How can listening to community voices save the forest?

This week GlobalGiving will be posting stories and insights from organizations that tried out a story-centered learning approach in 2014.

La Reserva Forest Foundation

The La Reserva Forest Foundation (LRFF) is dedicated to replanting, restoring and protecting tropical forests in Costa Rica. Through native-tree nurseries, tree planting, Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), eco-tourism and educational initiatives, LRFF works closely with the local community to achieve both environmentally and socially desirable outcomes.

Even though our projects regularly bring LRFF into contact with the communities we seek to serve, running a small volunteer-based not-for-profit organization often prevents us from formally collecting feedback and better assessing local needs. This made the GlobalGiving Storytelling Project – with ready-made questionnaires, funding for implementation, analytical tools and a team of experts ready to answer questions – an incredible opportunity for LRFF to listen, learn and respond to community input.

This summer we launched storytelling in two communities where we work. We trained students from local high schools to deliver the questionnaires and conduct interviews. After collecting over 120 stories, we translated, uploaded and began to process the information. While we continue to interact with the information at and between monthly board meetings, here are three key lessons learned and next steps for LRFF:

(1) They say it better than we do.

Why speak for a community when they can speak for themselves? At best, even paraphrasing can be less powerful, and at worst it can be downright misleading. So while context is important, translations may be inexact and no individual story is representative of the whole, extracting quotes from the stories and using them in marketing, media and informational materials for LRFF is still one of the quickest and easiest ways for us to use the information. Quotes can help us paint a more accurate and compelling picture of our work to potential donors, volunteers or participants in our planting projects. Examples:

The Rubber Farmers

A long time ago before the town of Malecu spoke Spanish, there’s a story that tells of a time when the Malecu lived united, and took their food from the forest but with moderation. One day, soldiers from Nicaragua came to the Malecu territory and saw that the land was rich with many trees. These individuals began cutting down the trees, which were the home to both the animals and the Malecu. The Malecu did not know whether to leave their territory or to defend the land that gave them their subsistence. The Nicaraguans had an advantage given that they had firearms, while the Malecu only had bows, arrows, and spears. The Nicaraguans killed our men, stole our children, and raped our women. The Malecu fought for their home, but the river was filled with blood due to the massacre. The Malecu’s loved and continue loving nature. Although deforestation is still a problem, there are individuals who are now planting trees and we are now winning the fight. This is how our town chooses to protect the environment and our food.

Creating our future

When I was at school seven years ago, our teachers asked for a tree to seed on the riverside. All our classmates wondered why they wanted those trees and the benefit of it for the future. Now I understand the trees have their own purpose and that purpose was that as years pass by, companies want to cut trees down for their business and some trees species are not seen anymore. Some time ago my grandfather told me that he wanted to reforest a piece of land with a lot of weeds and all of the grandchildren, about 8, helped to plant different species of trees like Manú, ojechee etc. The trees keep growing until today and our family has its own attraction.

We’re thus integrating key quotes from the stories into our marketing materials, website, holiday fundraising campaigns and social media.

(2) It challenges our assumptions.

Even though our results are preliminary and our data is disseminated from a relatively small sample size (e.g. approximately 120 stories), one thing is clear: high-quality community feedback will surprise you, challenge your assumptions and remind you to think twice when you make a decision as a non-profit organization. We tend to promote our projects to local landowners by emphasizing the financial incentive that they will get for reforesting their land. However, when our sample was asked about the needs that their stories addressed, they tended to focus more on security, respect and fun compared to other stories in the database. It’s not just about putting food on the table for our communities, so in future projects we’ll be more careful to ask about, rather than assume, motivations for involvement and design projects to address community’s needs, rather than our perception of them.

A deeper analysis from GlobalGiving revealed that four of the many questions we asked were most important for modeling how peoples’ experiences differed. Based on BigML’s model, these four were:

#1 – Tell me a story about a time when a person or organization tried to help someone or change something in your community.

#2 – Scale: Events like these happen often/rarely.

#3 – Multiple choice: Who would you go to if you wanted to solve this problem?

#4 – Events in your story affect me/community/world.

(3) It’s the beginning, not the end.

We believe that this is not a one-time conversation for us or the communities we work with. For us, adding the storytelling project as a line item to each monthly board meeting helps serve as a reminder that this is an ongoing conversation for the organization. In addition, by undertaking feedback collection again in a year we can grow our sample size and build better quality data. We can also better track impact/changes in communities if we continue this exercise and improve our data collection process over time. For example, one third of our “baseline” storytelling were not stories about positive outcomes. GlobalGiving tells us this is normal, even healthy, because it means the community is sharing what they really think. Furthermore, the prevalence of tentative, question and discrepancy words in our data set also suggest that there are still some taboo topics that need to be tackled.

See for yourself: 


Marc Maxmeister is part of GlobalGiving's impact team.

1 Comment


about 6 years ago

Awesome… story. The way we look solutions for problems differs from us and others.

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