Addressing Climate Justice through Community Collaboration: Case Studies of Burkina Faso and Boston USA

Paul Kirshen | USA

Addressing Climate Justice through Community Collaboration: Case Studies of Burkina Faso and Boston USA

1.0 Introduction

Populations that have been marginalized and oppressed by colonialization and its legacies are some of the those that suffer the most under climate change. An example is global water availability. In the tropics and around the Equator, rainfed agriculture is the livelihood of much of the population. Unfortunately, here rainfall is expected to become less and more variable under climate change; yet these populations have had the smallest carbon footprints and will disproportionally suffer.

Some of these stresses can be lessened by introducing technology and planning, but that only can be done when professionally trained social and biophysical scientists and engineers work collaboratively with those impacted to ensure that scientifically sound, equitable, and culturally relevant strategies to adapt to the new climate are implemented. Here I discuss several case studies of this process.

2.0 Delivering Seasonal Rainfall Forecasts in Burkina Faso

With most African livelihoods dependent upon rainfed agriculture, seasonal forecasts of rainfall may help farmers. While such forecasts will not themselves make up for issues such as a lack of credit and technology and the existence of weak institutions and racial discrimination, forecasts have been shown to be of value.

Burkina Faso, a former French colony, is a landlocked nation south of the Sahara Desert, part of the Sahel-Sudan climate belt from Senegal to Chad. Rainfall is in summer from intense storms. It ranges from 100 cm in south to 40 cm in north. There is extreme variability within a season, as well as over years. Eighty percent of farmers are rainfed, subsidence farmers. With climate change, droughts will significantly increase, as well as variability.

Presently about 20-50 percent of the farmers in Burkina Faso obtain probabilistic rainfall forecasts for the summer from local radio. However, back in 1998 when our project started, none were receiving them, despite such forecasts being produced by the international meteorological community for the various agro-ecological zones of Burkina Faso. The challenge our research team faced was how to deliver these scientific forecasts into the hands of subsidence farmers in Burkina Faso and make them useful for them.

For a trusted local partner who could help us access villages in Burkina Faso, we chose Plan International, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that takes a whole-village approach to supporting children. We needed an interdisciplinary team of international and in-country experts – no one discipline could address this. Thus, we had an anthropologist, an agronomist, a veterinarian, and myself, a water resources engineer. The in-country Burkinabe team included a meteorologist, a water resources engineer, and an agronomist from the government and three full-time local facilitators – one in each of the three agro-ecological zones of Burkina Faso. The facilitators spoke local languages and supported the project when other team members could not be in the field.

The first phase of the project was to listen to farmers to understand how they then predicted rainfall and made adjustments. This was done by focus groups and key informants in representative villages in each of the three agro-ecological regions of Burkina Faso. We purposely chose participants to represent men and women from various ethnic groups and gave them stipends for their participation. We learned that there was high interest in obtaining new forecast information. One chief noted that, because of the changed climate, local prediction methods based upon environmental changes and cultural practices and rituals did not seem to be as reliable as before.

The next phase of the project was to actually deliver forecasts to farmers in a managed process, so we could evaluate how to best disseminate them and the results of their use. Here, based upon the results of Phase One, we used a participatory workshop process. About 20 lead farmers from three villages in each agro-ecological area attended a workshop where the forecast was first presented and discussed with an exercise to convey its probabilistic nature, then the farmers shared with us and discussed with the other farmers how they might adjust their farming practices. Farmers were never given recommendations on adjustments because all farmers have their own risk tolerances and incentives and obstacles. Plus, they factored in information from their local methods based upon spiritual practices as well as environmental phenomena such as the temperature of the dry season. Farmers also discussed how to disseminate the forecasts in their home villages. The forecast was broadcast on local radio after the workshops.

Results of this participatory process were that farmers understood the forecast and, in varying ways, modified their production strategies in response to it. We also learned that involvement of users in the production and dissemination of climate applications ensured the relevance of information content and appropriateness of communication formats and channels. The process can also foster local ownership of dissemination efforts and generate trust in the process, which is essential for turning the inevitable failures into opportunities for learning.

Farmers and the Burkinabe government team members also benefitted from meeting each other; farmers developed more respect for government services and the government team learned firsthand more about farmer problems. Plan International also benefitted from the project by learning how seasonal forecasting can possibly better farmer livelihoods.

Continuity of the research over an approximately 10-year period was important. This allowed researchers to make regular trips to the field and win the support of local authorities and community leaders and develop relationships with dynamic and influential farmers who spearheaded forecast dissemination in each village. Several farmers commented that they were willing to take the forecasts seriously and help with their dissemination because they knew the scientists would come back to see what happened and to help them understand and explain possible failures.

