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Community-based research in environmental justice through Jesuit institutions

3 July 2020
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Communities are not projects; communities are life. Communities live out problems and hopes. Marginalized communities do not observe food insecurity, they live through it. (Photo: M Alvim, August 2019)

Pedro Walpole SJ

How do communities share their hopes and actions for change? Communities who are marginalized have a very different thought process to those actively engaging with change. Communities, when gathered, are often a disunity of people who happen to be living in a same geographical space. They do not necessarily operate collectively; someone of the local elite may be in control.

People in the margins are often looking for a handout when somebody visits; research does not generally figure in their imagination. There is a guessing period. They try to guess what the visitor or researcher wants them to say. They do not initially want (or see) a particular problem to be solved, and the whole problem is often one of livelihood. But livelihood is seen perhaps not as a problem, but a lived burden given that their individual efforts have failed to achieve a collective difference.

Change does not start with the topic of what’s up for research. So how does the sense of change come in a community gathering?

The process is much more a discourse of the present and warms up with story-telling. It is important to listen to stories of those opposing as well as those supporting. This is more important than engaging to solve their problem. We need to foster active listening, to learn to listen well, and together, share thoughts where feelings emerge, and from this draw out positive expressions to consider anew.

Communities are not projects; communities are life. Communities live out problems and hopes. Marginalized communities do not observe food insecurity, they live through it. To try to get the community to stand outside of such difficulties requires them to shift the conversation.

When listening to their stories, one can slowly form a common experience and a shared attitude. And with this shared attitude, one can find the right time to ask, “what if?” and have a shared basis for exploring areas of research.

The researcher will be able to ask the story the researcher wants to write or find in the researcher’s own life. This entails much thinking, listening, and reflection, with community redirection. Discernment can be done through different processes.

So, as a researcher, one quickly finds out a community is not an easy collective whole. Often there is a lot of in-between space and many connections are needed. At some point, there is a discernment process to help identify interested partners, to clarify how to stand together and how principles and values line up. It will be necessary to revisit this over time. In this way, one can help in locating and animating the community’s passion for environmental justice and find allies.

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The youth and the elders discuss and plan community’s activities in a very different world today, with a very different generation in the face of economic development.

Community mapping and hermeneutical gaps

Community mapping can be a tool to bridge hermeneutical gaps. If well facilitated, the process of community mapping by groups of men, women, and youth can be a tool for inclusion and confidence-building of all.

Rural communities draw maps from a work-space orientation rather than a kilometer measure. Thus, community maps can capture the intensity of their land use practices. The area where they work most has the greatest detail and scale.

Community mapping can gather different sets of data that help in managing natural resources within a certain landscape, for example a water catchment and communicate responsibility and opportunity.

Communities whose livelihoods are closely dependent on natural resources have a cosmic vision. This means their viewpoint comes not from a street vision, but from a 360-degree vision from the land to the stars, to the direction of the four winds, and to where the river flows.

The concept of ecological services is so obvious to indigenous communities and so integral to how their ancestors lived in their very landscape they inherit and pass on as an integral experience of life.

There is a gap with urban reality that requires experience over reason to find the expression of integrity and justice. Communities who live with and work off the land sometimes cannot understand why others do not sense the impacts of certain changes or destruction of the land.

Gratitude is a common element in welcome rituals of Indigenous Peoples, sharing an experience in various ways and how the land walked on is blessed. Deepening community-based research by pulling in the personal and spiritual dimension of the landscape is important.

Youth, education, and self-confidence

In remote rural communities, there can be no youth if there is no education because as soon as one can hold a buffalo or bear a child, one can already get married and start planting food for a growing family.

Also, there is little educational potential without water. Direct access to clean water is key to enabling families to keep their children healthy enough to go to school.

Education shifts the local dynamic because it provides children and young people with time, self-expression (food, health care), and new opportunities.

To start with, youth in indigenous schools tend to come and go. Youth decide themselves by the age of 12 whether they want to go to school or not. But as long as they keep trying, they should be given second, even third, fourth chances.

