December 8, 2016

Local Ownership (Part I): Empowering Communities at America's Eroding Edges

The edges of our country are eroding. From Alaska to Louisiana, centuries of culture, tangible history, and dynamic communities are being battered by stronger storms and sea level rise—raising difficult questions about adaptation, relocation, and what it means to be an American experiencing climate change today.

Over the next year, Victoria Herrmann, a National Geographic Explorer will chronicle America’s Eroding Edges (AEE), helping you explore the challenges of all those facing the impacts of climate change on their homes, livelihoods, and cultures. Join us on this journey as we discover the breadth and depth of what stands to be lost in America—and what we as a nation can do about it.

In climate change project financing and planning, successful adaptation programs often rely on local authorities assuming ownership over projects. Local ownership can be both a means of empowering communities to collaborate with national and international actors in addressing the challenges they face and an important criteria for involving citizens and local leaders in the planning, design, and implementation of climate adaptation strategies.

Local agencies hold themselves less accountable for the efficient and effective implementation of projects over which they have limited proprietorship, which can lead the community and local leadership to disengage. Not only can this dampen progress in developing and implementing the adaptation projects at hand but it can also set a precedent for low involvement in future efforts to build local resiliency. For both historic preservation and cultural heritage climate resiliency projects, successful planning requires both the devolution of power that creates local ownership and national support that provides communities the necessary resources to adequately adapt to a changing environment. When communities feel ownership over the well-being and maintenance of their historic sites and infrastructure, projects to preserve or adapt them are more durable and inclusive.

The village of Amouli in American Samoa is moving beyond physical protection to build community capacity to adapt to sea level rise. | Credit: Victoria Herrmann, America's Eroding Edges

This is perhaps most salient in places like American Samoa, where climate change is already threatening communities along the coastline, but the authority most empowered to take action is more than 7,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. American Samoa has been an unincorporated, unorganized territory of the United States since 1900, initially placed under the authority of the U.S. Navy but transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1956. American Samoa now has its own constitution, adopted in 1967, and much power vested in its governor and local government. However, there are still arenas—like regional representation at climate change forums and village infrastructure projects for climate change resiliency—in which local ownership over projects is limited.

But American Samoa has been taking ownership of its work on climate change and community preservation to ensure the success and longevity of its projects—projects that we can learn from to promote local ownership and inclusivity in historic preservation and climate resiliency across America.

Local Involvement in Amouli Village

One method of bolstering local ownership is promoting community participation in the planning and design stages of resiliency and preservation projects. To that end, the Amouli village in American Samoa held a Participatory Learning and Action Workshop facilitated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP) in July 2011. The workshop was meant to “ensure wider community participation and capacity building around the issue of climate change to develop a community resiliency plan” and provide “an opportunity for the Amouli community to take ownership of the planning process, as well as to help build local accountability to implementing the responses and actions proposed in their village resiliency plan.”

The impetus for the workshop came from a 2010 survey by the University of Hawaii’s East-West Center that assessed community understanding and perceptions of climate change. Although the majority of residents knew what climate change was and thought it would affect their lives, they identified it through visuals and stories from national and international news media. Realizing the gap between understanding global climate changes and local climate impacts, CRCP’s Fatima Sauafea-Leau knew something more had to be done to include and empower local community members. “We decided that, ok, maybe this is one of the things we should do—enhance the understanding about climate change in our communities and find out ways to help build resiliency and promote climate adaptation,” Fatima explained during an interview earlier this year.

The workshop aimed to do both. Community members drew maps of a more resilient future village, developed a historical profile of the most significant climate-related events that helped shape the village’s past and future, and created a vision statement:

“Amouli village is a climate-resilient community that is well prepared to adapt and cope with potential changes and impacts due to climate change. Amouli collaborates well with government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other communities to mitigate climate change and preserve culture, religion, and natural resources for future generations of Amouli.”

Workshops like this one help residents learn about their own environment, better identify local needs, and implement appropriate strategies. In Amouli this meant understanding what one foot of sea level rise by 2050—the conservative estimate based on low-range scenarios—would mean for their homes, historic sites, and food and water systems. The resulting document, Climate Resiliency Responses and Actions for Amouli Village, American Samoa, 2012-2015, describes the effects that shoreline erosion, stream flooding from tidal surges, and coastal inundation would have on the village’s water supply, food security, transportation networks, and culture.

The document will act as a guide as the village plans and prepares for the impacts of climate change—tropical storms, flooding, and drought. And because the entire community was engaged in developing the plan, residents feel a sense of ownership over the project of creating a more resilient Amouli.

Participatory Involvement Across America

Historic preservationists across the country are fostering local ownership through participatory planning and community engagement. The city of Annapolis is reaching out to community members through a program called “Weathering It Together: Protecting Our Historic Seaport,” which features town hall meetings and a visual preference survey aimed at determining which places residents most want to protect from an encroaching Chesapeake Bay. In Marin County, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, the community development agency developed “Game of Floods,” a public education activity that highlights the threats that sea level rise poses to Marin and discusses adaptation by envisioning a hypothetical landscape—Marin Island 2050.

While inclusivity and community participation face different challenges in different places, one takeaway remains constant: Encouraging local ownership fosters more successful, sustainable projects. Participation helps educate communities on the hazards they will face, while ownership empowers them to build the future they envision. To Fatima this means working with “the culture so people will get their buy-in and support the effort or program.” That requires recognizing the importance of culture, the users of the project, and the key leaders necessary to empower communities. Where local ownership is strengthened throughout the selection, development, and implementation processes, communities develop expertise, build durable institutions and systems to finance future projects effectively, and improve local management capacity.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

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Victoria Herrmann is the lead researcher for America's Eroding Edges, which she works on with the help of research associate Eli Keene, as well as president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, where she leads the Institute's research on climate change and community adaptation in Arctic communities.


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