Elaine Burns is working with communities in the Sierra Nevada region outside Mexico City to create long-term sustainable development plans, using new computer tools and organizational strategies to ensure people's participation.
The New Idea
In the face of ongoing environmental threats to the Sierra Nevada region, Elaine has created a new tool for engaging local people in regional planning and sustainable land use. When citizens sit down to negotiate with government officials, they are often at a disadvantage. They may have no shortage of interest, zeal, and firsthand knowledge of environmental problems, but they do lack technical data and comprehensive analytic information to give authority to their position. If they could approach the public forum as experts armed with their own scientific data, they can change the power dynamics of negotiations between the people and the state.What makes Elaine's work different is the computer imaging and analysis program, a "Geographical Information System," that she helped create. This computer program combines environmental indicator data--tree survival rates, nitrogen levels of rivers, the influence of recycling -- collected by local people with computer-processed maps, aerial photos and satellite images. Using the program, Elaine and residents select the most appropriate development plans and produce detailed technical proposals. This system has allowed Elaine's group to produce one regional and six municipal natural resource atlases, which provide extensive information about water basins, aquifers, soils, and forests, as well as profiles of community projects and proposals to achieve sustainable management.
Even the best efforts of Mexico City planners have failed to control metropolitan Mexico City's expansion toward the Sierra Nevada, which despite being a federally protected agricultural reserve is especially vulnerable to environmental degradation. The Sierra's fifty-five thousand acres of protected forest are vital to absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen in a region home to more than twenty million people. The permeable geological formations there are essential to recharging the Chalco-Xochimilco aquifer, from which Mexico City draws 35 percent of its water.
Sadly, links between local communities and their land are weaker than ever. Young people see no future in agriculture, and growing corn depends almost entirely on older generations. Communal lands -- painstakingly won from large estates less than a century ago -- are no longer the center of community life. Land is often subdivided or sold to resolve family economic emergencies. Furthermore, the closed nature of local power structures leaves municipalities vulnerable to land speculators.
The protection of this vital ecosystem has been hindered by pressure tactics and corruption that undermine the formal institutions controlling public land use. In the absence of scientific tools with which to lead sustainable land use campaigns and a forum in which everyday citizens can enter into dialogue with the government and other community stakeholders, the encroachment of the Sierra Nevada is expected to continue.
In order to protect the Sierra Nevada, Elaine has developed a technical process that provides both baseline data on environmental conditions and builds the political capital of communities so that they can negotiate more authoritatively with government. Her computer program evaluates alternative development strategies, identifies those suitable for each area, and then creates Model Seedbed Projects. Each "seedbed" offers a package of training and technical assistance to community members. The Model Seedbed Projects include strategies on how to manage eco-tourism, create organic market cooperatives, and to implement sustainable water use, organic recycling, and "green" houses. Elaine's group simultaneously provides training to several potential project areas in the region, which serve as the backbone for regional sustainable development.
Community awareness and participation are essential to decision-making. As of now, the project involves over four hundred university students, twelve civic groups, twenty-nine communal land groups, fourteen secondary and preparatory schools, and twenty-two social service providers. More than fifty-five hundred people have participated in the regional planning process, and most residents know the plans intimately. Thus, private businesses and politicians cannot easily divert or adapt the plans for personal gain. In fact, local, state, and federal authorities support the projects. Since current law requires community involvement in government planning anyway, Elaine's project makes it easier for officials to comply with this obligation. In recent municipal election campaigns, the candidates all referred to her computer-generated materials, and nine government agencies donated aerial photographs and satellite images to include in her mapping system.
Elaine's group has also trained local teachers to incorporate this research into their classrooms. Every semester, students from certain schools help measure such benchmarks as the amount of chloroform in rivers and streams, the number of trees planted through reforestation, the number of jobs created, and the amount of waste recycled. This information will be used to update the Geographic Information System database. In addition, a partnership with the Autonomous Metropolitan University has generated other projects. The Animal Reproduction Department now teaches courses in the region, where locals study with university students.
In ten years, Elaine hopes to have a model that shows how local communities can be the primary agents in the transition from environmental calamity to sustainability. Elaine feels the project will be successful beyond Mexico; universities in Venezuela, Canada, and Holland are currently studying her project. Though Elaine's work is largely unpaid, administrative expenses are fundraised with UAM. Elaine has secured programmatic support for the participatory diagnoses, the Atlas, the monitoring system, and the seedbed project from such sources as the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature, the Educational Center for Sustainable Development, the United Nations Development Program, and the Solidarity Institute.
Elaine grew up spending her weekends with her father in the rice, soybean, and cotton fields of Arkansas. When she was eleven years old, bulldozers destroyed the stream where she played. At that moment, she pledged herself to help defend the natural world. After earning a degree in psychology, she was invited to accompany a group of Jesuits who were documenting strip-mining damage in the Appalachian Mountains. Through the Jesuits, she got involved in Latin America, and moved to Chile in 1977 to work as a human rights intern with the Methodist Church and then with Catholic human rights advocates. Her work among the Chilean people made a lasting impression on Elaine, giving her a deep trust in the human ability to have faith and to create -- even in the face of destructive forces.
In 1980, Elaine returned to Arkansas to put into practice the lessons she had learned in Latin America. She helped found the "Grassroots Women's Project," a group that does community and workplace organizing. In 1983, Elaine went to Mexico with the intention of staying for a few months, but ended up settling there. In 1990, she played a critical role in forming the computer portal and email network "Laneta," which provides free Web access to civil society organizations in Mexico. Within a few years, she moved to metropolitan Mexico City, and combined her community organizing and technical skills with her dedication to environmental protection.
In 1995, Elaine developed the Sierra Nevada University Community Project, a new model of applied research and community education for sustainable development. Her computer program grew out of this collaboration. In 1997, Elaine organized the Iztaccihuatl Council, a civil society organization that produced one of the first complete municipal development plans in Mexico. The plan's successes already include a community-based recycling business, a women's health center, and a one hundred forty-acre forest school.