increases in creativity and community-interaction; and to decreases in aggression (Louv 2007, Stanley 2007, Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2008). Further, many of these results are not exclusive to children, but have also been shown to extend to entire families and communities; the enhancement of these bonds should thus be pursued (Lowman 2006). Community-based monitoring constitutes one way to do this. Indeed, monitoring programs have been found to be an excellent vehicle for family and community-based nature education that fosters social learning and general increases in well-being, and inspires the construction of whole family and community conservation ethics (Fernandez-Gimenez et al. 2008, Lowman 2006). As it has also been determined that the benefits of a healthy relationship with the environment accrue whether the bonds are between fishers and people or pigeons and people, this argument applies to a variety of settings, from urban to rural (Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2008, Dobbs 1999). It is not hard to imagine a situation in which the educational benefits or a high degree of community-enrichment could be enbraced by scientists who are otherwise reluctant to establish a CBMP.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Celebrate Urban Birds” project is one example of a monitoring program with the goal of maximizing these benefits. The project trains citizens across the United States to identify 16 species of birds and then conduct 10-minute point counts for them and submit the data online (Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2008, K. Purcell pers. comm.). Although the monitoring protocol is designed in such a manner that it provides insight into the effects of urbanization on avian fauna, the argument could certainly be made that the principal objective of the Urban Birds project is to enrich communities via nature-based, experiential learning. Indeed, the group openly encourages participants to synthesize monitoring with urban-greening projects, artistic and musical events, and a variety of other activities designed to reinforce community-spirit and service; it also seeks to cross cultural boundaries by providing materials and resources in both Spanish and English languages. The Urban Birds project, while a monitoring program, values the education of urban communities in conservation related topics and the improvement of their well-being at least as highly as it does data collection (Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2008).

Some practitioners utilize the educational potential of community-based monitoring to advance a particular conservation agenda (Dobbs 1999).  Many of these initiatives are designed to prevent the development of sensitive natural areas and minimize the impact of sprawl (Dobbs 1999).  Wildlife ecologist Susan Morse of Keeping Track® in Vermont, for instance, runs workshops in which she trains citizen groups organized by regional conservation agencies and land trusts to locate tracks, scat, and sign of a number of wide-ranging mammal species within their core habitat. Susan further provides the trainees with a primer on the importance of conservation planning (Fig 3.2) (S. Morse, pers. comm., Keeping Track® 2009).  This background prepares the groups to conduct Keeping Track®’s science-based track and sign surveys along established transects in their communities once per season on a long-term basis. The year to year detection of the selected mammal species presence within unfragmented, core habitats augments understanding of the species’ local habitat preferences and in some cases provides indices of relative abundance. Perhaps most importantly, for the involved stakeholders, such information attests to the ecological integrity and conservation worthiness of these habitats. Analyzing the data and considering this information in the context of current themes in conservation biology enables more informed decision-making about the appropriate placement of future development (Dobbs 1999, S. Morse pers. comm.). Keeping Track® is originator of the idea that citizens can and should participate in the long term collection of wildlife data with the specific purpose of informing conservation planning at community and eco-regional levels. The protocol is also designed and carried out to enhance the bonds between communities and their ecological surroundings by engaging them in a type of monitoring that maximizes their interaction with the local ecosystems and wildlife (Hass et al. 2000).

Figure 3.2 Black bear sign found during a Keeping Track® workshops. Participants are trained to seek out, photograph, and record data on sign such as this as a component of the community-based monitoring programs they undertake in their local ecosystems.
Figure 3.2 Black bear sign found during a Keeping Track® workshops. Participants are trained to seek out, photograph, and record data on sign such as this as a component of the community-based monitoring programs they undertake in their local ecosystems.

