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Closing the Gap: How Can Scientists Better Support Communities Impacted by Mining?


Dr. Arthur J. Lustig



  • Speakers
    • Onyekachi Okoro, Project Officer, Media Awareness and Justice Initiative
    • Stephen Steim, Executive Director, New Media Advocacy Project
  • Background:
    • The workshop focused on the water pollution crisis for the Ogoni population of Nigeria. Shell Oil was responsible for oil leaks that polluted the rivers used by multiple Nigerian indigenous populations for their food and livelihoods. Following a collaboration between scientists and indigenous populations, an historic settlement between Shell Oil and some of the indigenous populations was mediated by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).
    • However, additional challenges remain to
      • Maintain the commitment of Shell Oil to the UNEP-mediated agreement,
      • Ensure that the agreement includes the Ogoni population
      • Prevent the recurrent oil spills that have created ongoing problems for the region.
    • Compounding the challenges for indigenous communities are inadequate environmental laws and the lack of environmental regulatory frameworks. Current rules require the local populations to report evidence for spills in real time, yet eyewitness accounts and inferred consequences of an oil spill are dismissed. This situation creates obstacles for the community to generate the scientific evidence that carries the most influence with both the Nigerian government and Shell Oil.
  • Design Thinking Method
    • The major issue is how scientists and the indigenous populations can best interact to solve these environmental issues. 
    • Design Thinking is a method to pose questions in creative ways in an effort to develop novel solutions, in this case for the interactions of scientists with the Ogoni population.
    • Previous top-down approaches in which scientists enter the region, evaluate the needs of the area, and develop solutions in the absence of Ogoni involvement, is not thought to give rise to successful solutions to ongoing environmental exploitation.
  • Consensus of the Presenters
    • There is a general need for scientists to be involved with the local community, in order to measure and evaluate water pollution.
    • What is the best framework for interactions between scientists and indigenous populations? 
    • Among the suggestions of the organizers were 
      • To search for opportunities for scientists to empower the community particularly through the involvement of younger individuals currently unemployed due to the environmental crisis
      • To create community groups that can test, analyze, interpret real -time data
      • To develop open-access platforms to communicate essential data with the government and industrial interests. 
    • The issue is cross-cutting, since the development of a paradigm for scientific involvement with the Ogoni community could be applied to many comparable situations throughout the world in which indigenous populations are placed at risk for environmental damage.
  • Edge Issues:
    • The edge issues that were raised involve the security of reporting groups (the need to prevent threats), the need for high quality presentation of the data, and engaging policy makers at multiple levels.
  • Group Opinions:
    • The workshop attendees were divided into multiple groups and asked to pose questions and design solutions through brief brain-storming sessions, mimicking the longer process of Design Thinking.
    • Although the opinions of individuals within groups sometimes differed, the proposals of the groups fell into several categories:
      • A common opinion was that scientists should first listen to indigenous peoples in order to understand their perceptions of the problems. Communication is key and may be initially undertaken by individuals trained as intermediaries between scientists and the population, as well as through the assistance of policy makers. The goal is to develop a trusting relationship between scientists and the community.
      • The optimal degree of direct scientific involvement in water testing, data evaluation, and data presentation varied among the groups. Some also thought that the backing of the scientific community could strengthen the voice of the local populations.
      • Most groups, however, thought that direct involvement ran counter to the goal of community empowerment. These groups felt that the scientists should provide the teaching and training for the communities’ own testing and evaluation (with the assistance of scientists as needed).  The techniques needed to measure river pollution are sufficiently straightforward (e.g. assays for heavy metal content and acidity) for local evaluation.
      • Another group proposed that human rights organizations that are expert in advocacy and policy making should lead the way in communicating scientific methods to the community, placing scientists at a further distance from the community.


Key Points/Takeaways:

  • This workshop focused on the technique of Design Thinking to re-conceptualize the questions and find new solutions to close the gap between scientists and the needs of indigenous populations to be protected from exploitation by oil and mining interests.
  • Coalition involvement:
    • Further education in Design Thinking is needed, through more extensive coalition-sponsored workshops, before the best approach can be conceived and implemented.



  • Environment
  • Indigenous peoples
  • Methodology


Additional Resources: