Early lessons from virtual participatory processes and dialogues with indigenous peoples and local communities during Covid-19
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America in early 2020, project activities that require fieldwork and visits to communities have stalled, and/or required redesign, so that they can be carried out virtually. Several countries in the region have put in place regulations restricting the size of public gatherings and meetings, as well as lock-down measures that are enforced even in rural and remote areas. As the pandemic continues, Latin America was declared as the new epicenter of the pandemic around June. Social distancing, mobility restrictions, and lock-down measures in some areas are expected to remain at least until mid 2021.
In response, UNDP is leading socio-economic recovery efforts on behalf of the UN system; supporting countries COVID-19 responses at a national level; assessing the impact of the pandemic on the implementation of project portfolios; developing contingency plans when needed; and, determining how projects can be adjusted so that they can continue effectively, as well as contribute to the COVID-19 response and recovery phases.
UNDP’s Climate & Forests Programme is supporting countries national REDD+ processes and implementation efforts as an integrated element of socio-economic recovery towards a better, greener, more resilient future in developing forest countries. Forests are a core nature-based solution and are critical to addressing the climate emergency. If deforestation is stopped and degraded forests are restored, they can provide around a third of the carbon reduction needed to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. The world’s forests also act as shields, keeping humans safe from zoonotic diseases, such as coronaviruses. Their destruction can have devastating consequences not only for climate change and biodiversity loss, but also for global public health. REDD+ and the conservation and sustainable management of forests presents opportunities to both recover from COVID-19 and prevent future pandemics.
Social inclusion and stakeholder engagement are cornerstone elements of UNDP’s support to national REDD+ processes. Assuming that in-person consultations, dialogues, and meetings will be limited in Latin America for the foreseeable future, virtual events have been carried out under UNDP supported REDD+ projects in several countries. Acknowledging that the conditions for successful virtual events are rapidly evolving under these extraordinary circumstances, emerging early lessons are summarized below, taken from virtual dialogues engaging Indigenous Peoples (IP) on climate change and forests projects in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. This summary of early lessons can be useful to take into consideration for projects and processes in the region and beyond, that require stakeholder engagement activities in a COVID-19 context.
Early lessons from virtual dialogues in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru
- Define roles and responsibilities for the dialogue and consultation processes, specifying UNDP’s facilitative role, and the leadership of government representatives.
- Conduct a pre-assessment of internet connectivity conditions, including availability of mobile phones, tablets or computers, strength of internet signal, and access to data to allow full participation in dialogue meetings.
- Pursue and secure an agreement with all relevant stakeholders on the use of virtual tools to renew, continue, or develop new consultation processes.
- Plan for and assign sufficient personnel and resources (including equipment). At least one full-time facilitator is needed, in addition to the technical team and participants.
- Offer training on the use of zoom or other virtual platforms, and modalities for virtual participation. Devote sufficient time for training during first sessions. Be mindful that IP representatives often connect with mobile phones or computers. Ensure ability to use key functions such as: “share screen”, engage in ‘virtual rooms’, and polls.
- Start dialogues and consultation processes with a session to define mutual objectives and clarify expectations.
- In the absence of a Stakeholder Engagement Plan, map out the stakeholders that need to be engaged early in the process (i.e. based on project document or funding proposal’s stakeholder lists and mapping). Generally, the first definition is at the level of “stakeholder groups” to then move towards more specific definition of organizations, agencies, individuals, etc.
- Informal interviews with specific stakeholders are recommended, to better understand:
- Methods or considerations to have in mind for the design of the consultation process. For example, it is useful to contact organizations or persons that can present the perspective of specific stakeholder groups.
- The needs of stakeholders in terms of the availability of hardware/devices to connect to virtual meetings, connectivity, etc. Budget, otherwise allocated to travel or mobility, can be allocated to purchase devices, ensure connectivity, and access to professional versions of digital platforms.
- Capacity building requirements to engage in the virtual dialogue process.
- Identify in advance ways to reach out to stakeholder groups, as well as specific representatives/individuals.
- Draft a consultation plan based on the information above. A first draft should receive feedback from constituencies who are representative of stakeholder groups. A revised/final draft can be developed afterwards. The most important element of the consultative process is a robust methodological design.
- Include specific elements in the design to ensure inclusiveness. These elements comprise gender considerations, participation of youth, and facilitating access in remote locations.
