Paper 4E

No.2, Service Road
Domlur Layout
BANGALORE 560 071.


James Mascarenhas

TRANSECTS : are observatory walks or treks across the country side and fields and off the beaten track in any given area, village or watershed. Transects serve to help outsiders see at close range several items of interest and relevance which they would otherwise miss. Some of these are :

Physical Features


Such as topography, hydrology, soil types and problems such as erosion, etc.

Locally evolved technologies and management systems


These include traditional, indigenous technologies that farmers have been using, (sometimes over several generations) and their management.

Crops and Agriculture


Here land use, cropping practices and patterns, productivity, yields, etc., are studied.

Local Vegetation


This not only includes prominent tree species in the area but also other local vegetation and its uses, e.g. medicinal plants, fodders, etc.

Transects also enable us to discuss the above with farmers who accompany us. These discussions are real, situation specific, visual, and between ‘professional outsiders’ and ‘professional insiders’. A good transect is that which combines observations with discussions.

In general, through transects, one gets insights and information into the nature and complexity of the existing scenario in a way that traditional approaches do not give. This,to a great extent, offsets the biases of ‘Rural Development Tourism’, particularly where visits to the rural areas are restricted to villages that are larger or on the roadside, and discussions are restricted to a few farmers who are available, and observations, to nearby fields.

Though transects originally started as an ecologist’s tool for identifying and observing ‘Eco Zones’ in a given area, they have evolved into an extremely practical and important tool in observing, analysing and understanding rural situations. More recently, in combination with other methods such as livelihood analysis (study of farming practices), mapping etc., they have been used in PRA exercises for the assessment, planning, monitoring and evaluation of resource management and development projects. These include projects for watershed development, forestry, lift irrigation, and so on.

An important feature of transects is that the group doing this exercise consists of a combination of outsiders and local farmers. In this way local knowledge and experiences supplement observations. This enhances the quality of the exercise whether it is for planning or monitoring or obtaining a general knowledge about the area. The interaction between the farmers and the outsiders helps establish a better rapport and thereby enhances participation and the quality of the PRA exercise.

Interesting transects can also be done inside a village. Several observations can be made such as those of drainage and sanitation, utilisation of backyard space, location of drinking water taps, household chores (Cultural Transects), etc.


The list below are some examples of the things that can be seen on transects. These are a part of the earlier list, but are listed again for the sake of illustration.

1. Micro Environments

These include micro catchment for harvesting soil and water, seepage water utilisation, small dug wells and other high productivity ‘niches’ which farmers make use of or create in order to add to their production and income.

2. Other Local Technologies

Such as vegetative bunds. It has been observed that farmers plant multipurpose species on their bunds. Some of these are custard apple — (soil binding, fuel, fruit), various grasses — (soil binding, fodder, roofing thatch and brooms), agave — (soil binding, fencing, fibre), pongamia — (soil binding, green manure) and so on.

Others such as local agronomic practices (cropping systems, local varieties, land use, etc.), water management systems (water conservation, erosion control and drainage) and several others.

3. Problems and Opportunities

Problems such as erosion, salinity, perennial weed infestation, deforestation etc., are also observed. Along with the solutions to these problems other additional opportunities can also be recorded in consultation with the local farmers. (Some examples are lift irrigation schemes, diversion drains and nulla training, land reclamation, sites for wells, etc.).

4. Non-Agricultural Livelihoods

These include :

a) Items such as harvesting and selling of minor forest produce such as local grasses, fruits, leaves for leaf plates or beedis and so on.
b) Grazing management.
c) Activities of a non-farm nature such as fuel collection (either for domestic consumption or outside sale), brick making, sand collection.(1)


There are several types of transects. These depend on the purpose and the amount of manpower that is available. Some of these are :

1) Village Transect

Is an observatory walk through the residential area of a village, observing and making notes of the layout of the village — housing, drainage, backyards,  infrastructure, (schools, shops, wells, electricity), etc. It helps to locate/assess,map, and analyse various aspects of the residential area of the village that normally go unnoticed. A village transect is different from the other transects as it has greater focus on the dwelling zone of the village. Apart from the physical features of the village (lanes, houses, drains, garbage points, water taps, community buildings, materials used in construction, etc.) it gives greater insights into aspects of village life that are of a ‘social’ nature, e.g. segregation of housing colonies according to community/caste. A walk through a village also brings into focus household activities and economic activities such as livestock management, grain storage, rural trades and crafts, etc. It throws up a number of aspects of rural life which would probably otherwise go unnoticed. By pursuing such observations and following such leads as may arise on a village transect, a lot more knowledge and information about the local situation is gained. (Some examples are the diversity of livestock/ vegetation cultivated in the backyards – we once observed three sources of protein which would never have to come to light in our usual survey method.

These were :
– rearing of pigeons under the eaves of households by some people.
– netting of paddy fish.
– old women collecting snails which they said they ate.

A map of the village area and its layout could also be compiled, detailing the various features. (This is another interesting exercise and can either be done on paper or  on the ground. — Refer PRA-PALM SERIES Paper 4D : Participatory Mapping and Modelling)

2) Resource Transects include :
a) Straight or Classical Transect
b) Zig Zags
c) Looping Transects
d) Nullah Transects
e) Sweeping Transects

a) Classical/Straight Transect : is an ecologist’s tool of coming to a quick understanding of a particular agro climatic zone by analysing a cross section of the area. This is done by traversing the area in a fairly straight path, usually starting from an upper reach and moving downwards towards the village (and or beyond) or vice versa. This is undertaken by a group of outsiders (who can walk!).

In PRA training, this exercise is normally used to give participants an exposure into various aspects of the local situation that are related to natural resources and their management. These include soils, vegetation, crops, hydrology, topography, etc. Some observations — though not in detail can also be made about problems and opportunities relating to resource management. During the transect, observations are made at different locations such as the high lands, mid lands and low lands. This information is usually presented in the form of a diagram as shown in an annexure to this paper. But you can find several other ways of presenting it.

b) Zig Zag Transects : As the name itself indicates, these transects are done by the group walking not in a straight line, but in a zig zagging fashion over the ground to be covered. This method gives a greater coverage than the straight transect. Information is however collected in a similar manner and diagrammatically represented. There is also a chance to observe more.

c) Looping Transects : In this there are two varieties

i) Single Loop – where only one transect party (composed as usual of a group of outsiders and villagers) covers the area to be studied in a looping movement from point A to B (usually from a low point to a high point if available).

ii) Multiple Loop – This is a variation of the single loop transect. In this, several loops, by several groups are initiated. Each groups starts from a fixed point and follows a selected path. The groups then meet at a given point (again preferably at a higher location) and exchange and compare information and discuss observations. This is more comprehensive than single group transects of either the straight, zig zag or single loop varieties. Multiple loop transects are more practically oriented, in the sense that they are aimed at collecting information (with the villagers), (problems, solutions, opportunities) required for planning purposes.

These are listed in relation to soil and water, local vegetation, agriculture and horticulture and livestock management including fodder and grazing, etc.

d) Nullah Transects : are performed by the group (or groups) moving systematically up or down a water course (nullah). Observations are taken on either side of the nullah. It has been observed that in nullah transects, invariably a number of observations indicate a high degree of ingenuity of farmers in managing soil and water, converting problems into opportunities and exploiting these and other opportunities for more intensive and efficient production. Examples are niches and micro environments, such as those obtained by converting erosion into (paddy) fields by soil harvesting, diverting (surplus) rainwater into fields for irrigation, nullah training, intensive crop, vegetable and fruit trees production where adequate moisture is available and so on. Nullah Transects help throw light on an important aspect of watersheds by bringing out several opportunities and ideas. They are extremely useful in understanding how farmers manage soil and water in the watershed and of the diversity and variation that exists at different locations of the watershed.

