Guest post by Tian Lin  and Khin Thiri Htun 
- We conducted research using a participatory approach to identify ways to reduce local vulnerability to climate change in the Central Dry Zone of Myanmar.
- Participatory research approaches are important to build and maintain trust with research participants who were previously excluded from decisions over their land tenure.
- While participatory research approaches provide a space for mutual and adaptive learning, they also pose a number of challenges, in particular if the research is conducted in a language not native to the primary researcher.
Land is an essential capital that people draw upon in pursuit of livelihood objectives. In Myanmar, a majority of people living near or in forest area have strong customary traditions of land ownership. However, in many of these areas, local residents do not have legal ownership of their land. Under the former military government, the Forest Department gazetted community managed land for conservation and forest restoration purposes. When land is placed under state conservation or protection, people who have customary rights to that land cannot obtain legal documents and thus loans, which increases their vulnerability to shocks. These shocks include natural disasters such as that of Cyclone Nargis that hit Ayeyarwady Delta in May 2008 (NASA, 2008).
To improve local adaptive capacity and resilience to shocks, we conducted a research in the Central Dry Zone of Myanmar that examined people’s vulnerability to the potential negative impacts of climate change. This region primarily depends on agriculture for its economy, which means that livelihood activities and the climate are strongly linked. We broadly define vulnerability as actual or potential negative environmental and social impacts in a system across different socioeconomic groups. Without having adequate resources or capacity to adapt to climatic and non-climatic shocks, local residents face the predicament of being forced to either stay in a community that depends on a weakening economy or migrate to towns at the expense of fuelling the socioeconomic decline of their rural village.
For our research, we employed a participatory approach to build trust and promote transparency among communities that were previously excluded from decisions over their land tenure. Participatory approaches emphasize on inclusive participation and collaboration, taking into account of local processes and priorities that may influence the outcome of a project (Chambers, 1994; Cornwall & Jewkes, 1995; Bergold & Thomas, 2012). Researchers who use these approaches view local residents as experts who hold valuable knowledge for the topic of interest.
Although participatory approaches aim to involve the whole community throughout the research process, we faced the challenge of ensuring inclusive participation. During the fieldwork, we asked ourselves, how can we assess if less visible minority groups are included in our research activities? How can we identify potential marginalized groups that we think are excluded while key informants primarily control the selection process? Key informants often portray their community positively, signifying that they are unlikely to select participants who may hold views contrary to theirs. Being outsiders, it was difficult for us to address potential power inequalities between less visible socioeconomic groups such as that between the rich and poor without using tools that specifically targeted these individuals or groups.
To overcome this challenge, we used a mixed method approach to collect socioeconomic data. First, we asked participants to develop criteria for different levels of wellbeing and to place households in one of the well-being groups. This participatory exercise gave us a better picture of the distribution of wealth and wellbeing in the community. Based on this data, we then used a representative random sampling strategy to conduct household surveys. As a result of this mixed method approach, we were able to ensure that poor households played a role in this research.
In reflecting on what we have learned using participatory tools, we recall key moments of uncertainty during the fieldwork that challenged the assumptions of participatory research. While participatory tools improve governance by increasing transparency and accountability between the researcher and participants, by no means should one strictly adhere to the code of using participatory tools throughout the research process. In our case, our desire to use participatory tools in a short timeframe limited our pool of potential study sites, which directly influenced our data and findings. Even with a team of five people, it was not practical to select communities that have over 200 households that then needed to be mapped out in participatory exercises. When doing participatory research where the researcher requires a translator, the “field day” does not end when the researcher has left the study site. The person who facilitated the discussion must then translate the responses to the primary researcher, which can take a heavy toll on the field staff.
Participatory research requires investment of not just time in using the tools, but also in the health of field staff. Trust is not just something to develop between the primary researcher and participants, but also between the researcher and field facilitators. This is particularly important when the research is conducted in a language not native to the primary researcher. From our experience, we hope that current and future researchers take advantage of the flexible framework that participatory approaches provide, but are also aware of the possible limitations and challenges of using participatory tools.
Bergold, J., & Thomas, S. (2012). Participatory research methods: A methodological approach in motion. Forum Qualitative Research. http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1801/3334
Chambers, R. (1994) Paradigm Shifts and the Practice of Participatory Research and Development. IDS Working Paper 2, Brighton: IDS. https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/123456789/3712
Cornwall, A., & Jewkes, R. (1995). What is participatory research? Social Science & Medicine, 41(12), 1667-1676. https://doi.org/10.1016/0277-9536(95)00127-S
NASA. (2008). Hurricane Season 2008: Tropical Storm Nargis (Indian Ocean). https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hurricanes/archives/2008/h2008_nargis.html
Bios of Guest Authors:
 Tian Lin is a 4th year undergraduate student studying International Development Studies at the University of Toronto. She is currently an intern at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests. While at RECOFTC she is conducting her thesis research on climate change adaptation under the Scaling-Up Community Forestry (SUComFor) project in Myanmar.
 Khin Thiri Htun graduated from University of Forestry (Yezin), Myanmar in 2013. Under the SUComFor project, she was the field volunteer in Magway Region and facilitated the development of participatory tools for Tian’s thesis research. She is currently working as a Monitoring and Evaluation consultant at the RECOFTC office in Yangon, Myanmar.