Establishing a network of concerned communities that use the same monitoring protocol also creates the potential to scale up the local data and thereby form a cogent argument for increased habitat connectivity for the target species on the regional and national scale. Indeed, Keeping Track® has trained groups of citizens across the entire country (S. Morse, pers. Comm.). Over the years, as data have accumulated, Susan Morse has also developed more rigorous methods of monitoring via tracking, particularly through the detection of scent-marking sign such as felid retromingent scent posts and bear mark trees. These new methods have led Morse to believe that “we can powerfully use scent-marking in our track and sign surveys to predict where to find mammal sign and then deploy remote cameras to photo-capture individual resident animals over time” (S. Morse, pers. comm.). This could increase the power of the tracking-based monitoring, because if groups can identify individuals captured in the photos, conservation planners may be capable of differentiating between resident and non-resident wildlife. Such information would further inform development and conservation planning and facilitate the appropriate application of wildlife laws and regulation.

It is important to underscore that there is a fine line between incorporating environmental education and community-enrichment initiatives into monitoring programs and the incorporation of monitoring into environmental education and community-enrichment initiatives. It is the responsibility of scientists to be fully transparent about how a particular monitoring program should be developed and how data that results from the effort should be appropriately interpreted. In this same vein, it is integral that conservationists and resource managers clearly state the goals and objectives of education-related community-based monitoring programs before design and implementation to reduce the potential for conflict over time.


Community-based monitoring may simply be the most or only effective approach under some circumstances (Sheil 2001). This appears to be particularly true if the objective of an ecological monitoring program is related to guiding or influencing active management or conservation activities in rural, inhabited landscapes in which communities participate in resource-extraction or agriculture-based economies. Factors such as the intimacy of community relationships with the environment, geographic isolation of the ecosystem under consideration, or the contentious nature of interfering with or manipulating extractive behaviors from the top-down, may mean that some activities are more easily influenced using community- rather than institutionally-based monitoring programs (Sheil 2001). In fact, in some cases strict, top-down monitoring and management initiatives and associated regulations promote local resistance, resource depletion, the deterioration of sustainability, and the undermining of scientist-citizen relationships (Berkes 2007, Bjorkell 2008). This is often true when scientific information is used to manage landscapes such in a manner that supersedes traditional, local programs or paints local-ecological knowledge as illegitimate (Bjorkell 2008, Huntington et al. 2006). Indeed, in certain contexts, community-based and collaborative approaches centered on local institutions and ideas are simply much more informative, more likely to result in effective management, governance, and conservation on a local scale, and more likely to generate monitoring programs that are viable over the desired space and time (Bjorkell 2008, Huntington et al. 2006). In Madagascar, for instance, arranging participatory wetland monitoring programs through local institutions allayed citizen concern that the government fishery agency was using its power to profit from local fisheries (Andrianandrasana et al. 2005). This, in turn, helped legitimize fishery laws and regulations that citizens had previously not respected due to the belief that government officials implemented them in their own self-interest.

The spatial scale of a monitoring program can also make a community-based protocol more effective than one operated by scientists. For projects that span entire regions, countries, or continents, the coordination of a sufficient number of ecologists, biologists, and resource managers to meet project objectives is usually impractical. However, organizing a network of citizens to undertake monitoring activities, although still a challenge, may be more practical. For example, the MEGA-Transect project along the 3,625-km long Appalachian Trail, includes nearly 100 volunteers to “handle equipment, gather data, and record observations” to “monitor environmental trends (Cohn 2008). This project, managed by researchers at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, also includes a 960-km citizen-run motion-sensor camera survey of the trail from Virginia to Pennsylvania (Cohn 2008). Without the aid of citizens and communities, such monitoring and data collection efforts would likely be unrealistic. The North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Breeding Bird Atlas programs discussed below as well as in Chapter 2 provide other examples.