- Consider ways to provide funding to support the participation of IPs representatives. Engaging in workshops and meetings take the time of leaders away from their normal activities, for which they should be compensated when possible.
- Define the levels of participation as part of the design process. This ranges from information sharing to capacity building, consultation, and obtaining consent, where relevant. The first level of participation (information sharing and capacity building), radio stations and social media channels (Instagram, Facebook) could be used. More complex engagements that require negotiation, validation, or consent can use virtual structured on-line platforms.
- Ensure that relevant stakeholders are comfortable and in agreement on the intention of conducting or being part of on-line consultations. This situation can vary at different points in time, and locations.
Conducting virtual meetings, dialogues, and consultations:
- Relevant information must be available for participants in advance. Consider that many participants connect via mobile phone; avoid using small print in presentations and documents. Audiovisual material is a great asset.
- Consider cultural norms and practices, for example, secure ample time for introductions, comments, and discussions. Allocate enough time for each session, particularly for the first sessions. If the sessions will be recorded, ensure prior consent of participants.
- At the first meetings:
- Clarify the rules of engagement.
- Spend enough time until all stakeholders feel comfortable in the virtual room (listen, avoid reacting too quickly as a moderator, let stakeholders talk), despite the pressure to get solutions/agreements.
- Allow enough time so participants can present any concerns on the process or the topic being consulted.
- Plan enough time to clarify questions.
- Expect subsequent sessions to be increasingly straight forward, as stakeholders feel more comfortable with the process and the other constituencies involved.Set up a task team to conduct the consultations. Include the following functions: i) facilitation (plenary and break out groups); ii) systematizing results (collecting and filing data); iii) presenting topics in plenary and break out groups; iv) technology management (for on-line sessions); v) moderating e-discussion (for on-line platforms); among others.
- When the consultation process in broad, anticipate separate groups/sessions for specific stakeholder groups i.e., IPs, sub-national governments (in particular when cultural differences should be considered for some groups like IPs).
- Plan for a longer consultation period than a regular in-person process. The mechanisms to get information back and forth will likely take longer. In addition, the individual virtual sessions cannot last more than 4-5 hours.
- Consider the learning curve on the use of zoom or other online platforms. This applies equally to the team operating and organizing the consultations and to participants.
- Note that IPs and local communities are able to use zoom or other online platforms even when they are located in their communities, as long as they have access to internet data – often through mobile or satellite connection. Don´t underestimate local stakeholders’ ability to use of new ways of communication, including social media (twitter, Facebook) and smartphones.
- To complement the use of zoom or other online platforms, use a dedicated online e-platform to help conduct the consultations in an organized manner.
- Use documents with simple language, and perhaps a list of guiding questions. Arrange for a facilitator in the stakeholder group to facilitate phone calls, recordings, or written documentation of the various responses s/he receives from constituents. Funding may be required to compensate this stakeholder person/liaison.
- Use WhatsApp to send a document with guiding questions and ask for audio answers or written answers in advance or in replacement of virtual meetings, when these cannot be carried out.
- Be mindful that virtual meetings have limitations and cannot be considered as a full replacement for in-person meetings. Discussions on sensitive issues and consensus building are harder in a virtual setting (relevant for cases were consent is sought - virtual tools remains very challenging). Internet connectivity can be limited and cut off unexpectedly. Novel technology adoption can vary greatly according to participants’ age and other factors.
- Share summary of meeting minutes, agreements, and documents afterwards via email and WhatsApp, or a e-consultation platform, when available.
Combining on-line live tools with on-line e-platforms
- Even though a consultation process can be conducted through a series of ‘live’ zoom sessions, consider setting up an e-platform where the necessary information is gathered and available to all interested parties. This information includes relevant documents, calendar of events, hyperlinks to zoom sessions, e-discussions, contacts of stakeholders, etc. It should be a “one stop shop” for information related to the consultation process.
- UNDP administrates a platform called SparkBlue, which can fulfill the functions mentioned above. It can be set up to fit the purpose, including the creation of different access profiles i.e. to control the access to documents of different elements of the platform.
- SparkBlue can be set up as the platform to conduct the consultations and share information to develop and implement projects (currently, there is a systematization of the experience on the use of SparkBlue for Ecuador’s REDD+ result-based payments project inception workshop).
