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Dispatch: Jacob and Matt in Central America

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By Matthew Hamilton - Posted on 04 August 2010

For most of the summer we have been in Central America, working to help improve efforts to manage water resources in impoverished rural communities. We’re here under the auspices of the Global Water Initiative (read all about it here: www.globalwaterinitiative.com), which is a coalition of international NGOs working in three world regions to address the declining state of the world’s freshwater supply. In Central America—including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua—the lead coalition partner is Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and we have been working most closely with CRS staff. Even though we are both involved in the same project, we are approaching our research quite differently.

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Highlights from Jacob:

Situated in the highlands of northern Nicaragua, the town of La Trinidad is a rewarding place to spend a lazy afternoon for any traveler willing to step slightly off the beaten path. The self-proclaimed “Bread Capital of Nicaragua” has the volume of bakeries to back up its assertion, and the kind of small town appeal that politicians from Central America’s northern neighbor seem to salivate over. The incessant noise from the battalion of heavy machinery scattered all over town might sound like progress, except that the town is not building up, but rather being restored to what it was before heavy rains in late June washed away most of the roads. At present, the town has no infrastructure for storm water runoff, and the past few years have seen increasingly frequent episodes of increasingly intense storms.

As you follow the well-worn gullies to the Río Trinidad that borders the northern edge of town, the sight is quite disturbing. In places there is more trash within the banks of the river than water, and what little flow exists at the base of the eroded channel is visibly stained by soap and grease, and invisibly tainted by agricultural runoff, leaking latrines, and household gray water from the middle and upper regions of the watershed. What has brought me to La Trinidad, however, is not everything that is going wrong, but one very important thing that is going right, that few other communities in the Global Water Initiative project possess: a dedicated and coordinated citizen group that, in spite of having little to no funding, has been making incredible strides forward in its effort to clean up the Río Trinidad, and most importantly, keep it clean.

For the past three weeks I have been working with FIDER (Fundación de Investigación y Desarrollo Rural) – one of several local NGOs collaborating with CRS – in the Río Trinidad watershed to better understand this movement to save the Río Trinidad. The “plan of action” defining the mission, goals, and planned activities of the group was formalized in November 2009, meaning the movement is young enough that virtually all the details, with some effort, can be recovered to help understand exactly how groups like this can form. In addition to gathering the few documents recounting the brief history of the river restoration plan, I have been interviewing members of the roughly twenty different actors involved in the process to try and uncover the rest of the details. The questions I am asking are designed to get at various aspects of participation in the movement (each actor’s role in helping carry out the mission of the group, who the leaders are, barriers to participation, who do the actors collaborate most closely with on joint projects…), as well as perceptions and desired outcomes of the movement (what exactly does the plan of action propose to accomplish, what is each actor’s vision for the plan, what can be done to maintain the enthusiasm of the movement…).

The implications of my work here satisfy both my academic curiosity, and concrete objectives of both FIDER and CRS on behalf of the Global Water Initiative project. Intellectually, this project satisfies my interest in collective-action problems, as well as decision-making and uncertainty, in the realm of water resource development and management. Additionally, the social network analysis implications of this project are also quite interesting. The more readily applied aspects of my work here involve helping understand the evolution of these types of community groups for the purpose of, hopefully, being able to artificially foment similar movements in other communities. Furthermore, I hope that the documentation process I have initiated here will be beneficial to the community group in the future as it continues to evolve and make important decisions in its attempt to effect meaningful change within the banks of the Río Trinidad, and within the borders of the Río Trinidad watershed.

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Highlights from Matt:

For me the summer has been especially rewarding because I’ve had a chance to see some of the work I began a year ago come full circle. Since last summer I have been working with a team of specialists to develop a new data collection technique, which we have now successfully piloted in four countries. You can see it in action here: www.vimeo.com/user4222555/videos.

In a nutshell, the technique allows natural resource management specialists and local stakeholders to exchange and document knowledge using a map composed over high resolution satellite imagery. In this sense, each map (of a community or micro-watershed) serves as a dialog between local people and Global Water Initiative specialists. Collaboration and participation must go both ways.

Where available, we use Google satellite imagery as base layers for our maps. That allows participants to map by identifying features of the landscape like houses, large trees, land parcels, and rivers. But in Central America, this high resolution imagery usually does not extend into the more isolated rural areas where the Global Water Initiative is active. For that reason one of our biggest obstacles has always been inadequate satellite coverage. So we were excited to find out a few weeks ago that we have been awarded a very valuable in-kind donation of images from Planet Action, which is an organization that connects environmental NGOs working on climate change issues with commercial providers of satellite imagery. You can read about our project on the Planet Action website: http://www.planet-action.org/web/85-project-detail.php?projectID=6280.

Now I am gearing up for a week-long workshop on the technique, in which representatives of 10 partner NGOs from four countries will get together to share experiences, learn new skills, and articulate how they intend to apply it in all 189 communities where the Global Water Initiative is active in Central America.

As far as the research side of this project goes, I’ll be testing 1) the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the technique, and 2) its potential to increase participation and environmental learning.

1) I’ll be comparing spatial point data from the participatory maps we’ve produced with corresponding points in GPS-derived datasets (for houses, springs, landslides, etc).

2) I’ll compare between groups which carried out the mapping technique with a satellite image and control groups which mapped over a blank sheet of paper.

Although I haven’t finished copying notes and observations, from my experiences in the field I noticed that participation (particularly of women and younger men) was much greater when using a satellite image map compared with a blank sheet of paper. But interestingly, I didn’t notice any great difference between the two forms of mapping in terms of what the participants reported they learned about their neighbors’ land use patterns, about environmental risks, or about natural resources in the community.