Designing and Implementing a Community-Based Monitoring Program

Although this list of potential benefits is by no means exhaustive (see Fernandez-Gimenez et al. 2008, for instance), it is clear that community-based monitoring has the potential to yield rich, varied results, not all of which are grounded in science. This implicitly reveals that these programs often have a more diverse set of stakeholders than those run entirely by scientists. This can make designing and implementing an effective protocol for a CBMP a very difficult task. Indeed, communities in conjunction with the scientists, resource professionals, and practitioners working with them, are characterized by distinctive amalgamations of needs, desires, opportunities, and education levels that all interact in intricate ways over varying spatial and temporal scales. Just like the ecosystems in which they are embedded, such groups are not homogenous entities, but uniquely complex systems. In light of this, there is no single protocol for the most effective or desirable CBMP; rather, the components of each must be determined based on the specific scientific, ecological, social, and cultural scenario in which it is to be implemented. The existence of different methodological approaches for designing and implementing CBMPs should therefore come as no surprise. It is possible to discuss two markedly different categories that vary in their degree of top-down input from scientists: prescriptive and collaborative. Prescriptive approaches to CBMP design are those in which science professionals craft a protocol to accurately capture ecological data and train citizens to carry it out (Engell and Voshell 2002, Fore et al. 2001). Data-analysis is generally done by scientists, but can also be, and sometimes should be, undertaken by citizens (Engell and Voshell 2002, Fore et al. 2001, Lakshminarayanan 2007). In contrast, the collaborative approach is usually undertaken through the use of a framework that encourages scientists and communities to work jointly and interact as one larger community in the design of a mutually acceptable and useful monitoring program tailored to their specific scenario. However, past and current efforts to design CBMPs rarely fit perfectly into either category; most are a fusion of both, thus the categories are actually two bookends of a continuum rather than discrete types. Locally autonomous monitoring programs are also legitimate and should be respected and institutionally supported, but they are not the main thrust of this chapter. The ideal mix of design techniques depends on a number of factors, including spatial scale and objectives of monitoring and the size, local expertise, and socioeconomic status of the community. Figure 3.3 may prove helpful as a starting point for practitioners and will serve as a useful framework for the remainder of this section.

Figure 3.3 This diagram places highly prescriptive and highly collaborative approaches to design where we consider them most appropriate according to the variables listed. Deviations from those two points will result in a combination of the two approaches. The variables listed are limited due to space constraints and others should certainly be considered, including the presence or absence of a culture of volunteerism.
Figure 3.3 This diagram places highly prescriptive and highly collaborative approaches to design where we consider them most appropriate according to the variables listed. Deviations from those two points will result in a combination of the two approaches. The variables listed are limited due to space constraints and others should certainly be considered, including the presence or absence of a culture of volunteerism.

The Prescriptive Approach

The prescriptive approach to CBMP protocol design is largely focused on the rigor of the monitoring methods, the accuracy and precision of the collected data, and the power of data analysis. One example includes the many Water Watch Organizations within the United States (Fore et al. 2001). In the state of Washington, for instance, over 11,000 citizens have been trained to monitor stream ecosystems using the benthic-index of biological integrity: a measure of the diversity of a stream’s invertebrate organisms often used as an indicator for other stream ecosystem characteristics (Fore et al. 2001). This indicator and its associated collection method was developed by scientists, and the participating citizens were trained by science professionals (Fore et al. 2001). In the particular case discussed by Fore et al. (2001), when scientists later questioned the accuracy and precision of the citizen-derived data, they intervened in a largely top-down way by independently undertaking data collection and analysis and then statistically analyzing the differences between their results and those of the citizens (Figure 3.4). Although they found no significant differences in any case in which the citizens had been properly trained, the process allowed scientists to augment the scientific value of the monitoring program by improving their ability to confidently interpret the citizen’s data (Fore et al. 2001). Top-down, compliance monitoring such as this is generally supported by the scientific community and can be appropriate in the context of prescriptively designed CBMPs, thus it merits consideration (Fore et al. 2001). Another example is the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas (BBA), a project discussed in Chapter 2. Once again, the BBA is a statewide survey in which citizens sample habitat in New York to document the distribution of all breeding birds in New York that was conducted in two time periods: the first from 1980 to 1985 (Andrle & Carroll 1988) and the second from 2000 to 2005 (McGowan & Corwin 2008). Volunteers in this project are given an instructional handbook and other information created by scientists to assist them with atlasing. This is part of a concentrated effort on the part of the researchers to prescribe a particular set of protocols that achieve consistent coverage within each atlas block so that changes in species distributions can be considered true ecological patterns as opposed to some deviation in sampling methodology due to observer bias or differences in training between the two time periods.