3.0 East Boston Flood Management

Most of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and most of that population is along the coast. Coastal urban areas are exposed to both the inland impacts of climate change, such as extreme temperatures, and coastal impacts, such as severe flooding from coastal storms. Unfortunately, many members of populations that have been marginalized or oppressed often live in the most flood-prone areas. To understand more about the impacts of these flood threats on these populations and to start to ameliorate them, my colleagues and I have been working in the East Boston neighborhood of Boston on the northeast coast of the US since 2008.

Because much of East Boston is a peninsula built on fill, it is vulnerable to present an increased coastal flooding due to climate change and sea level rise – perhaps 60 cm to 200 cm above present levels by end of this century. East Boston has a mix of residential neighborhoods, commercial and industrial areas, and major regional transportation assets, including Logan International Airport and four major tunnels. Limited yet important recreational and natural areas are also there.

East Boston is currently home to over 40,000 people. It has high concentrations of different types of socially vulnerable populations, some of the densest within Boston. It has always been an immigrant community. Many of the residents today are from presently unstable and insecure countries in Central America and work in service jobs outside of East Boston. The community has suffered many environmental injustices over time. Parts of East Boston are undergoing rapid gentrification, particularly along the waterfront.

The first action of our interdisciplinary team was to select a local, trusted partner to collaborate with us and introduce us to the neighborhood. We chose the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) in East Boston because of their whole-community approach to striving to improve the quality of life for low-income and marginalized East Boston residents.

Initially, we listened to the residents about their knowledge of climate change in general, and then about the threats of present and increased coastal flooding. For each workshop – with a group of attendees purposely selected to represent the myriad of interests in the community, as in Burkina Faso – we provided stipends, meals, childcare, and translation and scheduled around times and locations best for participants.

We learned the following from the residents:

  • While residents generally understood climate change issues, they did not have substantial knowledge on how to manage local impacts.
  • Residents are committed to their communities, by choice and also due to a lack of other housing options; they do not want to leave. Even though most of them are recent immigrants, they have strong ties to each other and to the concept of remaining together.
  • They also recognize that coastal living presents special risks and that seawalls to prevent flooding are an option. Residents, however, felt that a seawall would completely block their view and access to the waterfront, one of the few positive attributes their neighborhood has.
  • Evacuation during a flood is a limited option, as many have no place to go.
  • Residents also realized that some coastal resilience options could help manage other threats, such as drainage flooding or extreme heat. But all options have some disincentives for them, with high costs being common to all.
  • Residents appeared to be empowered by the knowledge they gained during the workshops and wanted to take action. While not in the mainstream of the decision-making process, once they became educated and engaged in this issue, the participants appeared willing and able to become a part of the decision-making process.
  • The residents professed to having little power over the management of their community. They are generally renters with very limited economic, political, or social resources. It appears to them that adaptation decisions will be made by processes, institutions, and individuals over whom they have no influence.

In response to this information from the residents, we launched a collaborative planning process with residents, NGOs, and government officials, because it was apparent that residents wanted to engage the organizations that would be actually implementing and financing adaptation in East Boston. Therefore, we set up the Adaptation Planning Working Group (APWG), which included representatives from the city, major transportation agencies, gas and electric utilities, and Logan Airport, as well as community representatives from each of the three major areas of East Boston. This group met regularly for several years to jointly discuss adaptation options for East Boston – sometimes in larger workshops with more community members. For some of the agency representatives, this was the first time they had had conversations with community members.

To overcome the obvious power differential between the professional members and local residents, we held meetings with the community representatives before each APWG meeting. In these meetings, we discussed the topics of the APWG meeting with them so they would not be intimidated by the professionals and could feel equal to them during the meeting: the so-called Supported Community Planning Process. Through participation in the APWG, community members found they could influence the type and timing of planning and implementation efforts of the multiple participating city/state agencies responsible for sea level rise and asset protection in East Boston, in a manner that would also provide co-benefits to the community. For example, though a small project, the first adaptation project of the City of Boston was constructed in East Boston, and more are high priorities for the current city administration. NOAH also benefited by developing another set of supports it could provide to the community.

While we continued to engage in joint adaptation planning in the area, we also made an effort to increase the social cohesion of the residents. Past research from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy showed that if an area is socially cohesive, there is less human suffering and communities bounce back more quickly. One action among many was that NOAH started the East Boston Resilience Network to help residents respond to climate change, as well as the wide-spread food insecurity in the community and the COVID pandemic.

