Monday, March 5, 2012

Local Knowledge

I recently learned of the environmental disaster area on the Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan. I was at a meeting at Alma College and heard one of the Alma profs (Ed Lorenz) who works with the Citizens’ Advisory Council (CAG) on this superfund cleanup. Velsicol manufactured pesticides at the site, leaving behind a site that had, according to the CAG website, “the highest levels of DDT contamination ever measured in the US.” Again, from the website, “The Task Force has become a national model for establishing a forum linking government experts and concerned citizens, with much local knowledge, to secure appropriate environmental-health policy responses…The Task Force believes that such community groups can improve the effectiveness of any technical work, research about risks, and decisions about remediation. A failed remediation of the Velsicol site in the 1980s, done with conscious exclusion of the public by officials, seems to be proof of the validity of the Task Force's assumptions regarding citizen involvement. The Task Force and College are determined not to allow similar mistakes to occur today.” ( The urging of the local citizens, along with effective use of their local knowledge, is driving this cleanup. I work with the Binational Public Advisory Council for the St. Marys Area of Concern. Our environmental issues are not as severe as those on the Pine River and, unlike the Pine River, our restoration/cleanup was designed from the beginning to include local knowledge. As with the Pine River, our council has been the main advocate for maintaining interest in the restoration/cleanup work during the years of little attention by the agencies. Our council has had a good working relationship with the agencies even through those lean years and is happy to report that the agencies now are making good progress on restoring the St. Marys River, Local knowledge – the knowledge of place on the part of those that live there -- is important for science. Sometimes when community X has a problem, whether an environmental problem or a community health issue, scientists design a study in their lab, descend on the community, take their measurements, return to the lab to analyze the findings and then issue a report. The community members are subjects of the study with a clear line of demarcation between subjects and researcher. The study is done for the community but in some ways it’s done to the community. If the study goes on to design and implement remedies, that’s done externally as well and imposed on the community (sounds like the first round of Pine River cleanup). It works much better when the community members partner with the scientists from the very beginning of the study. The study is designed in part based on what the community members feel they need to know to improve their situation. The study incorporates local knowledge and helps build community capacity to address the problem. The study is done with the community, not just for it and especially not to it. Remedies are designed and implemented with the full involvement of the community members. Research projects based on this concept are called community-based research or participatory action research and they are gaining favor in the environmental health arena. Local knowledge does not always meet traditional tests of scientific rigor. But it does contribute to understanding the problem and finding a remedy. It’s especially important in finding a remedy that will work in the local community, whether in developed countries or developing countries. Sense of place includes local knowledge of the place that pays off in science.

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