Telling the World

Telling the World

Activists use social networks and digital video in pleas for rivers and groundwater

By Lauren Pongan '09

enviro openerd
Armed with flipcams, students from Iteso Universidad make documentaries about water-related issues. Photo by Arthur Richards

Contaminated spray from a waterfall in Mexico burns skin on contact. New Delhi’s primary source of drinking water—groundwater—is forecast to dry up in five years. Awareness of environmental issues is on the rise, in part because young Colby alumni are taking action. They are not aspiring to save the world. They’re leveraging the tools that help define their generation—social media networks and video technology—to do what mainstream media can’t or won’t do. Their science backgrounds, technical skills, and creative abilities help these activists get their messages out, and their commitment to local culture, preexisting environmental movements, and community partnerships makes their work possible.

“I think environmentalists have realized that the tree-hugging alone isn’t necessarily most effective,” said Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Gail Carlson, who teaches Environmental Activism at Colby.

Speaking from her sunlit office in Guadalajara with a fan oscillating in the background to offset the Mexican heat, New Hampshire native Sarah Kelly ’06 talked about Adapting to Scarcity, her nonprofit organization focused on contamination of the Rio Santiago river in Guadalajara.

She described the mixture of heavy metals (including chromium, lead, and arsenic), untreated human and industrial waste, and myriad chemicals found in the Rio Santiago’s water as “a cocktail of contamination.” Inadequate municipal infrastructure for sewage treatment, lax enforcement of laws and environmental regulation of manufacturing plants, and a public largely unaware of the multitude of toxins polluting the river all contribute to the problem, Kelly says.

She and her colleagues are helping area residents educate each other about the importance and scarcity of clean water, and the ways in which actions in one part of the Rio Santiago watershed have direct effects on water quality in others. 

Kelly doesn’t see the problem solely through the lens of a scientist, but through the broad array of experiences she acquired during her time at Colby. She’s combining her writing skill, scientific knowledge, video production ability, and grassroots organizing experience to focus public attention on a daunting environmental problem.

The toxic Rio Santiago, just downstream from the El Salto waterfall. Spray from the waterfall is so contaminated by chemicals that it burns the skin. Photo by Arthur Richards

This multifaceted approach to the problems of the Rio Santiago reflects Kelly’s interdisciplinary environmental policy major, one that begins with a foundation in environmental studies and adds environmental economics, domestic and international policy, and law. Electives can add Geographic Information Systems skills and a public health course. Kelly also devoted much of her Colby academic career to study of the history of Latin America. “I created my own greater study, and a lot of it was anthropological,” she said.

Kelly combined that academic background with documentary filmmaking learned at Colby. Inspired by the showing in class of a documentary made about and by children raised in Indian brothels, Kelly and her partners in Adapting to Scarcity turned to participatory filmmaking when they focused on Mexico’s water problems, distributing video cameras to students and turning them into filmmakers.

Guadalajara native Étienne von Bertrab, lecturer in political ecology at Iteso University, said Adapting to Scarcity’s work cultivates a sense of unity between different organizations with similar goals. “It is amazing what they did,” von Bertrab wrote in an e-mail, “not only because of the documentary work itself, but because most of their work was supporting people to tell their own stories, which they captured together with the opinion of a wide range of actors.”

Kelly firmly believes in the power of documentary film, she says, and she isn’t alone. The hands-on academic and engagement experience that environmental activists gain as students at Colby is producing a shift in the way they approach environmental problems, students and faculty say. 

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  • On August 13, 2010, Lokesh Todi wrote:
    A very well written piece by Lauren. Very proud of the work that Tarini and her colleagues are doing in India and elsewhere.