4.0 Stone Living Lab Partnership in Boston Harbor

I would now like to discuss an ongoing research effort that is also based upon community engagement with the community also helping to define the research agenda. One of the outcomes of our research in East Boston was that the marginalized population there was eager to meet some of their community’s flood management needs using nature-based approaches rather than hard structures such as concrete seawalls. This is also the case in many other parts of Boston and the world.

Nature-based approaches are engineered systems that mimic performance characteristics of a natural ecosystem – such as a barrier beach, a marsh, an elevated dune, or a reef – and can be implemented in an urban environment, for example, as an elevated park or berm. Nature-based approaches offer important advantages as long-term resilience solutions that traditional approaches like concrete seawalls do not:

  • They provide co-benefits. For example, an elevated park with a cobble beach reduces wave energy and flood risk while also cooling the air, enhancing and protecting ecosystems, and creating communal green space. The latter is particularly important in low-income communities.
  • They have the potential to independently adjust to changing conditions, just as a natural system would.
  • They get stronger over time, instead of weakening with age.
  • They can be less expensive to implement than traditional structures.

The use of nature-based approaches is not only an important strategy for the residents of Boston. Most of the world’s population, and particularly those marginalized and oppressed by past effects of colonization, live in coastal urban areas that face the threat of catastrophic sea-level rise and storm surge driven by climate change. Through nature-based approaches to resilience, we have the opportunity not just to protect, but to enhance these communities. Optimizing the use of these approaches is globally important.

Yet gaps remain in our global understanding of how best to design and maintain these approaches and how to ensure that their potential co-benefits occur. To address these research needs, the Stone Living Lab was founded in Boston in 2020 with the visionary and generous support of the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation.

The Stone Living Lab is a unique partnership built around UMass Boston’s research and the community engagement work of the organization Boston Harbor Now. The Lab brings natural and social scientists, nonprofit organizations, city, state government, and federal government, and Indigenous people to the same table to develop a coastal resilience agenda for Greater Boston, in collaboration with community groups and many other organizations. Together, the Stone Living Lab partnership is doing in Boston Harbor what few groups in the world have been able to do: scientifically rigorous coastal resilience research, innovative and engaging education and outreach, relevant and meaningful policy work, and robust coalition building that enhances regional climate preparedness and is community-directed and -focused.

As I previously stated, the activities of the Lab are purposely designed to meet the needs of stakeholders in the region, focusing on those who are impacted first and worst. To do this, we are engaging community leaders, youth, grassroots organizations, and municipalities in the work of helping us better understand their climate vulnerabilities and priorities.

For example, we are investigating the potential of nature-based interventions like rain gardens, swales, inland wetlands, and tree plantings to protect a key Boston subway route from coastal and stormwater flooding while also improving local ecosystems and the enhancing the health and vibrancy of marginalized communities and commercial districts. After extensive site-selection work and a robust stakeholder engagement process, the project team is confident that nature-based approaches can be designed to effectively protect these dense, vulnerable urban neighborhoods, while creating multiple social and economic co-benefits.

Another key project is studying what community members in Boston’s diverse urban setting believe to be the key social, economic, and political challenges of adopting nature-based approaches. Our interviews revealed concerns about financing adaptation work, state and federal regulatory limitations, addressing patterns of inequity and preventing further disparities, and potential negative environmental and human impacts. Understanding and addressing these concerns is pivotal to the success of widespread NBA adoption in Boston and cities around the world.

Other study topics range from the distribution of social co-benefits and the risk of green-gentrification to marine-life friendly concrete additives and structural geometries for coastline-protecting artificial reefs. Many of our projects involve local youth via school and volunteer community science projects. We have found that youth are very interested in workforce development and action on climate change, and we are developing undergraduate internships through which students can work on projects related to climate science, policy, and education, getting the hands-on training they need to become part of the workforce to tackle climate issues.

The challenges that coastal communities face under climate change are urgent and complex. We believe that the broad-based partnership we have established at the Stone Living Lab is a model for developing coastal resilience solutions that are just, successful, and sustainable, and that the research we are conducting in Boston Harbor can help guide the implementation of nature-based approaches in coastal communities around the world.

