BROWN BAG SEMINAR: Building Socioecological Resilience by Confronting Environmental Injustice: A Participatory Approach

Sea Grant is a federal-state partnership between NOAA and the 34 university-based programs in every coastal and Great Lakes states, including Puerto Rico and Guam.  For over 50 years, Sea Grant has supported coastal communities through research, extension, and education programming.  Sea Grant Extension Specialists are housed throughout the state and work with coastal communities to identify and collaboratively address pressing issues associated with the use and protection of California’s coastal and marine environment.

This brown bag seminar is part of the selection process for a California Sea Grant Extension Specialist who will be hired jointly with the Delta Stewardship Council.  The position with the Delta Stewardship Council will provide leadership in advancing collaborative partnerships and initiatives and in catalyzing and implementing social science research to inform management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region of California.

The candidate and presenter of this seminar is Dr. Matt Jurjonos, who received his Ph.D. in 2018 in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management from North Carolina State University where he studied climate justice and coastal community resilience to climate change.  He went on to complete a post-doc as a Fulbright scholar in 2019 at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México studying the connections between climate change and intergenerational transfers of land in Mexican ejidos.  He has been a resilient Central American consultant for the Nature Conservancy in Mexico City since 2019 where he focuses on climate justice.  (More on Dr. Jurjonas background by clicking here.)  His seminar for today is titled, “Building Socioecological Resilience by Confronting Environmental Injustice: A Participatory Approach.”

Dr. Jurjonas began by saying that much of his research activities have been very participatory; he works with communities to develop research questions, he performs stakeholder needs assessments to better understand what stakeholders need to adapt and what sort of options are available at their disposal, and he always brings the results and findings back to the communities that contributed to those projects to share those findings and help those communities make informed decisions with the most current science that’s available to them.


Dr. Jurjonas’ first example was his master’s project where he and a research team engaged coffee producers regarding sustainability in the El Triunfo Reserve, which is located in Chiapas, a Mexican state that borders Guatemala.  It’s an important reserve with over 800 plant species and 24% of the nation’s fauna.  There are about 100,000 people that live there in communities were established in the 1930s, long before the area was protected in the early 1990s.

The interdisciplinary research team had read that there were water quality issues in Latin America associated with coffee production and there was a need for composting, so the team received funding from the Center for Collaborative Conservation to do a composting project.  They spent several months engaging with six producer communities.  They did an initial set of six workshops to assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to assess how the communities are addressing their issues and what their concerns were.  What they found was that largely everybody was already composting so there wasn’t a need for that; however, there was a problem with a fungus called ‘la roya’ or coffee rust that gets into the stoma of the leave, defoliates the coffee plant, and reduces production; the fungus had reduced production by half the year before.

So the team returned to campus and started researching best management practices, and identified a national coffee expert with experience dealing with la roya.  They were able to use their funding from the Center for Collaborative Conservation to bring the expert to the watershed where they conducted four more workshops and did participatory calendar exercises to look at the life cycle of la roya and the life cycle of the coffee plant to determine what the best times of the year would be to implement treatments with the best management practices.

They then returned to campus and designed six dissemination workshops to share the practices, and had their graphic designer work on a T-shirt and a best management practices manual so those materials could be distributed to the communities in the reserve.  The practices involved shade, pruning and weeding which were designed to lower the level of humidity in the understory, the idea being if the humidity is reduced, conditions would be less favorable for the coffee fungus, and the coffee plant will do better.  Also, composting and calcium fertilizers were designed to fortify the plant and increase its resistance.  Through their research, they also found that cooperatives in the area had been able to finance fungicides and develop training sessions and workshops, so they also recommended that the producers join a cooperative.


Next, he moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where he received a fellowship to join the team building interdisciplinary strengths for salinization impacts in North Carolina which was funded by the College of Natural Resources.  It was an interdisciplinary project with five students and five faculty, each with different backgrounds and focuses, such as hydrology, forest products, wildlife, and agriculture; Dr. Jurjonas’ focus was on community sustainability and resilience to disaster, sea level rise, and saltwater intrusion impacts.

The study site was the Albemarie Pamlico Peninsula which is facing about one foot of sea level rise by 2050 and three feet by the end of the century.  Saltwater intrusion will precede sea level rise and damage agricultural soils and forests, which will in turn impact agriculture and the timber industry; the marshes will also transition and change the wildlife communities which will affect conservation priorities.  During his time there, Hurricane Matthew came through and caused billions of dollars of flood damage in those communities.