- SparkBlue can be configured by the team conducting the consultations. Consider that this platform can be useful beyond the consultation sessions; therefore, it is relevant to consider a task team that is more permanently engaged with the project.
- This online platform for consultations does not replace an externally facing website for a project. However, it can be linked to an existing or new website.
Background: Virtual dialogues in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru
Virtual dialogues for Colombia’s National Indigenous Environment Council: Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of Colombia and indigenous peoples agreed to setup a “National Indigenous Environmental Council”, but the modalities, regulations, operating costs, and other aspects were pending definition via a consultative process among IPs and the Government. With lock-down measures in place due to COVID-19, this consultation process was required to go online.
Since March 2020, UNDP has supported the generation of “virtual spaces” and facilitated online dialogues, with the purpose of setting up the pre-conditions to advance into more formal process of consultation and validation for the ‘National Indigenous Environmental Council’, as required by the Colombian Constitution and a specific Consultation Law. More than 20 virtual meetings took place between March and July, with the participation, on average, of more than 40 government delegates and IP representatives. The virtual dialogue space served as a good avenue to reach agreements and commitments on both sides. In August and September, the dialogues continued, however, due to institutional changes and the evolving impacts of COVID-19, there have been some delays and coordination challenges.
Virtual inception workshop for Ecuador’s REDD+ results-based payments project: In May 2020, PROAmazonia developed the ‘Action Plan for strengthening full and effective participation and stakeholder engagement in the context of the COVID-19 national emergency’. The objective of this plan was to present recommendations to ensure the inclusive and effective participation of all the stakeholders during the health crisis, respecting and addressing social safeguards. The plan consists of an analysis of the problems faced by the project to ensure full and effective stakeholder engagement, especially for indigenous people, due to lock down and social distancing measures. The plan also identifies the risks derived from the health crisis in the project’s activities and establishes mitigation measures for these.
When the pandemic broke out, CONFENIAE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon) sent an official letter announcing the cessation of its activities in participatory processes in order to be able to focus all its efforts on the health emergency. In June 2020, CONFENIAE decided that it was in a position to resume its activities, and they agreed to do so through virtual platforms and making use of digital tools. Dialogues have progressed on this basis, although some challenges in relation to the disadvantages of this format vis-à-vis virtual meetings remain unresolved.
During September 2020, an Inception Workshop was held virtually to kick off the REDD+ Results-based payments project. This Inception Workshop was held entirely via the Sparkblue platform allowing stakeholders to actively engage and access relevant information and contribute their inputs through e-consultations. More than 400 participants were invited and registered under the platform.
Virtual dialogues to inform Peru’s identification and classification of REDD+ actions: In Peru, the Framework Law on Climate Change (Law # 30754, 2018) requires ensuring effective, participatory, multi-sector implementation, considering multilevel and multi-actor representation. The Ministry of the Environment through the General Directorate of Climate Change and Desertification has the task of designing guidelines that allow compliance with the provisions of this Law. One of these guidelines refers to the “identification and classification of REDD + actions”. To carry out this work, a multi-sector, multi-level and multi-stakeholder process has been established, seeking effective and informed participation, with support from UNDP and the UN-REDD Programme. Further consultations are planned for other policy instruments and documents including establishment of a registry, financial mechanism for REDD+, and benefit distribution plan.
As part of this process, a series of virtual meetings were carried out in June 2020 with the purpose of consulting the document “identification and classification of REDD+ actions in Peru”. The process consisted on four meetings (3-4 hours each meeting), carried out using the “zoom” online meeting platform, with the participation of seven national IP organizations that are part of the indigenous peoples’ platform to confront climate change, and personnel from the Ministry of Environment. The process started with capacity building on the use of the ‘zoom’ platform, and background knowledge on climate change, forests and REDD+, followed by a joint reading of the document and culminating with the collection of feedback from the IP organizations.
While this initial set of dialogues had positive results, following the announcement in July by the Ministry of Finance that virtual consultations would also be used by extractive industries (mining and others), IP organizations launched a communique rejecting virtual consultations. Since then, some participatory processes have continued virtually, such as dialogues on subnational projects in San Martin and Ucayali, but the format for formal consultations including FPIC (regulated by the Ministry of Culture), still needs to be agreed upon between indigenous peoples and the government.