Partnerships, Not Projects! Improving the Environment through Collaborative Research and Action

By Austin, Diane E. | Human Organization, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Partnerships, Not Projects! Improving the Environment through Collaborative Research and Action


Austin, Diane E., Human Organization


The knowledge we can obtain through direct experience is often only a fraction of what is necessary for understanding our interactions with the environments upon which we depend. We often know little about the environmental impacts of agricultural practices, water projects, or oil extraction activities that supply what we want and need. Knowledge gaps are exacerbated by technologies that enable the mobility of people and resources. Those who act to fill the information gaps wield tremendous power in defining cause and effect, problems and solutions. This article describes a particular model of developing partnerships for community-based research and action that seeks to address the gaps and then provides an example of the model's application.

Key words: collaborative research, partnerships, community-based research, U.S.-Mexico border

One of the key features of recent environmental policy in the United States is the decentralization of decision making from national to local levels. This is a positive step in the administration of resources, but this trend holds danger as well as promise. For decades, environmental issues have been treated as the purview of experts. National environmental legislation governs air, water, waste disposal, and more. In the 1980s, Congress began enacting legislation, such as the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), that was specifically designed to force federal agencies to take action Io increase environmental protection. High costs associated with such legislation, political backlash, and other factors have resulted in increasing decentralization of decision making and devolution of authority back to the local level.

The rationale behind decentralization is that local people know best what their problems are and how to solve them. In the face of major environmental change, this assumption must be carefully examined. While there is considerable local knowledge about the problems-be they coastal erosion, aquifer depletion, air pollution, or radioactive contamination-it is another matter to assume that local knowledge about the environment is necessarily relevant to their solutions. Many of the problems communities now face stem from large-scale environmental change caused by decisions made far away. Levees on the Mississippi River, dams constructed on its many tributaries, and subsidence and canal dredging associated with the oil and gas industry all have contributed to the extensive coastal erosion experienced by residents of southern Louisiana's bayou communities. Many southwestern aquifers have been drawn down to the point where subsidence is causing buildings to collapse, and wells must be drilled ever deeper to reach potable water. Groundwater is supplemented by water transported via canals hundreds of miles across the desert from the Colorado River and its tributaries.

Rapid urbanization has occurred in the Mexican border communities that are the hosts to maquiladoras, the foreign-owned assembly plants first organized in the 1960s under Mexico's Border Industrialization Program and expanded in the 1980s and 1990s under policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The maquiladoras have attracted many workers to the border, resulting in rapid population growth in areas without adequate infrastructure. Problems such as vehicular traffic on unpaved roads and parking lots, burning of wood and garbage, and deforestation and subsequent erosion all contribute to high levels of airborne particulate matter. Transferring decision making about such problems to local leaders and residents places responsibility and some control on their shoulders, but it does not grant them authority in the arenas where the decisions that create these problems are made. Nor does it provide the financial or technical resources adequate to address them.

Such problems are deemed environmental, but they reflect failures in dominant economic, social, political, and value systems. …

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