e) Sweeping Transects : can be done in combination with or as a follow up to the other transects. Sweeping Transects are an important component of planning of any resource development and management projects such as forestry, agro-forestry, lift irrigation and watershed development. In sweeping transects, several groups `comb’ predetermined areas or sections of areas. They examine in detail problems and opportunities on site specific basis, sometimes even doing it plot by plot. These observations are discussed with the farmers who are accompanying the group (usually farmers owning land in a particular section are part of the group studying that section). Thus a deeper understanding of the entire area is arrived at, including site specific problems and the treatments or solutions recommended for these problems. This information forms the basis of the master plan which is to be prepared for a watershed development, forestry or lift irrigation project. Also, during the course of this exercise additional data such as the requirement of materials (length of pipes, cement), labour (mandays) etc., are worked out for the different works such as bund formation, checkdams, diversion drains and lift irrigation schemes, forestry, trenching, etc. This is done jointly by the outsiders and the village people and is cross verified once more during the group presentations which take place at the end of the exercise.

3) Cultural Transects

This is an interesting variation on the theme. It enables the student(s) to traverse through the `life’ of a person, a subsect of the village, or the village itself over a period of time (it may be a day, or a week, or more). It involves attaching oneself to a person, subsect, or village and following through on a journey of observations and discussions to discover patterns of daily life and why they are what they are. Some examples are : a day in the life of a woman, a week in the company of migrant shepherds, a day spent with minor forest produce gatherers, and so on.

Transects are a great way to learn about rural life and development, particularly about the complex interaction between man and his environment, of natural resources and their management, of farm based livelihoods, about local vegetation, and much more. Do not wait for a PRA exercise before you do a transect! Get out and try one now; it’s good fun and you will learn a lot.



1. Give some thought to the type of transect you want to do. This would depend on the purpose of doing the exercise.

Don’t do the transect in a haphazard manner. It is a waste of energy, money and time, particularly the time of the local people.

2. Spend some time planning the exercise, the groups (the size can vary but we find between 5 & 10 members ideal consisting 2-4 outsiders and the rest locals), the course each group would take, (in the case of straight line or nullah transects) or the section they would cover (in the case of looping or combing transects). An ideal group is a multi-disciplinary one. This does not mean that you require agricultural or livestock specialists.

Any person, especially locals, who have experience in the subjects of soil, water, crops, vegetation, etc., are more than adequate. Also plan how you would put together and use the information collected by different groups.

3. Brief the groups clearly on the exercise and give them some tips on how to go about it. Let them have a clear idea of the basic information to be collected (indigenous technology, introduced technology, problems and opportunities covering the areas of soil, water, vegetation, agriculture, etc.

4. Try to start at a low point and move towards a high point. Infact, where  there are several groups involved, if they are asked to converge at a specific spot, e.g. on the top of a hill after having moved up from the lower areas, the discussion, interaction and quality of learning are greatly enhanced.

Don’t be overawed by the exercise; it is extremely simple once you’ve decided  what information you want and how you plan to go about it.

5. Involve local people in the exercise, talk to them, ask them questions about the different things that you see even if you think you have seen them before or know them well. Encourage them to talk to you and tell you about different things. Be in a patient and interested frame of mind. In the case of combing or sweeping transects, it is necessary that farmers who have land in the area under study form part of the group, particularly when such exercises are for preparation of development plans as then, their ideas and opinions would be vital ingredients in the plan. 

Don’t miss any opportunity to talk to passers-by.

Don’t take anything for granted or pass over anything without asking questions.

6. Be curious. For greater learning try to relate your observations to the other items/aspects of the local situation, and follow leads. In this way, you begin to understand the local situation more comprehensively. For e.g. , who owns the degraded land on the upper reaches of the watershed? Who harvests and sells minor forest produce? Where do they sell? For how much? and so on. In the case of migrants ask them where they come from, what work are they doing, why did they leave their home village? How many months ago did they migrate?How much do they earn and so forth. 

Try not to be bored yourself. Also don’t bore your group with lecturing or by asking far too much information which you will never use.

7. Encourage discussions among the farmers.

8. Record observations in the form of a map of the terrain covered on the transect and the significant features of each segment of the terrain.

9. Start the exercise in the morning because it is cooler then. 

Don’t walk too fast; you may miss important things. 

10. Make the exercise interesting for all the participants, especially the locals. In the sub-group spend some time thinking it out and discussing it with your team members.

11. Take trouble about compiling the information your group has collected.