#02 2024

Participatory approaches enhance science and impact

By Londiwe Gule, Biodiversity Intern, Grasslands Node, NRF-SAEON

There is often a significant gap between global change research and providing appropriate information to support adaptation strategies for societal impact. Participatory approaches help scientists connect with the end users’ actual needs and find ways to address these together. 

Co-generative approaches were used in a three-year multidisciplinary project funded by the Water Research Commission (Advancing Water and Income Security in The Unique Maputaland Coastal Plain: A Strategic Decision Support Tool to Explore Land Use Impacts Under a Changing Climate, Project No. C2020/2021-00430) to ensure context-relevant information, based on the needs of the participating communities.

At the start of the project, participatory workshops were held with the traditional councils of three community areas within the study site – the Umhlabuyalingana Local Municipality (ULM). These workshops advanced multiway knowledge sharing, where emergent opportunities were identified, such as the interest in and constraints to commercialising cattle farming in the region.

Knowledge exchange 

Consequently, in collaboration with WILDTRUST, the project team arranged a knowledge exchange. This involved taking nine community members (three from each community area) to Matatiele in November 2023 to learn from Environmental Rural Solutions and the communities they work with. The knowledge exchange took place over three days, during which participants spent time with different communities learning about animal husbandry, rangeland management and mobile cattle auctions.

A chief from the Mafube Community (Matatiele) sharing knowledge with the Maputaland Coastal Plain participants.

Maputaland Coastal Plain community with the Black Diamond community in Matatiele during the first day of the knowledge exchange.

Despite some initial expectation challenges, this profoundly impacted those who participated. ULM participants were inspired to see how communities in Matatiele worked together to resolve their challenges. During the trip, the project team observed that the ULM participants’ attitude went from expectation for external help to wanting to do something themselves to make a change. They even expressed interest in starting an NGO that focuses on the exact nature of Environmental Rural Solutions in ULM.

In their feedback to the traditional councils, the participants explained all they had learned and emphasised the need for all three communities to work together towards common goals, including good land-use planning and governance. This opportunity served to enhance awareness and personal agency to promote adaptation.

Mrs Nsele, a delegate from the Mbila Tribal Authority (Umhlabuyalingana Local Municipality), recounting her experience at the knowledge exchange during the feedback workshop.

Mr Nsele, a delegate from the Tembe Tribal Authority (Umhlabuyalingana Local Municipality), recounting his experience at the knowledge exchange during the feedback workshop.

Engagement with members of the Mabasa Community, comparing “then” and “now” images of the area and explaining what has changed.

Follow-up workshops 

In the last week of November 2023, a second round of workshops was held with each traditional council to provide preliminary results on the project. In these workshops, after seeing the results from the economic and hydrological components of the project, members of the traditional councils expressed a need for further actions to resolve their water and environmental issues.

Appeals were made to share the research activities being undertaken by NRF-SAEON and other researchers with the broader community, as information does not filter down to the general population.


Participatory approaches enriched the research process, illuminating several issues and opportunities that would otherwise have yet to be identified. It helped to root the work in the local context, such as the main challenges the communities face, which were incorporated as indicators against which different future storylines could be assessed. There was also evidence of increased awareness of the risk of climate change and the vulnerability of the ULM water resources.

The richness of experience and seeing challenges first-hand by embedding ourselves within the area “humanised” members of the project team that were involved and motivated them to see how they could translate research findings into action by acting as boundary agents between communities and ethically responsible stakeholders who can facilitate community-driven change aspirations. All engagements were humbling experiences, particularly as an invitation was extended to continue working hand in hand with the communities. This emphasises the value and importance of long-term relationships between communities and research groups.

The impetus towards the willingness to explore water-wise alternatives was evident in the requests made at the November 2023 workshops. This was expressed as a need for information on how the next steps can be taken and what people can attempt.

While this project has enhanced a mutual understanding of the risks associated with commercial eucalyptus plantations and climate change, as well as spurring interest in alternative land-use options, achieving this will only be possible with multi-institutional support and investment to facilitate identifying specific activities and taking tangible steps forward to adopt alternatives to eucalyptus plantations.