Youth in marginalized communities often have little confidence to engage. They can easily be demolished in society. Culture and identity help youth gain self-confidence. When youth are able to retain an identity and feel a sense of lasting belonging to a place, they become more self-confident.

Confidence building tools include mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) complemented with initiatives like the Global English Language (GEL) programme of Jesuit Worldwide Learning (JWL). Together, these are helping marginalized youth communicate their sense of identity and place to broader society without having to migrate.

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Generation 2050

Reconciliation, justice, and hope

Until there is a change in the model of business and the assumption of urban lifestyles, the margins will remain. Raw materials, farm produce, even water, are staggeringly marginalized in urban society that pays minimum to those who do not have collective power.

Justice is often not possible. It is difficult to speak of justice because in most societies, justice does not usually come within one’s lifetime. Injustices may be so great that the youth may resort to arms at different stages. Justice may be a futile pursuit in many cases and it is not surprising. Questions are never seemed to be asked and ideology is to be blamed.

Injustice can kill hope and instill revenge. Hope is not a simple synonym for justice; hope is a continuing commitment to see beyond the present stumbling blocks, polarizations, exploitations, or gross violence in the face of injustice. It is not an end in itself but a way of living. Hope is about trying again in the face of injustice.

Reconciliation − within the heart of the person and within community − is something that people can experience. As Jesuits, we talk of reconciliation and justice. What can happen within the heart of a person or the heart of a community matters.

Lessons learned in community-based research

In the upland indigenous communities where this case study is focused in northern Mindanao in the Philippines, they are transitioning from traditional food and life security in the forest to developing community capacities and skills.

These are critical as they seek to engage with local government and the global economy in terms of what the communities want to be and how they want to manage their ancestral domains.

The present datu (leader) in the village of Bendum, working with the affirmation of the tribal council, brought the community past the difficulties of the last 60 years when they were coming out of the logging years. After the logging in the 1980s and ‘90s, there was significant rural community focus in national development. Today, the community’s activities are now being built in a very different world, with a very different generation in the face of economic development.

These 10 points are drawn from community gatherings in recent years:

1. Communities may have difficulty in expressing what they actually want and what commitment they will make to work together. Patience and presence for a significant time are needed to encourage, but not to lead.

2. Indigenous interests need consolidation to strengthen community activities and claims.

3. Community mapping opens many conversations, integrates small areas with the larger landscape, and can translate local knowledge that government may use in order to respond.

4. Ecological services as understood scientifically can be used to illustrate the inherent and integral cultural values and knowledge.

5. Cultural knowledge is cosmic and though there are weak links, it is more acceptable than the broader scientific conceptual framework that does not share a sense of value.

6. Youth accompaniment is essential to enable reflection and allow them experiment and see something different they may want to work with and pursue.

7. Youth programs can be sustained to facilitate learning, to work together, and to develop the capacities to implement activities and achieve objectives.

8. Research does not solve an immediate problem or abuse but helps understand and shape a new context.

9. As activities are ongoing, the community’s silent affirmation by means of presence and daily support needs to be acknowledged in the work. This quiet community affirmation also serves as a continuous “open word” for those not (yet) joining.

10. In this particular context of Bendum village, it has taken a lot to engage government services.

The work has now passed on to a group of youth who have both a sense of the broader economy and of community. In accompanying this generation of today, there is talk of Generation 2050 and the question asked is: What will these youth be able to hand on in 2050 at the age of 70 to their grandchildren?

2020_06_30_N&E_Photo4Pedro Walpole SJ, Research Director at the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC) and Ecojesuit Global Coordinator, shared these reflections and lessons learned from the Philippines. It is one of the case studies presented at the Community-Based Research in Environmental Justice at Jesuit Universities: A pre-conference workshop for Jesuit-affiliated colleagues at Loyola University Chicago.

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) organized this workshop on 12 March 2020 that brought together practitioners of community-based research and hosted by Loyola University Chicago-Institute of Environmental Sustainability. Around 30 participants from India, Nicaragua, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and the US joined the workshop. All cases shared were about how the participation of local people in socio-environmental research have helped communities move towards achieving sustainable development goals.

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