Interdisciplinary action-research project on natural resources in central Africa

Ethical Concerns

The Land Rush Theatre method has been implemented throughout various field research phases in South Kivu (DRC), Burundi and Rwanda. Crossing these experiences has brought the team to an overarching discussion about the potential but also ethical challenges involved in the Land Rush method.

1) The Land Rush Theatre method is only suitable for later research stages, when the researcher is well acquainted with the local setting and with potential sensitivities. Implementing it in the early phases of research as a tool for quick ‘information-gathering’ imposes practical but– more importantly – ethical problems. 

2) The Land Rush Theatre method can be adapted to different research themes in which the researcher is interested. In our case studies, we implemented it in order to analyse land access dynamics, to understand resistance strategies to land grabbing, to focus on power relations within the land arena, and to discuss the impact of agrarian and land policies on local livelihoods. All these themes are embedded within the Land Rush game, and can be the core topic of the Land Rush theatre sketches. However, it is important for the researcher to make a clear choice, and coach the theatre group into that direction. 

3) The Land Rush Theatre method proved to be particularly useful to bring to the surface
participants’ ‘hidden transcripts’ in non-confrontational ways
. Indeed, the theatre sketch provides a fictive reference point to which participants can refer in the discussion. The possibility to talk about real-live concerns but in a fictive setting, helps to stimulate frank discussion. However, at the same time, this comes with important analytical and ethical challenges. (1) How to interpret the gathered discourses? Do these data allow to establish facts (rarely so), or should it be analysed as opinions? How to link up the discourses framed within the fictive theatre sketch to real-life dynamics on the ground? (2) What is the responsibility of the researcher by offering a platform in which certain opinions and discourses are formulated (particularly when those discourses legitimise the use of violence)? (3) How to manage conversations in which stakeholders in opposite positions participate? How to make sure that debates remain peaceful and constructive? These remain important challenges that are specific to each research environment.

4) The participatory nature of the Land Rush Theatre method is overall very well appreciated by the research participants. However, the improvised character of the exercise imposes important challenges upon the researcher. There is a real risk of losing control over the exercise, for example when the focus on the core research theme is lost in the elaboration of the theatre sketches; when the exercise is hijacked by a particular group of protagonists; or when the group discussion becomes too heated and particular groups may feel targeted. The Land Rush Theatre method should only be implemented by experienced researchers with a deep understanding of local level issues. Particularly the role of the discussion coordinator is of crucial importance. Such person should speak the local language, know the local culture, and have elaborate experience in conflict mediation or group coordination.

5) The Land Rush Theatre method is a useful research tool that allows local people to participate in very active ways. It often creates a very stimulating and creative ‘buzz’ that is particularly welcomed by the local youth. Young people are solicited as actors, embedded within an intensive training, coached by theatre professionals who help them with the scenario writing and with finding the balance between comical and dramatic elements in the performance. The local actors receive a salary and a stage on which they perform in front of their community. In each of our trials, the Land Rush Theatre created an important momentum in the lives of the involved actors. But the ‘one-shot’ nature of the exercise remained problematic. At the end of each exercise, the local actors expressed their interest in continuing the theatre dynamic and asked for follow-up coaching. However, this was not something the researchers could offer. This made us reconsider the importance of linking up this research experience to the activities of local civil society organisations. Whereas after the initial pilote exercices, we had not involved local civil society organisations in the three case studies theatres, we realised that it might be very useful to embed the entire theatre method in a broader action-research project in interaction with local civil society organisation active on the ground.


illustration land-rush