eJournal of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies
Issues 1.2 and 2.1, April 2010

Participatory Research on Land Issues in Solomon Islands


    I want to start with two stories:
  1. I'm in my mid-term review. My supervisors are pleased with the stories I can tell, with the ethnographic detail I've gleaned from my nine months in the Solomons. Another PhD student – a very good friend – raises his hand and says, 'So, Rebecca – you said you want to adopt participatory methods, what are you actually doing about that?' It was a fair question, and one that made me blush, because despite my verbal commitments I hadn't really done much.

    Figure 1. Rebecca Monson
    A second story: I'm at a conference, and there's a paper being given by a lawyer who identifies as 'an activist'. The presenter has chosen an important topic – climate change in the Pacific. It's a great project, but I can hear the voices of Pacific Islander colleagues in my head, noting that this is turning into yet another white industry. And so, during the question and answer time, I ask (and I am careful about how I choose my words!) what sort of methods we can adopt to ensure that Pacific Islanders can speak for themselves, rather than having white Australian lawyers to speak for them. The presenter responds by stating – and I quote – that there aren't any local lawyers capable of doing this work.

    These experiences, and many others, have caused me to pay greater attention to questions of how I do my research – questions such as who I'm including, how, and who is benefiting from my research.

  2. My PhD research is basically a gender analysis of land issues in Solomon Islands. I've focused on two particular fieldsites, one rural and one peri-urban. The workshop that I'll describe today occurred in my peri-urban fieldsite, Kakabona, an area of customary land just outside the Honiara town boundary. Due to its proximity to Honiara, people from other islands have settled and intermarried there. The population is heavily involved in the cash economy – many people work in town in professional roles; others have small businesses such as betel nut stands. Landowners are also the recipients of revenue from the Kongulai Water Source, Honiara's main water source. As you can imagine, there is strong competition for land, and land transactions and the distribution of revenue are often controversial. The population of this area was also involved in and affectd by the Tensions.[2] Information about custom is often closely guarded, and there have been reports of violence against women leaders and entrepreneurs in the area.
  3. There are obviously a multitude of dilemmas and ethical issues for 'First World' and 'White' woman studying the legal issues faced by 'Third World' and 'non-Western' women.[3] There's nothing unusual or surprising about any of the issues that I encountered in the field, but I'll recount them briefly here.
  4. Firstly, my interest in gender and land tenure touches upon sensitive issues. While issues of gender equality and natural resource management are regularly debated at every level of Solomon Island society, there is a need for sensitivity and caution. This is not just because some of the issues I'm interested in are controversial, but partly because I'm not a person of that place. This means that I need to be particularly careful about the ways I speak about land. Furthermore, my interest in land disputes – within tribes and families as well as between them – has the potential to expose sensitive and even shameful information that people might have preferred to keep hidden.
  5. Secondly, I'm aware of the need to examine my own role in the construction of knowledge and global discourses. Unpacking and acknowledging our own privilege can be a painful process, but walking away from that task would have meant abandoning the very values that drove me to do a PhD in the first place. I've found the work of feminist lawyer Ambreena Manji particularly confronting and helpful – I agree with so much of Manji's critique of lawyers, and that's why I find myself squirming at my desk as I read her analysis of the development of a global network of land tenure scholars, lawyers and consultants.[4] It's always difficult to assess the impact of research on public policy, but I know that my work is read and quoted by a range of individuals and groups, and I'm also doing a bit of consulting. Manji's comments are becoming increasingly personal for me. Yet even if my work wasn't being read and I wasn't doing any consulting, my research would have hardly left the communities I'm working with, or the systems I'm studying, untouched. When we conduct interviews, speak at seminars, or write a thesis, we are not merely disseminating 'findings'. These activities create records and enter ongoing debates.[5] This is particularly the case when writing about the common law legal system, which by its very nature depends on those records and ongoing debates.
  6. Thirdly, I have faced expectations from my research participants that I could purchase expensive souvenirs, act as a conduit for funding or scholarships, or provide training in areas completely unrelated to my field. All of this contributes to a sense of inadequacy, and fuels my desire to conduct research that is both relevant and sensitive to local contexts.
  7. While the idea of the 'distant state' is a common theme in research on Melanesia, in my first year in the field I was constantly asked for information about legislation and courts. I therefore began to ask not whether, but how, I could provide this in a more systematic and accessible manner. Inspired by Susan Hirsch, a legal anthropologist who's done a lot of work on domestic violence in Kenya and Tanzania, I began to wonder whether I could run workshops that could provide both a site for data collection and provide people with the information they were requesting.[6]
  8. When I left Solomon Islands at the end of 2008, I left a number of letters with local leaders, both men and women, offering to run a workshop on land issues. Upon my return in 2009, I heard from one local women's association that they would like me to run a workshop on land issues. They were particularly interested in knowing more about legislation and the court system, and the legal frameworks for logging and mining. The leaders of this group decided that a two-day workshop was appropriate. I designed some materials aimed at prompting discussion of a range of matters from the importance of land for livelihoods, to decision-making, through to the legal frameworks. These materials were then reviewed by women in the group. This was absolutely essential, as it ensured that the workshop addressed the issues that the women themselves perceived as important. It also provided the opportunity to consider whether certain issues would be too controversial or inappropriate to address.

