Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)1 is a method, or set of tools, that is used to promote interactive participation of rural communities in the generation of knowledge for planning and management decisions. PRA consists of a number tools including transect walks, semi-structured interviews, and participatory mapping, all of which aim at inclusive strategies targeting marginalized individuals, such as those who may be illiterate. This approach to data gathering has a number of benefits including capacity building, promotion of traditional ecological knowledge, and collaborative decision-making.

This last week I took the time to engage my students in a Participatory Mapping exercise to familiarize them with this data gathering methodology. This method involved getting them outside, splitting them into groups and posing the challenge of creating there home communities/villages using only things they could find such as sticks, stones, grass, and even garbage items. The results were fantastic. Students were enthusiastic to be involved and found creative ways to assemble the interactive maps of their homes. I could tell they were having fun.

After about 20 minutes they had completed their maps and we walked to each groups’ creation giving them time to report the various features they highlighted in their communities. In the short time they had generated a wealth of knowledge including the location of agriculture lands, forest resources, water supply, key religious sites, and even began to highlight some of the problems yet to be resolved such as waste management and irrigation. Such information, if applied to a live development case study, would serve as a wealth of material to help inform sustainable decision-making, regardless of the type of project being implemented.

It’s my hope that, in the short time, the students were inspired to see how such an easy exercise could be applied to the Bhutanese rural landscape to promote rural community participation. While I have yet to use it outside the classroom in Bhutan, I have used this method in Sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya & Tanzania) and experienced positive results.2

1Chambers, Robert. (1994). The origins and practice of participatory rural appraisal. World Development, 22(7), 953-969.

2Spaling, H., Montes, J., & Sinclair, J. (2011). Best Practices for Promoting Participation and Learning for Sustainability: Lessons from Community-Based Environmental Assessment in Kenya and Tanzania. Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 13(3), 343-366.