The MERGE program (Managing Ecosystems and Resources with Gender Emphasis) was a collaborative network of organizations that, during the 1990s, pursued a strategy of mutual learning focused on gender, community participation, and natural resource management in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. Funded under the Gender and Natural Resource Management grants competition sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (along with other sources), MERGE was a unique partnership among diverse organizations across four different countries. The University of Florida joined with like-minded counterparts in the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty (FLACSO) in Quito, Ecuador, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) based in Washington, D.C. and the Conservation International program in Peru (CI-Peru), to present a set of linked proposals for funding, and in 1994, the MERGE program received funding from the MacArthur Foundation. Each of the participating organizations received its own grant, an arrangement which provided an autonomous basis for collaboration and incentives for sharing resources.

The initial MERGE partnership funded by MacArthur included universities in the North and the South, international environmental organizations based in the U.S. and in Latin America, and the in-country NGOs with whom they worked. The latter included, among others, the Fundación Antisana (FUNAN) in Ecuador and the Agrarian Federation of Madre de Dios (FADEMAD) in Peru. A parallel MERGE program developed in Brazil with support from USAID-Brazil’s Global Climate Change program in collaboration with PESACRE, a local NGO in Acre, Brazil, Fundação Vitória Amazônica (Manaus, Brazil) and other local organizations in the Amazon region.

The MERGE strategy and conceptual framework, developed, and adapted over several years and in diverse sites, used gender analysis as a point of departure to approach diversity in community-based conservation efforts. Together with wealth, social class, ethnicity, age, and property ownership, gender is analyzed as a key determinant in status and power structures. Knowledge about and use of resources are shaped by gender in significant ways that are often overlooked. While gender has long been recognized as a key dimension to be addressed in development work, the use of gender analysis in conservation efforts is fairly recent and poorly-documented. For the most part, the growing recognition of women’s important roles in grass-roots projects is not yet reflected in strategies to influence policy, institutions, and organizational partnerships for conservation and development.

Dealing effectively with these social complexities is difficult enough. Relating social concerns to the biophysical dynamics of conservation, which themselves are poorly understood, is even more challenging. MERGE responded to this challenge by adopting a collaborative learning approach, developing participatory techniques for conservation projects in different conditions, incorporating a focus on gender, and working through partnerships to build institutional capacity for future learning and adaptation.

The MERGE program developed and adapted training and technical assistance programs for different audiences and contexts, with a central focus on work with local communities through collaborative partnerships. The partners also were concerned with documenting, evaluating, and drawing more general conclusions from this work. Periodic workshops and meetings allowed us to learn from our collective field experiences and to build a conceptual framework for understanding some of the key gender issues in community-based conservation and resource management projects.

The MERGE book and the MERGE case studies made available here both report and analyze the conceptual, methodological, and human aspects of the MERGE collaborative learning experience. Despite many difficulties along the way, the experience seems to show that collaborative learning approaches work in important ways. The MERGE program found ways to unlock creativity, build confidence, develop capacity in people, and influence institutions. These experiences, and what we learned from them, can contribute to efforts to address complex challenges of conservation and development. For many of the dozens of people involved in MERGE, the collaborative learning experience had life-long impacts.