Partnerships between community members and outside scientists must draw upon everyone’s knowledge to effectively engage with government and developers when construction projects threaten a community and its environment, said stakeholders at a conference exploring the intersection of science, technology and human rights.
“Everyone’s expertise is needed,” said Heidi Weiskel, staff scientist at the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, a network of environmental scientists and lawyers in approximately 80 countries that provide legal and scientific support to help local communities protect their land, water and air.
Local community members may not have the letters “Ph.D.” after their names, said Weiskel, but their expertise is essential for understanding local natural resources, how they are used and how they may be harmed by outside development.
“We took care of the coral and the reef,” said Gerene Grant, a member of the Consolation Bight community on the island of Roatán in the Bay Islands of Honduras, where expansion of a cruise ship port has threatened the environment. “That was our source of living,” said Grant, a community advocate with the Bay Islands Development Organization.
She and her community did not have scientific proof of the detrimental effects of development on the reef, Grant said. “The only proof and support we had was our ancestral knowledge.”
The Oct. 23-25 conference marked the 10th anniversary of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, which now counts 24 scientific organizations as members as well as two affiliates. The conference brought together human rights leaders, scientists and engineers in academia and industry, students and community members to share lessons learned from the past decade of collaboration and explore new approaches to using science and technology to address human rights challenges.
Weiskel and Grant took part in a panel on the use of scientific tools and methods to counter acquisition of local and indigenous community lands by developers. In addition to case studies from Liberia and India, the panel examined ongoing collaborative work in the Bay Islands of Honduras in opposition to the expansion of a cruise ship port.
The project would damage coral reef just off the community’s coastline by “rescuing” and removing the corals and infilling land onto the reef, said Laura Palmese Hernandez, an environmental lawyer with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide who lives on Roatán. By turning the area, home to a national marine park, into “Roatán’s Disney World,” the project also would upend the lives of the 75 families living in the fishing community of Consolation Bight who rely upon the reef’s marine life, said Palmese Hernandez.
Alliance members in Honduras brought in international experts, including Weiskel, who held workshops with community members and managers of the marine park to share guidance on relevant findings of an environmental impact assessments for the project. Such assessments frequently include irrelevant studies and information, so wading through hundreds of pages of material to find key points can be challenging and intimidating, Weiskel said.
Reviewing the assessment together, local residents and the visiting scientists found many inconsistencies, Palmese Hernandez noted. The decade-old document included, for instance, a wastewater plan that would require connecting to the community’s sewage system, which does not exist, Palmese Hernandez said.
The most significant information is often what is omitted from an environmental impact assessment, said Weiskel and Palmese Hernandez. In the 400-page assessment, the effects on the community were never mentioned, said Palmese Hernandez, who apologized to the conference audience for the quality of the project maps, which had never been provided to community members and instead had to be captured from a video made by the developer.
The workshop provided community representatives with facts and evidence drawn from ancestral land use records to more effectively counter the positions of port developers. “Communities can counter with knowledge that they have from ancestral use of the land” as they fight back, Palmese Hernandez said. Since the infill of land over the reef began last year, the community has filed complaints with several government departments, including Honduras’ human rights office, and requested a meeting with the governor, which was denied.
“All we have left in the community is the coral, the sea life,” said Grant, wiping away tears. “I’ve made up my mind that I’m not going to be silent,” she said.
Panelists encouraged scientists to collaborate with local communities, providing time and resources and enhancing local knowledge. “We need you all,” said Grant.