Figure 3.4. Fore et al. (2001) assessed differences between the volunteer generated (VV) and science professional generated (VP) benthic indices of biological integrity as they relate to human disturbance near stream ecosystems. Redrafted from Fore et al. (2001).
Figure 3.4. Fore et al. (2001) assessed differences between the volunteer generated (VV) and science professional generated (VP) benthic indices of biological integrity as they relate to human disturbance near stream ecosystems. Redrafted from Fore et al. (2001).

While many practitioners refer to programs of this type strictly as “citizen science” rather than community-based monitoring, we have included such initiatives under the umbrella term of community-based monitoring for two reasons.   The first is to provide clarity in the sense that citizen science initiatives are by no means limited to ecological monitoring. The second is that the design and implementation processes of prescriptive plans are largely top-down, and can therefore result in excessively top-down, hierarchical designs in which participants are “used” by scientists rather than collaborated with (Lakshminarayanan 2007). This has historically been the case with some geographically broad programs in which community volunteers learned from and appreciated local data collection, but were entirely excluded from the scientists’ meta-analyses (Lakshminarayanan 2007). In the past, this treatment has been justifiably interpreted as skepticism about a public’s intellect, has insulted participants who invested considerable emotion, time, and effort into assisting scientists, and has led to the cessation of monitoring (Lakshminarayanan 2007). As these failed programs were classified as citizen science initiatives, it seems useful to describe prescriptive monitoring programs as community-based monitoring here as a reminder that, in terms of both the long-term viability as well as the ethical basis of the program, it is necessary to interact with the public as social groups and to acknowledge their intellect, efforts, and emotions whenever they are involved. Ways for science professionals to more actively accomplish this include assuming the role of facilitator rather than expert during training; undertaking data calibration, collection, and analysis in a way that embraces “the concepts of open access and freedom;” and establishing a reliable system for citizens to provide feedback to scientists (Meffe et al. 2002, Lakshminarayanan 2007). That being said, the term ‘citizen science’ should not be categorically rejected or criticized and there are numerous inspiring, culturally sensitive, and scientifically impressive “citizen science” initiatives. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that the terminology used to classify science involving a public will vary depending on the source (See: Bacon et al. 2005; Cooper et al. 2007, 2008; Fernandez-Giemenez 2008).

In what context does it work?

As mentioned above, the programs designed in this manner focus nearly exclusively on the methods, accuracy, and precision of the science. Consequently, they are often only appropriate and able to engage community volunteers over the long-term in communities that already ascribe a high value to Western scientific inquiry (Cooper et al. 2008). Indeed, although the long-term capacity and willingness of citizens to participate in data collection must be considered in program design, it is often only necessary to do so in terms of the program’s temporal and economic logistics and the scientific utility of data because the epistemological harmony between citizens and scientists makes a science-focused design mutually valuable. It has been argued that communities that are congruous with prescriptive designs are those embedded within societies that offer many opportunities for citizens to enter into a scientific profession, but only after years of training and/or the attainment of academic degrees (Cooper et al. 2007; 2008). In this context, rigorous, scientifically-focused CBMPs provide a desired opportunity for citizens socialized to appreciate scientific fields but trained in others and therefore unable to access science positions, to legitimately contribute to science without the extensive education process. In this sense, local expertise is not necessarily integral to the program because citizens will be open to learning the protocols and adhering to instructions. Communities with a socioeconomic status that fosters a culture of volunteerism and provides a considerable amount of leisure time will be particularly likely to fit this description (Danielsen et al. 2009). In scenarios lacking these social and/or economic characteristics, citizens may need to be incentivized economically or otherwise for undertaking ecological monitoring designed with the prescriptive approach (Andrianandrasana et al. 2005).

It may also be the case that prescriptive designs are needed when the monitoring program’s spatial scale, number of participants, and quantity of data are large. The BBA, for instance, enlisted over 1,200 volunteers over the entirety of New York State during both time periods and resulted in 361,594 records for 246 species in 1980 BBA and 383,051 records for 251 species in 2000. In such scenarios, the design and implementation of a monitoring program as well as the data collection and analysis would likely be chaotic without the strict oversight of scientists, and the ability of researchers to confidently scale up data from the local level would be limited. On a related note, when the goals of a monitoring program include using the data for publication in scientific journals or satisfying a government or institutional mandate, a prescriptive approach may be the only means of attaining them.

The Collaborative Approach

The second prevalent approach to CBMP protocol design and implementation is fully collaborative. As mentioned above, collaborative protocols are often approached with the use of a framework that aims to make initially separated communities and researchers into collaborators. Many such frameworks have been proposed and are readily accessible in academic journals, practitioner’s manuals, and anthologies. The Southern Alliance for Indigenous Resources (SAFIRE) is one example that led to the creation of a design that is adapted to the specific context and appears to have been drafted with rural communities of Africa in mind (Figure 3.5) (Fröde and Masara 2007). This framework creates a forum in which science professionals and citizens are given the opportunity to have significant input. Indeed, it has been suggested that the most meaningful and durable plans that lead to active conservation activities and enjoy multi-layered support are designed in collaborative ways that work with all involved viewpoints. These successful programs must also be sensitive to the differential expertise of involved parties in terms of their natural science aptitude and organizational capacity (Cooper et al. 2007, 2008, Lakshminarayanan 2007, Sheil 2001). Sometimes the most important task for science professionals in the collaborative approach is to maintain a sense of equality during the planning and implementation stages. The varying levels of expertise in both monitoring and in navigating the socioeconomic environment must emerge from within the group and are properly balanced and incorporated into the CBMP.

Figure 3.5 SAFIRE's six steps to creating a community-based monitoring program that is at once acceptable to scientists and resource managers as well as local communities. Redrafted from Fröde and Masara (2007).
Figure 3.5 SAFIRE’s six steps to creating a community-based monitoring program that is at once acceptable to scientists and resource managers as well as local communities. Redrafted from Fröde and Masara (2007).

In what context does it work?

This strategy seems more appropriate than a prescriptive design when there is a measurable degree of epistemological dissonance between the visions of monitoring held by the researcher and the community; this is likely to be the case when a community desires a significant amount of autonomy relative to its natural resources, when there are stark cultural differences between locals and researchers, and when the socioeconomic status of a community makes its members unwilling and/or unable to volunteer simply to meet a scientist’s objectives.

One manifestation of such dissonance is the possession of distinct ideas about acceptable survey methods or indicators. For instance, Jensen et al. (1997) mentioned how some First Nation communities in Canada use the taste of game to monitor the status and health of nearby wildlife populations. As an indicator on which to base game management or policy, this would be unlikely to convince most scientists and politicians. At the same time, a protocol that strictly addresses concerns such as statistical power of methods and biodiversity indicators may not be valued enough by a community in a developing country for them to carry out monitoring, especially if their local livelihoods depend on occupations with high time and energy requirements. Conflicts regarding the desired objectives or other functional aspects of monitoring programs can also arise from epistemological dissonance. In discussing the bowhead whale-monitoring program described above, Berkes et al. (2007) mentioned that “the scientific objectives were about conserving populations and species, the Inuit objectives were about Inuit-bowhead relationships and access to the resource.” In other cases, a community may wish to focus primarily on a program’s educational or culturally enriching components or perhaps even the economic benefits of monitoring game populations while a scientist or resource manager may wish to optimize statistical power for a publication or gather data to conserve a species. In nearly all cases with such dissonance, if having a monitoring program that is locally sustainable and institutionally recognized is the ultimate goal, then involved parties must be willing to accept outside influences and compromises and a collaborative approach is necessary. If the dissonance cannot be reconciled, fundamental differences in world-view and values must be respected rather than forcefully altered or denigrated (Berkes et al. 2007, Sheil 2001). In such cases, a locally autonomous rather than collaborative approach may arise and as mentioned above should enjoy an adequate degree of institutional support.

The collaborative approach also seems more appropriate when the scale of monitoring and the size of the community are at a very local level and scientists have the ability to run workshops to facilitate monitoring-related decision-making processes with all participants. It merits noting, however, that efforts to scale-up data collected across many small communities with protocols designed collaboratively have successfully influenced national resource management (Danielsen et al. 2005).

Despite our specific suggestions, newly proposed CBMP design frameworks vary in how and which ecological and social characteristics are considered and are nearly ubiquitous. There is an extensive body of literature describing and/or advocating alternative approaches to CBMP design and implementation; just as with the monitoring programs themselves, even the approach to design and implementation must be adapted to each specific context (Conrad and Daoust 2007, Fraser et al. 2006, Fleming and Henkel 2001, Fröde and Masara 2007). Once again, important variables to consider when determining an approach to CBMP design include the spatial scale and the objectives of monitoring and the size of the community involved (Figure 3.3).

Suggestions for Scientists

As briefly indicated above, there is much debate about community-based monitoring within the scientific community, usually in terms of its scientific utility. This is particularly the case in scenarios that mandate collaborative design approaches, as they commonly incorporate both biodiversity conservation and livelihood objectives (Fraser et al. 2006, Sheil 2001). Resistance to this is widespread due to the arguments “that social objectives dilute the all-important conservation objectives” and that mixing social-benefits with science ineluctably dilutes the objectivity and therefore rigor of the scientific data collected (Berkes 2007, D. Kramer pers. comm.). Nonetheless, many past monitoring programs have integrated citizens yet failed to integrate local values and livelihood indicators so were not viable over the long-term (Sheil 2001). A number of problems arise in such circumstances, including volunteer “burnout,” a lack of observer objectivity, or simply a dearth of interest and therefore irregular participation that leads to data fragmentation (Sharpe and Conrad 2006). If it is important to scientists that monitoring is conducted in a region where they cannot monitor themselves, where resources are intimately linked to local livelihoods, or where Western science is simply not the local priority, scientists will likely have to be flexible and incorporate local epistemologies if any biodiversity objectives are to be attained. Furthermore, working in this flexible way, has proven worth the effort. Along with the potential benefits described above, scientists generate scientific data and build healthy relationships with citizens. Further, communities gain the capacity and institutional support to monitor locally-valued resources and the opportunity to legitimize their world-views and opinions amongst science professionals, whose activities may have previously been viewed as threats to local livelihoods (Huntington et al. 2006). Open, constructive bonds between scientists and society have an important role to play in the contemporary conservation landscape. Some suggestions and strategies for successfully reaching the necessary compromises include resolving the underlying conflicts between scientists and non-scientific monitoring, using participatory action research, and approaching plan design and implementation in a way that embraces systems-thinking (Bacon et al. 2005, Greider and Garkovich 1994, Castellanet and Jordan 2002, Walker et al. 2006b).

Resolving the Underlying Conflict

Resolution of the ideological discord between our ideas of science, nature, and monitoring and those of a local community can inspire scientists to think and work more flexibly. There are several ways to resolve the conflicts. One is by understanding that ecological monitoring is socially constructed. Applying the core of social constructionism to monitoring is simple enough: our particular needs, values, and interests are what have conceived and reified our processes for monitoring (Boghossian 2001). In the absence of our particular culture, the processes of monitoring have been conceived and developed in distinct forms by other societies with different needs, values, and interests. To these other societies, their monitoring processes are viewed as valid and highly valued, in the same way that ours are to us. The difference and one of the primary sources of conflict, therefore has a cultural base. Realizing this can assist scientists in achieving a philosophy that facilitates the acceptance of local ecological knowledge and social indicators into ecological monitoring programs. In the context of social constructionism, denying the inclusion of disparate needs, values, and interests in monitoring with the argument that it invalidates the process is to erroneously and dogmatically perceive our socially-particular monitoring processes and our culture as sacrosanct and inherently superior to those of a local community.

