Engaging Environmental Issues and Policy
Arizpe Honorees Stress Collaboration for Action and Results
The AAA Environment and Anthropology (A&E) Section, through its biennial Lourdes Arizpe Award, has created an opportunity to recognize recent outstanding achievement in the application of anthropology to environmental issues and discourse in international or domestic arenas, across all ecological and policy applications. The 2007 awardees were honored at a reception and ceremony held December 1, 2007 at the AAA meetings in Washington, D.C. The reception was made possible through the generous support of A&E Section, and cO2-sponsors Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, Society for Ethnobiology, Dr. James Peacock, Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, and National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Following is a synopsis of their outstanding work and accomplishments; and commentary on questions that are undergoing continual debate in the profession:
- How can anthropology inform policy?;
- What is the value/importance of integrating scholarship and practice or advocacy?; and
- What are your observations on the best way for AAA to build collaborations with policy actors, NGOs, and colleagues in other disciplines?
Collaboration, Sound Research, and Results
Dr. Barbara Rose Johnston was awarded the Arizpe Award for her reparations work on the Chioxy Dam Legacy Issues Study in Guatemala and her work for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal with the people of Rongelap in the Marshall Islands. Her most recent work with the survivors of nuclear testing in Rongelap has resulted in a groundbreaking decision by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal that broadens the theoretical field of economic valuation and is a precedent-setting judicial decision. The Nuclear Claims Tribunal is charged with assessing damages and claims related to nuclear testing. The tribunal had previously made decisions and compensation to the people of Rongelap for medical conditions, but this claims case was different. The tribunal was considering property damage claims, but would have to use a ‘property-based’ appraisal of the value of land, a Western concept which fails to address the full nature of damages suffered.
Dr. Johnston and others meticulously documented the consequences of the 1954 thermonuclear testing including the loss of a way of life and of a healthy habitat, through a collaborative and participatory approach which gave broad ownership to the process and the results.
Working from the beginning with a Marshallese advisory committee in forming the research questions and in “deposing “ expert witnesses giving testimony at the hearings before the tribunal, Dr. Johnston and the Marshallese presented three days of formal testimony before the tribunal, which became part of the evidence in the case. The point was drilled home that “land,” which includes lagoons and reefs, is the means for sustaining a self-sufficient way of life that is shared and cherished.
As a result, the property claim was developed on a much broader basis than simply the contamination of the atoll’s land. The tribunal framed the decision and the assessment of damages in terms of “loss of a way of life” and “loss of the means to live in a healthy fashion,” and awarded the people of Rongelap $1 billion in damages. The judicial findings of the Rongelap claims are extremely significant in amending the legal concept of ‘property’ and create precedent that other cases can build upon. In addition, the process of the research and testimony became a personal reconciliation for many Marshallese. The following quote, from a Marshallese elder after the hearings, gives an idea of the importance of the process to the residents of the three atolls: “We do not need the judge’s findings. This was our Nuremberg Tribunal, and we know we have won.” See also “Reordering Nuclear Testing History in the Marshall Islands” by Paul Nuti in September 2007 AN, pp 42-3.
A second Aripze award went to Peter Reiss and the Iraq Marshlands Restoration Program Team for exceptional leadership and accomplishments in restoration of Iraqi marshlands, ensuring Iraqi leadership and voice, and improving the quality and sustainability of life of Arab marsh dwellers. Dr. Reiss is a senior anthropologist at DAI, in Bethesda, MD, where he has worked for over 26 years on water resources issues. He is currently the director of the Advancing the Blue Revolution Initiative, a USAID program addressing issues related to international river basin conflicts, water use efficiency, and water and sanitation utility performance in the Middle East and Africa.
One of the compelling factors in this project was that it restores the means to sustain a way of life for Iraqi marshland residents and gives them the viable option of returning to the wetlands. The project is successful because it derived from grassroots activity (local mayors and farmers breaching the dikes and dams) and has broad, meaningful support at the local and national levels.
The scope of the restoration was formidible and complex. Formerly the second largest marshland in the world, the marshlands area was heavily drained in the 1990s to a point that only seven percent of the total remained. It was home for roughly 500,000 people in the 1960s; they had been persecuted, forced into exile, pushed into drained and desiccated lands – left with no access to the marshes and few services. The number dwindled to 125,000 people.
