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TEW approach to ethnic groups in the highlands
11/01/2013
 
For those who engage in development work, finding a suitable approach to support a certain village-level community efectively is one of the big challenges. It is neccesary to help community to reduce poverty, improve livelihood and keep their traditional cultural identity simultaneously.
 
After eight working years (1994-2001), Towards Ethnic Women (TEW) always try to apply the approach of Human Ecology to ethnic minority people.
 
Many programs have not found a suitable approach for working with poor communities in Vietnam as well as in many other countries. The program implementing staff usually think that, poverty reduction simply includes giving and receiving favor. That view prevent poverty reduction programs from initiation from actual needs of target group, but from outsiders’ top-down view. That sort of programs hardly serve substantial benefits for needed people. That lead to negative impacts to the community, and while people’s trust is hurt, they will become passive. If the internal strength of community is not promoted, they will gradually loose their cultural values, and their natural resources will be degraded. 
 
With its own practical experiences, TEW has recognized that phenomenon during experimental research in Dzao community in Yen Son village, Ba Vi district, suburban of Hanoi capital in 1990s. At that time, Vietnam is changing rapidly due to new policies on market mechanisms. TEW observed and learnt that, a number of ethnic women gradually lost their traditional values due to the introduction of market mechanism. In practical experience, TEW Center has noticed this during testing in the researchcommunity Yao Yen Son village, Ba Vi district - a suburb of Hanoi City in the early 90s.centers found in many ethnic minority areas, women gradually lost their traditionalmarket mechanisms when entering the village. To overcome this loss, the first projects of TEW paid attention to create enduring harmonious relationships between ethnic women and the surrounding natural environment.
 
 PRA – Participatory Rural Appraisal 
may not be accomplished panacea
 
TEW and its successive organization – Centre for Human Ecology Study in the Highlands (CHESH) share a consistent perspective on rural development and approach to the poor. In Vietnam and in any other countries as well, development relates to many other social, geographical, environmental economic factors, and especially the thoughts of researchers and policymakers. Recently many of them often based on PRA to study most of the issues in the countryside. We have practiced PRA in various cases, however we encountered lots of difficulties in the work with ethnic communities. To insight a certain community, one must have a process of working with them for two to three years, although PRA solely take a duration of one to two weeks. That sort of phase is too short for collecting plausible data, which is used as basis for a several-year program. Therefore, in applying PRA, researchers, development workers and policy makers should be very thorough and creative. 
 
TEW has applied PRA in exceeding 100 villages of at least 14 different ethnic groups nationwide, particularly in Dzao ethnic community in Ba Vi for roughly 10 years. We always applied PRA on the basis of human ecology perspective, i.g. to respect relationship between human system and ecosystem where the community reside. History of a certain community development is seen as long-term attainment of dialectical interaction between human and environmental factors which attain evolution in a helical direction.
 
             Community approach with perspective of Human Ecology
 
 
Human Ecology acknowledges development base on natural balance between human system and ecosystem and respect for natural laws – human system is illustrated via three structural circles.
 
The Central circle is called core value of human system, is modeled as the the core of the living cells. Core value of human system consists of faith, beliefs, rules, ethical norms of the system.
 
Intermediate circle is community structure, is modeled as cytoplasm, which nurture core value of human system. Community structure, includes customs and traditions of the community, which functions to maintain the vitality of the faith, beliefs and moral norms of the community.
 
External circle is cultural appearance, which is modeled as membrane covering the cell. External manifestations of culture are the everyday activities of the community, such as housing design, style of worship, food types, clothing, housing, how to communicate with the outsiders. External appearances change depending on the characteristics of each natural regions through process of labor, creativity and adaptation over time and the process of community movement and resettlement.
 
Similarly, in ecosystem, there is Central Biomas, which verifies the unique feature of ecosystem. Central being represent indicators, which prove the differences between a certain ecosystem and the others. If an ecosystem maintains good biodiversity around central biomas, it should be sustainable while contains several Subbiomas of level 1, level 2, level 3, level 4, etc. Subbiomas  in such hierarchical system is simulated as ecological levels of 1,2,3,4, etc.
 
