Collaborative Research on the Navajo Reservation

November 07, 2008

Blowing sand moves across the landscape, coloring the sky with an eerie reddish hue. Sand dunes move, as if alive, slowly but surely burying homes, corrals, feeding stations and pasture lands that lie in their path. One family, known for its generosity in providing ceremonial shelters for community use, had to move the shelters from the path of a dune behind their house. Community residents have learned to carry shovels in their vehicles in case they get stuck in the soft sand covering the unpaved roads they travel on their daily rounds of visiting relatives, shopping for groceries and going to the gas station. Young people worry about their elders, especially when they travel alone, who may need assistance when the shovel fails to do the job.

About CFERP Fellowships

Welcome to daily life around Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation. Here the problem of sand dune movement has reached the point where area residents are seeking innovative ways of controlling it. Leanna Begay, a masters-level graduate student in biology at Purdue University, is responding to the concerns of the elders and others in her community by studying the role native and non-native plants play in sand dune movement. Her goal is to combine scientific and traditional ecological knowledge to develop an understanding of how revegetation might be used to stabilize the dunes.

Leanna is a fellow with the Community Forestry and Environmental Research Partnerships (CEFERP), an innovative fellowship program that supports graduate students doing participatory research on natural resource issues in collaboration with communities in the United States. CFERP’s mission is to nurture a new generation of scholars and university-community partnerships to build capacity for stewardship of natural resources in ways that are socially just, environmentally sound, and economically sustainable.

Administered by the College of Natural Resources, CFERP is open to graduate students pursuing social science or natural resource science degrees at any college or university (they do not have to be UC Berkeley students). CFERP has a strong track record of funding Native American students working with their communities on pressing natural resource issues. In 2007, CFERP initiated the Southwest Communities and Natural Resources Fellowships for graduate students working with Native American communities in the Southwest.

CFERP fellows do participatory research because it is an alternative approach that helps alleviate the problem of conventional research being irrelevant and even detrimental to communities. Far too often communities endure the presence of researchers — their nosy questions and sometimes disregard for local customs — only to find when all is said and done that the research results are not helpful in finding solutions to their problems and that they have lost control of important cultural knowledge. In contrast, participatory research involves the people directly affected by the topic being studied in the research process. This produces scientifically rigorous knowledge that is grounded in local needs and realities and builds the capacity of communities to achieve their environmental stewardship and livelihood objectives. In short, it helps community members bring about a situation that they find more satisfying.

Leanna has been careful to involve community leaders in her research from the start. Indeed, she is conducting the research at the request of elders in her community. To assure that community members are fully informed about her study and have opportunities to make suggestions and contribute to research design, she periodically makes presentations at chapter house meetings and regularly consults with elders.

For the past year, Leanna has been sampling the vegetation on five sand dunes of differing size and rate of movement. While her research is still ongoing, preliminary results show that there is a diverse community of plants growing on sand dunes with different species adapted to the conditions on different parts of the dune. Species that are tolerant of wind erosion tend to grow behind the dune where they bear the brunt of the strong desert winds. On the front of the dune, in the lee of the wind, conditions are dryer and plants frequently get buried in the ever shifting sand. Consequently, species diversity and plant growth are both reduced on this part of the dune. Also, the speed and intensity of sand movement affects what types of plants grow on different dunes. Dunes that move more slowly have more plants overall and these tend to be plants that are less tolerant of moving sand.

The next step in Leanna’s study is interviewing elders to bring their traditional knowledge of the relationships between plant growth and sand dune movement to bear on the problem. One goal of this stage of the research is to find ways that scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge complement one another. Hopefully, rigorous science combined with centuries-old wisdom will lead to sustainable methods for preventing sand from covering homes, roads and the community’s means of making a living.