Dr. Reiss’s anthropological expertise was critical – his knowledge of the Middle East and ability to establish trust and a working relationship with tribal sheikhs and town leaders. From the initial assessment of the marshes, involving extensive visits into the marshes to meet with local sheikhs, other leaders, farmers, women herders, local service providers, and market agents and operators in marsh settlements, in mudhifs, in fields and pastures, on boats, in clinics, and in markets, the team designed and implemented a comprehensive three-year program to provide social and economic development assistance to the local population while monitoring the impact of the drainage and the reflooding of the marshes. The highest priority among the program objectives was the improvement of the social and economic lives of the marsh dwellers. The team approach involved collaboration, advocacy, income generation for the poorest and most under-served; governance; and capacity building among Iraqi expertise to contribute to rural welfare.
Finally, there was convincing evidence of outstanding leadership informed by anthropology: Reiss’s emphasis on Iraqi leadership and ownership of the restoration program, his insistence that marsh restoration is not just a hydrological/biological phenomenon – it must include humans and human use of the wetlands and is compatible with, and a prerequisite for, a wide range of economic activities contributing to sustainable human and community development.
The impacts of the 2003-2006 USAID program are substantial. Over 45% of the marshlands have been reflooded, at the instigation of local residents. Families are re-settling the wetlands, agriculture is being restored, and stocking has yielded millions more fish; livestock and dairy production (from water buffalo to sheep) have been enhanced, forage crop cultivation has increased dramatically and new crops adopted, and primary health services have been established where none existed previously. Of course many challenges remain – but the program is continuing, past the project’s funding completion in 2006 – in itself remarkable, given the turmoil in Iraq — because the team leader insisted on training, transfer of leadership, and capacity-building in Iraq.
The Student Award went to Shauna Burnsilver, a student of Dr. Kathleen Galvin, for her outstanding work bringing the Maasai into the research formulation and dissemination process, creating tansparency and equity in its use. She accomplished 17 months of fieldwork with Maasai in southern Kenya, in two different areas, on the effects of land tenure changes (privatization of communal lands) on economic strategies and mobility patterns.
During her dissertation fieldwork, funded through USAID’S Global Livestock –CRSP, she recognized that the Masaai pastoralist council and the Masaai were not happy with the research questions being asked for the proposed modeling and assessment system in Ngorongoro Conservation Area. She gave voice to pastoralists’ concerns that the project had framed the research questions too narrowly. In collaboration with the Maasai, she re-formulated the salient research questions critical to pastoralists’ well-being and helped prioritize them. Kenyan colleagues laud her ability to formulate the questions in a highly volatile arena, where conflicts over land, access, wildlife, and gender make the research highly sensitive.
Secondly, she began to see that research results were not being provided back to the community and community involvement was not integrated from the beginning. She organized (in collaboration with a Danish NGO) a series of open community meetings, or “feedback sessions,” explaining the results of the questions that were important to the Maasai. In both locations, Ngorongoro and later Amboseli in 2004, she led a team back to the field for a series of research dissemination meetings for communities and policy makers. She lead the meetings, transcribed the proceedings, and translated all the reports into KiSwahili. In effect, she opened the research process to the community being studied - which was groundbreaking for them, and put the research results in the hands of everyone equally, not just the government area offices and NGOs. The “feedback” meetings were well-attended (over 3500 people in total) and created an awareness among the local people and group ranch leaders, clearly tapping in to community needs.
BurnSilver’s work has had far-reaching impact, not only through her contributions to the success of the overall project, but specifically in bringing Maasai in to the research process and empowering them. Maasai now require that all researchers in Amboseli area follow the same dissemination process.
In addition she earned great respect in Maasailand for her fluency in the cultural values of Maasai – respect for elders – the art of listening – and received a nickname, “Naserian,” which means “the peaceful one.”
Awardees Comment: Anthropology and Environmental Policy
The creation and naming of this award after Lourdes Arizpe highlights the critical need for anthropological knowledge and perspective in addressing current environmental issues. In your opinion, how can anthropology inform environmental policymaking and public opinion/knowledge?
BRJ: We work with specific communities. And in these relationships and with an array of methods and techniques, we develop evidentiary data that clarify histories, demonstrate the consequential damages of histories, substantiate or contextualize the human experience, and articulate the needs and notions of meaningful remedy. As social documentarians, critics, culture brokers, scientific analysts, and social justice advocates -- anthropologists help create forums and arenas where the otherwise silenced voices may be heard.