    Figure 2. Participants take a break during the workshop, April 2009. Photographer: Rebecca Monson.

  9. I also sought the support of several Solomon Islanders who have relevant experience. Ruth Maetala shares my interest in gender and natural resource management. She has a wealth of experience in working on these issues, and invaluable insight and wisdom. We were also joined by Constance Hemmer, a lawyer, and Julie Fakaia, an administrator, from the Landowners Advocacy and Legal Support Unit (LALSU) which provided invaluable funding and administrative support.[7] About thirty women attended the workshop. The majority were indigenous to the area, but some were from other islands and had married into that the area. The participants had a wide range of age and formal educational background.
  10. Most of the activities that we held over the two days involved brainstorming and discussions in smaller and larger groups. I had designed the materials in this manner partly because many Solomon Islander women have limited educational background, but also because I thought that the women would be more comfortable discussing issues as a group rather than as individuals. Most non-government organisations in Solomon Islands build their activities on this assumption. However as Ruth has pointed out to me, there are many instances in which individual women would rather communicate directly with a researcher if the information is highly confidential.
  11. On the afternoon of the first day, we had a session revolving around the development of skits based on some scenarios that I had developed. These were based on cases that I was aware of from my fieldwork in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, but also the literature on women's land rights across the globe. I was concerned about these scenarios, but when I discussed them with the leaders of the association prior to the workshop, they were excited for the exact same reasons that I was concerned – these scenarios were exactly the sorts of issues they were dealing with.
  12. As a researcher, I was interested in obtaining reactions to some of the issues raised by the scenarios, particularly the potential for conflict between customary law and international human rights standards. While discussion of these issues proved difficult, this session was a significant for a range of reasons. I've only got time to discuss two here:
  13. Firstly, as a young white woman, trained in the Western legal profession, I felt completely ill-equipped to do this kind of work. I was often unsure about where I should place myself or how I should behave, and during this session I decided to roam from group to group, observing the groups and making sure that nobody needed my assistance. By contrast, Ruth immediately joined one of the groups. In doing so, she became a member of that group of women, rather than just the 'trainer'. Perhaps most importantly, her involvement in the group enabled her to see the tensions within it. This particular group had received a scenario that revolved around a logging dispute, and as it turned out, several of the women in the group were involved in competing sides of very similar disputes. Ruth gathered the entire workshop, discussed the issue publically, explained the importance of women's solidarity, and then prayed about the issue. Ruth's skills, experience in mediation, knowledge of land issues and her status as a church leader not only enabled her to diffuse conflict, but turn it into a significant opportunity. For me this was just one of many moments that highlighted the importance of working with local partners, and as part of a team, rather than on my own.
  14. Secondly, from this point in the workshop onwards, a number of the participating women played a greater role in steering the direction of the workshop, and the participants as a whole also adopted drama and skits as a way of expressing their knowledge and experience of land tenure. For example, the following morning we were discussing chiefs and social organisation. At one point I started telling the women about an ethnography I'd read about an area nearby. I outlined the anthropologist's description of social organisation, and an animated discussion followed. I can't understand the local language, so my understanding of what was discussed is limited, but it was clear that the women were excited by the questions raised. There was a rowdy conversation and a lot of disagreement, and suddenly a number of women took to the floor and started arranging themselves in different positions around the room. Constance and I looked on, uncertain as to what was going on, but intrigued by the women's excitement. Finally a senior woman turned to us and explained, 'OK, now we're going to show you how we make decisions and resolve disputes, and how our tribes are structured.' They then acted out the different individuals and groups by positioning themselves in various parts of the room.
  15. These workshops – and the aspects involving drama in particular – demonstrate how participatory approaches disrupt the standard roles of 'researcher' and 'research subject'. For example, I was not always positioned as an authority gathering data. By the second day, the participants were exercising some control over the interaction. Hirsch states[8] that this can take the discussion in directions that can preclude her own research goals, however I've found that it changes, rather than precludes, my own goals. More importantly, it allows the people I'm working with to pursue their own individual and collective goals, and hopefully enhances the research process for everyone.
  16. Consciously striving for a participatory research method forces me to constantly consider my role as a researcher, how I should behave and how I am perceived. After the workshop, Ruth commented on the difference between the ways in which she and I approached the skits. She noted that I 'behaved like a lawyer', referring to the fact that I held myself apart from the group and observed what was occurring rather than participating. As Ruth pointed out, this may have reinforced hierarchies and my status as a tertiary-educated foreigner. On the other hand, my behaviour was not an accident – I had consciously decided to do this because I wanted the women to be able to discuss the issues rather than deferring to someone that they might perceive to be 'an expert'. These issues might not be resolvable, but they remind me that if I'm going talk about participation and equality, I have to constantly consider my role as a researcher.
  17. Thirdly, participatory approaches also encourage conversation, rather than a one-way flow of information. This facilitates a beneficial exchange of information, is more respectful of local skills and knowledge, and can produce unexpected and important outcomes. For example, Constance and I – the only two lawyers present – were surprised to realise that there was a widespread perception that the courts were not public. We were obviously able to correct this perception, and while it won't necessarily mean that people are any more likely to attend a hearing, at least they now know that there is nothing in the state legal system preventing them from doing so. During the discussion about social organisation, the women concluded that if they wanted to have a greater role in decision-making, they needed to more actively learn about their customs and pass them on to their children. This is not necessarily an insight that I would have reached on my own through a one-way interview process.
  18. Furthermore, participatory approaches also allow the pursuit of multiple goals. Time and expense are important considerations for any scholar, no matter how idealistic their goals. The workshops were not expensive to hold, and enabled all of the participants and researchers to pursue the shared goal of learning more about both the customary and state legal systems.
  19. Finally, to return to the stories at the beginning of my paper, consciously adopting a participatory approach requires me to recognise the skills and capacities of research participants. Many of us are conducting research because we believe it can contribute to social, economic and environmental justice. Achieving this requires that we not only consider what we are researching, but how – and we need to actively work to disrupt the uneven flows of information and opportunities that exist in education, research and policy-making.

