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Stewards of the Human Landscape
Spring 2001

Online Archive

*  Building a Public Interest Anthropology

(image) Illustration of park constituants.

"Environmental problems create winners and losers . . . Losers suffer from lost resources, health, and livelihood. Their powerlessness is often tied to poverty, ethnicity, or religion. "

Barbara Johnston

by Barbara Johnston

Environmental change comes in many forms, yet usually has one consistent aspect: the upheaval it causes in human lives. As the world's resources are exploited more intensively, cultural anthropology is demonstrating the link between environmental quality and the human condition. The Environmental Anthropology Project brings together the Society for Applied Anthropology and the EPA to enable communities to be heard at the decision-making table. The project provides assistance to local groups, describes the social strata that make up a community, and defines the political network where environmental policy is made. It brings a focus on humanity to policymaking. It also brings interns and fellows—the next generation of cultural anthropologists—into the real world of issues and policy, providing experience they would get nowhere else.

This project validates the fact that environmental problems create winners and losers. Winners profit from exploiting resources. They are rarely "local," and their status typically insulates them from the discomfort. Losers suffer from lost resources, health, and livelihood. Their powerlessness is often tied to poverty, ethnicity, or religion.

The society has found that the right to use resources and to play a role in how they are managed are crucial to sustaining communities. But strengthening the community voice has its risks. Every locality has its history of conflict. Environmental planning breaks down when old wounds are reexamined and emotions take over. Anthropologists often find themselves working as culture brokers, sorting out misinterpreted behavior as they listen to complaints, mediate conflicts, and promote compromise. This process of engagement is essential to a public interest anthropology.

The South Florida Eastward Ho! Project

As part of massive redevelopment in the Miami metropolitan area, cultural anthropologists are engaged in several related projects to compile a multi-faceted profile of communities that will be affected. They hope to draw a picture of the region's complex human face, with its array of ethnic groups, young and old, rich and poor, as players in a process that involves not only redevelopment, but also restoring the Everglades wetland ecosystem.

The work involves creating a GIS map illustrating the economic, social, and historic dimensions of the area, with overlays showing places that may have been contaminated with hazardous waste in the past. Health data gathered from residents will provide a baseline should medical problems develop in the future. Anthropologists are also working with the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida to communicate citizens' concerns and perceptions. The project is not only helping communities in Miami, but is also developing a methodological tool kit for other places undergoing large scale redevelopment.

Restoring the Everglades

The Florida Everglades is one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world. But with the settlement of south Florida, water from it has been dammed, drained, and rerouted—a crisis that launched what has been called the biggest environmental reconstruction in history. With 4.5 million people living adjacent to the Everglades, the task is formidable. The demographic mosaic—culturally diverse communities characterized by extreme economic inequity—further complicates the problem.

Anthropologists have been working with the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida to communicate citizens' concerns and perceptions. Part of the strategy is to get the different parties to see the issues from each other's perspectives.

Anthropologists and other social scientists have assessed feasibility studies for the restoration to give planners, ecologists, and engineers a clearer picture of the human environment by promoting ethnographic studies, community profiles, and the like.

The Columbia Plateau Agricultural Initiative

In eastern Washington State, where agriculture is an economic and social force, EPA is working with local communities to examine the interplay between agriculture, ecological stewardship, and the social environment. Through its partnership with the Society for Applied Anthropology, the agency has established an anthropology internship that, through interviewing and other methods, is drawing a detailed cultural picture of the region.

In the process, some important issues have surfaced: How do farmers view environmentally sound agricultural practices? What are the obstacles to their use? How do farmers view the EPA? The results, hopefully, could mean a coming together of interests—federal and local—for a healthy environment, socially as well as biologically.

North Carolina's Chip Mills

With the proposed construction of a wood chip mill, the residents of North Carolina's Rutherford County faced decisions concerning development and the wisest use of their forests. An anthropology fellowship provided a chance to explore these issues.

Interviews with residents allowed researchers to identify vested parties, clarify their interests, and allow them to express their concerns. Anthropologists organized public meetings to explore the mill's potential impacts and build a consensus on what to do. With a clearer picture of the community, SfAA fellow Cheryl McClary was able to create a model for resolving the conflicts. This work prompted state agencies to examine the effects of chip mills in general and how forests should be managed for long-term sustainability.

For more information, contact Barbara Johnston, Director, Society for Applied Anthropology Environmental Project, 554 Brooks Avenue, San Jose, CA 95125, (408) 271-9552, e-mail bjohnston@igc.org.