5.0 Summary

The methods we used for scientists and marginalized and oppressed communities to collaboratively implement scientifically sound, equitable, and culturally relevant adaptation strategies were successful and are also used by others working in adaptation planning. To summarize, some of the principal collaboration elements from the perspective of the scientific team include:

  • A local trusted partner is needed to introduce the scientists to the local community and ensure the project remains relevant.
  • An interdisciplinary team is needed, because no one discipline can address these challenges.
  • The process must start with the scientific team listening to the community.
  • There must be constant respect for local knowledge and values and there must be co-production of new knowledge and approaches.
  • Continuity of the research over years must be provided so the scientists and the local community can learn to trust and educate each other and continuously upgrade strategies.
  • Opportunities should be developed to bring the local community into the decision-making process, improve the capacity of the local partners and institutions, and bring in new, previously less involved, but important stakeholders into the process. Engaging youth in projects helps to engage their families and also to build the future climate workforce.
  • Scientific research such as that being done by the ground-breaking Stone Living Lab can be designed and amplified to meet the needs of urban marginalized populations by collaboration and partnership with the impacted stakeholders. The lessons learned from the application of such processes in Boston can be scaled-up globally.

6.0 Bibliography

Burkina Faso

Ingram, K., Roncoli, C., and Kirshen, P., Opportunities and Constraints for Farmers of West Africa to Use Seasonal Precipitation Forecasts with Burkina Faso as a Case Study, Agricultural Systems, 74, 331-349, 2002.

Kirshen, P.H. and Flitcroft, I., Use of Seasonal Forecasting to Improve Agricultural Production in West Africa – An Institutional Analysis of Burkina Faso, Natural Resources Forum, August 2000.

Sorgho, R., Mank, I., Kagoné, M., Souares, A., Danquah, I., Sauerborn, R., “We Will Always Ask Ourselves the Question of How to Feed the Family”: Subsistence Farmers’ Perceptions on Adaptation to Climate Change in Burkina Faso, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, October, 2020.

Roncoli, C., Kirshen, P., Etkin, D., Sanon, M., Somé, L., Sanfo, J., Zoungrana, J., Hoogenboom, G., From Management to Negotiation: Technical and Institutional Innovations for Integrated Water Resource Management in the Upper Comoé River Basin, Burkina Faso. Environmental Management 40(4):695-711, 2009.

Roncoli, C., Jost, C., Kirshen, P., Sanon, M., Ingram, K., Woodin, M., Somé, L., Ouattara, F., Sanfo, B., Sia, C., Yaka, P., and Hoogenboom, G., From Accessing to Assessing Forecasts: An End-to-End Study of Participatory Forecast Dissemination in Burkina Faso (West Africa), Climatic Change, 92(3-4), February 2009.

Roncoli, C., Ingram, K., and Kirshen, P., Reading the Rains: Local Knowledge and Rainfall Forecasting among Farmers of Burkina Faso, Society and Natural Resources, 15, pp. 411-430. 2002.

Roncoli, C., Ingram, K., and Kirshen, P.H., The Costs and Risks of Coping with Drought: Livelihood Impacts and Farmers’ Responses in Burkina Faso, Climate Research, 19, 2, pp. 119-132, 2001.

Roncoli, C., Ingram, K., Kirshen, P., and Jost, C., Integrating Indigenous and Scientific Rainfall Forecasting in Burkina Faso, Indigenous Knowledge Notes, IK Notes, n. 39, December, 2001.

Roncoli, C., Ingram, K. and Kirshen, P., Can Farmers of Burkina Faso Use Rainfall Forecasts? Practicing Anthropology, 22 (4), pp. 24-28, 2000.

Zongo, B., Diarra, A., Barbier, B., Zorom, M., Yacouba, H., Dogot, T., Farmers’ Perception and Willingness to Pay for Climate Information in Burkina Faso, Journal of Agricultural Science; Vol. 8, No. 1, 2016.


East Boston

Douglas, E., Kirshen, P., Paolisso, M., Watson, C., Wiggin, J., Enrici, A., and Ruth, M., Coastal Flooding, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice: Identifying Obstacles and Incentives for Adaptation in Two Metropolitan Boston Communities, Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 17(5), pp 573-562, June 2012.

Kirshen, P., Ballestero, T., Douglas, E., Hesed, C., Ruth, M., Paolisso, M., Watson, C.,

Giffee, P., Vermeer, K., and Bosma, K., Engaging Vulnerable Populations in Multi-Level Stakeholder Collaborative Urban Adaptation Planning for Extreme Events and Climate Risks – A Case Study of East Boston USA, Journal of Extreme Events, Vol 5, September 2018.

Kuhl, L., Kirshen, P., Ruth, M., Douglas, E., Evacuation as a Climate Adaptation Strategy for Environmental Justice Communities, Climatic Change, 127(3-4), December, 2014.

Zandvoort, M., Kooijmans, N., Kirshen, P., and van den Brink, A., Designing with Pathways: A Spatial Design Approach for Adaptive and Sustainable Landscapes, Special Issue Policy Pathways for Sustainability, Sustainability, 11(3), January 2019.