PR: Anthropologists have a unique role driven by their training and skills. I do not think that any other discipline brings the ability to integrate and synthesize data the way anthropology does. Too often, policies and actions to support them are based on narrow or arbitrary views of what is happening. A case is Iraq marshlands restoration. US government agencies spent several months trying to develop a program but were not able to pull the pieces together into a cohesive design. So they turned to me, in part, I believe, because by training and experience as a practicing anthropologist, I am able to see the larger picture of how complex pieces - here ecosystem restoration and socioeconomic development - fit together. Anthropologists can and should play leadership roles on interdisciplinary teams, drawing in experts from a wide range of disciplines who are often limited by their own expertise. At the same time, I am pleased to see that anthropologists are no longer playing the "gotcha game" of standing on the sidelines and pointing out the deficiencies of programs post facto.
Sound practice is based on sound data and research
(2) There is a strong practicing component to the Arizpe Award. In your experience as a scholar/practitioner why is it important to integrate scholarship and practice/advocacy?
BRJ: In my experience, effective outcomes occur for a number of reasons. Sometimes the simple act of documenting ulcerating conditions and inequities produces the political will to offer remedy. Such situations are incredibly rare, and often require a convergence of events - a political window where the greater world is keenly interested in listening to a discordant voice. More often, the case must be "made" ... not just persuasively argued. And making the case requires hard evidence. Scientific research, using tested methods, producing reliable and reproduceable data, generating conclusions that are supported by multiple sources of evidence -- such approaches allow the anthropologist to work and be accepted as an expert witness, rather than a interest-specific activist. Conclusions resulting from sound scholarship and scientific research are defensible and hard to ignore.
PR: Practice/advocacy without scholarship might as well be journalism: descriptive, hopefully accurate, but shallow and fleeting. The strength of our discipline is in our unassailable use of data that inform our analysis. That scholarship, shaped first by careful design, gives us credibility and value. It also permits us to evaluate the data and analysis of scholars and experts in other fields, weighing their interpretations against ours. The problem remains, however, that as practitioners, we are not often given adequate opportunity to do the scholarship but must cut corners because of time and budget constraints. Few funders will pay for an anthropologist to conduct extended research as part of a larger effort. We are forced to be quicker than we like. But I am always surprised that even when that happens, we are still able to be insightful, useful, and influential. I think anthropologist do speak truth to power.
Building collaborations with policy actors
(3) What do you think would be the best way to go about building collaborations with policy actors, NGOs, stakeholders and colleagues in other disciplines? Can the AAA play a role in this?
BRJ: The AAA has and continues to work in collaboration with policy actors, NGOs, stakeholders and colleagues in other disciplines through the formal work of the Committee for Human Rights, other commissions and committees, and through the various section and interest groups of the association. Collaborative work can produce powerful political outcomes. That said, such work requires an intense commitment of time and energy, and with the ever-changing cast of characters in these committees and elected offices, long-term collaboration is difficult to sustain. I think there is much, much more that the AAA could do, especially if funding was secured to support the staff who could help implement and sustain collaborations and action-research initiatives. It is not, however, enough to simply add money and people and expect effective social change to occur. Coalition building requires mutual areas of interest, expertise, the political savvy to operate and (ideally) insure equitable voice, and a deep understanding of the agendas and motivations of the varied actors involved. Effective engagement requires the knowledge, before jumping into a situation, of where the money comes from, the overarching intent of funding this initiative, and thus an eyes-wide-open awareness of how you and your work might be used to support or transform reality.
PR: I had never had a problem building strong ties to a wide range of stakeholders, including those in the US and foreign governments - at all levels. Clearly, openness is most important and giving a sense that one wants to form productive partnerships. The best way to start is individual - for anthropologists to bring those in other disciplines as early as possible into the conceptualization of programs and then into the actual design of research and implementation initiatives. I have always received an enthusiastic reaction. The AAA also needs to do a better job of reaching out to practicing anthropologists. Although I am a lifetime member and fellow of the association, I sometimes think that anthropologists like me get lost in the crowd of our academic colleagues. The Azipe Award is a wonderful recognition of those who chose another professional path and who regularly work interdisciplinarily. After all, the award this year was not to me but to the marshlands team which included wetland ecologists, collaborative planners, water resources experts, hydrologists, economists, livestock and fish experts, public health professionals, NGOs, local and national government agencies, and an anthropologist.