There is interaction between central biomas and subbiomas, and continuous competition between components within the system towards co-existnce.
                     
For instance, human ecology system of On Oc village, Muong Lum commune, Yen Chau district, Son La province is a typical ecosystem of the dialectical relationship between core values of human system and central biomas of the ecosystem.
 
Human values of this Hmong community is belief in ancestral spirits of each family clans and natural spirits of the entire village. Base on this belief, each family clans and the whole community have been creating customary laws, regulations, moral norms in order to protect belief in ancestral spirits and natural spirits by the clans and the community. Customary laws relating to clan and community moral norms is voluntarily and faithfully maintained and practiced in daily life by every clan and community members.
 
There exist customs of clan leader for the practice of belief in ancestral spirits. Clan leader should be the person of the best knowledge of ancestors, lineage, and sanctified heritage passed down by ancestors. All moral, ideology progresses, spiritual and material activities of the clan should be discussed within the clan in a democratic way and finally decided by the clan leader. For instance, funeral, marriage, worships, reward, punishment, external relations and internal affairs of the clan should be decided by the relevant clan leader. Clan customs provide that, clan members should behave towards each other like brothers of the same roof and must not get married each other. Belief in ancestral spirits helps clan to build norms of clan leader within clan and community structure. Clan customs or rules establish norms to provide such external appearance of human system as considering other clan members as a family brothers.
 
Community belief in natural spirits prescribes community moral norms via provision of the power of village elder, or traditional structure of ‘Nao Song’. Village elder is the most prestigious person in the community, who well understand Hmong community traditional values and the highest person to represent spiritually for the community. ‘Nao Song’ become space for elders from several villages to discuss strategies, and regulations of community natural resource protection. Regulations of elder’s power and traditional structure of ‘Nao Song’ help Hmong community of On Oc village to maintain behavior of all community members toward ‘Samu’ forest, to prevent it from outsiders’ damage.
 
That case illustrates relationship between core value of human system, community structure, their external appearance and ecosystem – ‘Samu’ forest, their interaction, mutual support and develop together through living, laboring, creating, adapting processes.
 
Community belief is good motivation for Hmong community to maintain their traditional customs. Through customary laws, young generation is educated traditionally, so that they should not lose cultural appearance, behaviour towards ‘Samu’ forest. Belief strengthens moral norms, values via community traditional structure with the decisive role of village elder. 
 
 
As close and possible – that is how we work with community before any intervention
 
At starting point of work with the community, we try to be as close to people as possible. Foundation for long-term relationship originates from the respect to community belief, sincere integration to people to build up love and trust. Whenever we recognize the possible approach to solve constraints, we try to work together with local people to find out solutions to solve difficulties. Then we consider whether local knowledge and community inherent techniques be able to suggest any solutions to the problem.
 
Then we develop experimental models to find out suitable knowledge and approach. We try our best to base on and apply indigenous knowledge and technology and merely apply external technology if it is necessary and acceptable. Local technique should be strengthened for adaptation. Traditional farming system has been sustaining through several generations, and obtained values. However, rapid population growth exposes community to difficulties. Then we aim at gradual integrating local knowledge and external technology to help people apply and implement easily.
 
Build up key-farmer network, that is key measure to success
 
The key-farmers and village-level coordinators become core group of our approach. They play important role, so they should be selected thoroughly by villagers and by us. We often have one or two main staff for each village. They are active, enthusiastic persons, who want to work with community. Together with key-farmers, they are trained in such typical fields as: offering oppotunities for study tours, exchanging experieces with other ethnic groups on production promotion, improve livelihoods, savings, credit, gardening, husbandry, etc. During approach to key-farmers, we pay attention to such community values as mutual help, community spirits in applying and conducting project activities. The final goal of strengthening this network is helping community to get persons with needed knowledge, analysing skills to obtain solutions for themselves.
 
Approach to development and management of sustainable natural resources at village level is a strategy to poverty reduction and protection of legitimate, enduring rights and benefits of the ethnic poors. This strategy helps the poors to improve their living conditions, and simultaneously maintain their cultural identity, strengthen their active capacity of community management and natural resource management.
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