    Tangio tumas, and I hope that we can discuss this some more!!


    [1] This paper was first published as Rebecca Monson (2009) 'Identity and ethics, or, trying to avoid being a patronising white lawyer,' in ex plus ultra, 1:87–92, available at: http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/publications/ex-plus-ultra/.

    [2] From 1998–2003, Solomon Islands suffered a conflict popularly known as 'the Tensions'. The primary protagonists were the indigenous inhabitants of Guadalcanal, the island on which Honiara is based, and the indigenous inhabitants of the neighbouring island of Malaita.

    [3] See, for example, Chandra Mohanty's well-known essay, C. Mohanty, (1984) 'Under western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourses,' in boundary 2 12(3):333–58

    [4] See in particular A. Manji (2006) The Politics of Land Reform in Africa: from Communal Tenure to Free Markets, London, Zed Books.

    [5] S.B. Coultin (2002) 'Reconceptualizing research: ethnographic fieldwork and immigration politics in southern california' in Practicing Ethnography in Law: New Dialogues, Enduring Methods, ed. J. Starr and M. Goodale, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 108–27, p. 108.

    [6] S.F. Hirsch (2002) 'Feminist participatory research on legal consciousness' in Practicing Ethnography in Law: New Dialogues, Enduring Methods, ed. J. Starr and M. Goodale, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 13–33.

    [7] This paper does not necessarily reflect the views of these individuals and organisations.

    [8] Hirsch, 'Feminist participatory research on legal consciousness,' p. 27.


URL: monson.htm
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Last modified: 24 June 2010 1026