A second way to resolve the conflict is to confront the so-called “publish or perish” culture of academia. The tradition within the institution is to mandate that professionals publish with regularity in “high-impact” journals in order to attain tenured positions or improve or maintain their standing (Cohen 2006). Given strict publication requirements and the potential for traditional opinions among peer reviewers, there may be hesitancy on the part of some professionals to make the compromises needed to work with communities in a flexible way. Indeed, doing so may hinder publication and put one’s job security at risk. Publicly addressing these potentially negative impacts may lead to a reconsideration of the traditional metrics for evaluating work published in well-regulated interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary publications. Eventually such developments could result in a system that allows for the frequent communication via publication that is integral to our field while encouraging rather than discouraging university scientists to work more collaboratively with communities. A number of alternatives to the traditional system are currently being explored and although there is the potential for huge benefits, the shift is a cautious one (Casati et al. 2007)

Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is a style of research that “promotes broad participation in the research process and supports action leading to a more just or satisfying situation for” all “stakeholders” (Bacon et al. 2005). In the context of ecological research this goal is normally attained by designing protocols that ensure that both researchers and other stakeholders are able to improve their respective situations (Bacon et al. 2005). This often involves workshops and extensive, fully transparent dialog between researchers and the community with the purpose of generating goals and objectives that meet the expectations of the maximum number of participants (Figure 3.6) and mandates that an atmosphere of equality is fostered in which the researchers and citizens become components of a larger community linked by the research process itself (Castellanet and Jordan 2002). Indeed, to attain a comprehensive PAR experience, the endeavor must be undertaken “with and by local people” instead of on or for them (Cornwall and Jewkes 1995). PAR techniques are particularly useful in collaborative approaches to CBMP design because they are explicitly implemented to foster a fully collaborative project. Indeed, the techniques are designed to remove scientists from the “linear mould of conventional” research-thinking in which they assume the controlling role of the expert and encourage them to seek outside input (Castellanet and Jordan 2002). It is clear that they have the power to facilitate the acknowledgement and acceptance of the value of integrating non-scientific components into the ecological monitoring program and can encourage scientists to approach subsequent research more holistically.

Figure 3.6 Objectives generated during a PAR project in El Salvador that clearly takes the needs, desires, interests, and values of diverse stakeholders into account. Redrafted from Bacon et al. (2005).
Figure 3.6 Objectives generated during a PAR project in El Salvador that clearly takes the needs, desires, interests, and values of diverse stakeholders into account. Redrafted from Bacon et al. (2005).

Systems Thinking

At times, scientists do not accept the input of communities or individual citizens into ecological monitoring plans due to a tendency to think at the national and global scales and to neglect important variables at the local scale. This is predictable in that we, as Western scientists, are often trained to value and prioritize the variables that are most highly regarded by university and government scientists, such as scientific rigor and statistical power, not those valued by locals for their relevance to livelihoods or social wellbeing. If communities and citizens are to be fully integrated into monitoring programs, then this is a flawed approach, because CBMPs are complex, adaptive, social-ecological systems. A social-ecological system, is an “ecological system intricately linked with and affected by one or more social systems” (Anderies et al. 2004). It is sometimes stated that true social-ecological systems are those comprised of multiple social systems that affect one another through independent interactions with the biophysical or ecological system (Anderies et al. 2004). To be complex implies that the system is comprised of multiple subsystems at multiple scales and that those at smaller scales are embedded within those at larger scales. This interrelated structure means that an action undertaken in one subsystem causes feedbacks or reactions in the others. These feedbacks and reactions, in turn, result in the readjustment of the system as a whole (Folke 2006). Finally, adaptability indicates that a system has the capacity to adjust itself in order to increase or maintain survival in the face of environmental perturbation. In other words, an adaptive system will adjust to novelties in the environment in order to retain an appropriate, functional structure despite those novelties. In the context of social systems, it is sometimes argued that adaptability is further defined by the capacity of the actors within the system to influence how such adjustments play out (Walker et al. 2006a).

