Community Science: Bringing Together Social and Scientific Goals, Western Australia's Waterwatchers Nurture Both Nature and Neighbourhood. (Saving Place)

By Carr, Anna | Alternatives Journal, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Community Science: Bringing Together Social and Scientific Goals, Western Australia's Waterwatchers Nurture Both Nature and Neighbourhood. (Saving Place)


Carr, Anna, Alternatives Journal


A sense of place is built on intimate knowledge of a specific area over time. Years of exploration and experience are needed for memories to accumulate and understandings to form. We are still learning -- or relearning -- how valuable an informed sense of place can be.

The experience of the Waterwatchers in the Shire of Serpentine-Jarrahdale in Western Australia is instructive. The area has multiple histories and many vantage points for those who have come to know it.

As original custodians, the aboriginal Nyungars took thousands of years to become acquainted, collecting detailed observations. "Fishing for whiting is good in the estuary near the sea-grass beds at Coodanup." Or, "look for crabs down by Ward Point." However, after decades of European water management with drains and concrete weirs, local residents have learned don't fish at all when you see the green death scum on the rivers and inlets. Since 1970, nutrient enrichment and eutrophication in the waterways has produced toxic blue-green algae blooms -- known to have killed livestock that drank from affected sources.

Where they now see muddy drains with frothy scum, older inhabitants can remember clear streams and grassy knolls. It was these memories of mid-twentieth century Serpentine-Jarrahdale that prompted nearby residents' return to being-in-place, to give something back.

Protecting their places mattered to these folk. And so in 1989 Waterwatchers, a water quality monitoring group was started.

Most group members began their learning journey into water quality monitoring with no formal knowledge in the field of water quality. However, they had plenty of commitment to and experience of the local landscape, what could be called "embedded knowledge". (1) Intersecting claims about the natural world from a specific personal perspective, cultural background, time and place are situated or grounded in real world experiences. (2) This knowledge is not only intellectual, it is embodied in heart and hand. Blackberry scratches on arms and legs and stinging nettles' rashes are evidence of this.

Waterwatchers are "community scientists" who know about water quality from repeated exposures, from direct, lived and breathed experience of science in situ. They know the area with their whole being, through touch and extensive personal narratives. Moreover, they care deeply about their findings.

By contrast, scientists who work with government, universities or environmental management firms have formal training that teaches them to be dispassionate. They know about environmental monitoring through their peers and publications in addition to "field-work". Theirs is the expert advice to which community scientists are often expected to defer.

Community scientists' very situatedness, that which gives them the opportunity, credibility and authority to talk about a specific place, is discounted by institutional scientists. The local person who says "but it is not like that where I live" is ignored at best, or ridiculed at worst. In knowing their own place, they are perceived as not knowing their place in society, daring to question scientific authority.

Judy Cooper, a Waterwatch member said, "The EPA [Environmental Protection Authority] had to sit up and take notice. They were quite amazed that this information had come from a group of women playing with water in the creeks of Byford."

Researchers fly in to examine and catalogue the earth's processes. Then they leave taking only the data, and not the anecdotes with them. They may publish in scientific journals. A few may communicate their research to the local community. Rarely do they stay to combine their research with restorative action.

In comparison, Waterwatchers decided to find out and take action on nutrient enrichment in their watershed. Faced with elitist scientists using "complex logarithmic graphs, based on regression analysis and other algebraic techniques," (3) the group had to find alternate ways of ascertaining how much phosphorus was coming from their sub-catchments (4) and where it originated. …

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