Most community-based ecological monitoring programs fit this definition. First, they involve ecological systems that are intricately linked, through monitoring activities, to multiple social systems (i.e. the local community, the scientific community, the government, and systems comprised of interacting combinations of individuals from these larger systems). To reveal how they also meet the remaining criteria, let’s look at two examples:

  1. Changes in a local community’s attitudes toward monitoring cause an alteration in which aspects of the biophysical world are sampled. This change at the local scale affects the quantity and quality of the data that reach scientists at the national scale, leading them to alter their methods of analysis and interpretation so that they retain the capacity to confidently report the results to the government.
  2. Decreases in resource agency funding caused by a global recession lead scientists to de-prioritize the biophysical system surrounding a particular community and to decrease fiscal support for monitoring efforts there– these national and international occurrences impact the capacity of a community to monitor and lead them to reduce the quantity of indicators monitored so that they can continue to afford to monitor their most valued resources.

In both cases, the social systems exhibit an ability to affect one another through otherwise independent interactions with the biophysical system. The social systems also clearly act at different scales, yet not in an isolated manner; some are encompassed within others and all are interdependent to the extent that seemingly independent actions at one scale result in a chain of events that reverberates through the other scales and ultimately leads to the re-adjustment of the monitoring plan as a whole. Finally, the human actors affected by changes at other scales, such as scientists affected by local changes or locals impacted by national and international changes, undertake actions to ensure that the system retains certain necessary functions despite the re-adjustment. The system is therefore complex, adaptive, and a model of social-ecological synthesis.

Viewing CBMPs in this manner, as linked arrangements of mutually important cogs, inevitably leads to the conclusion tha all components of CBMPs have the potential to impact one another and thereby the CBMP as a whole, so all are important, thus all have to be considered. In contexts conducive to collaborative approaches, such broad thinking will probably underscore the importance of incorporating locally-valued components not normally valued by Western scientists, such as those more economically or socially based, into the plan (Bosch et al. 2007, Walker et al. 2002). At the same time, it will also likely prevent an excessively local focus, which can result when scientists and resource agencies overcompensate for past, top-down designs (Giller et al. 2008). There are a variety of systems-based modes of thought, such as resilience-thinking and ecosystem management, and extensive bodies of related literature that can help not simply scientists, but all involved parties to attain a more holistic view of monitoring (Meffe et al. 2002, Walker et al. 2006b).


Citizen and community involvement in natural resource and conservation science are not novel phenomena. Rather, they have long histories from which many lessons can be drawn and applied to CBMPs. In addition to this, many of the lessons learned from previous non-community-based ecological monitoring programs and the methods and suggestions contained within this book are essential even when monitoring is community-based. One important lesson provided by both of these sources is that the goals and objectives of the plan should be clearly generated and stated before plan design and implementation begins. This may be particularly significant in the context of community-based monitoring as the goals and objectives often diverge markedly from the norm.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that the ideal protocol for monitoring an ecosystem with a community will be adapted to the particular scenario under consideration. Strategies for designing a CBMP protocol can be broadly classified as prescriptive and collaborative, yet choosing an appropriate strategy is a key determinant of the design’s long-term viability, thus previously outlined frameworks should be viewed as two options on a continuum and used as suggestions rather than methodologies to be adhered to; indeed, design strategy itself must also be unique to the protocol’s context.

In many cases, particularly where more collaborative approaches are needed, it is likely that we, as Western scientists, will have to accept social values, livelihood indicators, and epistemologies distinct from those heralded within our field into traditional monitoring protocols if we are to attain both local and institutional acceptance and viability and fulfill the objectives of all participants. For community-based monitoring initiatives with which we are involved to reach their full potential, therefore, we, as ecologists, biologists, and resource managers, must endeavor to think and work in more expansive, interdisciplinary ways.


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