Three out of the five counties on the peninsula are considered by the state as tier 1 counties, which is a designation of the most distressed counties.  The graphs on the slide at the lower left show the comparison between the 5 counties and Wake County, a more prosperous county with the “Tech Triangle” and universities.  There’s virtually no growth in Wake County largely due to rural flight; age distribution in the five counties is skewed towards the elderly which have heightened vulnerabilities to flooding and evacuation during disasters, virtually no jobs are being created in any of the study site counties, and median worker earnings are about half that of the Tech Triangle.

The research team met every Tuesday for two years to collaborate and they developed the socio-ecological system paradigm for the peninsula.  “We determined that hydrological drivers that are driven by climate change, like flooding and saltwater intrusion, are going to be the primary impacts on the socio-ecological system, determining the [changes to] freshwater wetlands, and also determining those wildlife communities, environmental decisions, and ecosystem services,” said Dr. Jurjonas.  “Those then feed into the markets in which the social system is dependent and the communities are making decisions along with the local government on how to maintain land use for agriculture, timber, and the local economies, as well as to preserve wetlands for the wave attenuation benefits and ecosystem services.”

His specific focus was on the social system, and since he wasn’t from North Carolina, it was important for him to spend a lot of time in the field to understand how stakeholders were talking about coastal hazards, what they were doing to address them, and what their main concerns and needs were.

He noted there’s a precedent in the literature to consider resilient communities and vulnerable communities as opposite ends of the spectrum, where vulnerable communities take a long time to recover from hazards and stressors and are experiencing impacts over extended periods of time, and resilient communities recover in a timely and efficient manner.  Adaptive capacity is the community’s ability to explore opportunities and implement new strategies indicates where they might lie on the spectrum.

He had identified a series of themes to indicate whether communities are vulnerable or resilient:

Livelihoods: For example, are agricultural communities dependent solely on ag or are there opportunities such as ag tourism or recreational tourism.

Prosperity:  A prosperous community with a strong tax base can consider built infrastructure options for sea level rise and flooding impacts; more impoverished counties don’t have the funding to implement built infrastructure solutions.

Sustainable vs unsustainable development:  Zoning practices and whether development is happening in the floodplains and are ecosystems being preserved and wetlands serving to mitigate storm surge energy.

Community cohesion vs. disengagement:  Is there a lot of outmigration or are people still involved in their local government and participating in local social events.

Agency vs. rigidity:  Do people feel like it’s within their power to adapt or do they see regulatory or other burdens to adaptation.

He collaborated with North Carolina Sea Grant to facilitate a series of three focus groups.  A specialist on resilience first gave an introductory presentation to frame the conversation about sea level rise, saltwater intrusion and flooding impacts; then Dr. Jurjonas facilitated a conversation with the participants.  He developed a series of posters about each of the five themes; the spectrum was presented, and then the stakeholders talked about what those definitions meant.  At the end of the conversation, they voted with a sticker on where they lie on that spectrum.

They engaged three predominantly white communities in the government centers on the peninsula and what they found was that after the presentation, the majority of the communities perceived themselves as vulnerable to these impacts; there wasn’t very much livelihood diversity and poverty isn’t a problem in their community although a problem in the peninsula.  People thought that ecosystem services were intact and zoning and building codes were good and contributed to resilience.  They expressed there was a strong social fabric and a lot of involvement in local government leading to high perceived community cohesion.  Rigidity was about neutral.

What happened here is that the communities brainstormed a lot of adaptation options and some of the cohesion strengths within their community so they perceived themselves as more resilient by the end of the focus group then they did at the beginning, after these ideas that came up throughout the discussion,” said Dr. Jurjonis.  “We also did a pre and post-survey to measure the effectiveness of the outreach, and we found that even though vulnerability and preparedness stayed about the same, threat perception went up, so sharing that information about sea level rise projections raised threat perceptions.  There was no uncertainty, that the groups understood it, and livelihoods and poverty were looked at as opportunities for improvement.  Community cohesion was a strength, and there was also this attitude that ‘we’ve always been adapting here.’  North Carolina is a place that receives hurricanes, and so they felt they could come up with strategies to improve, and this led to increased perceptions of adaptive capacity.”

Through the course of his work on the peninsula, he became aware of low-lying predominantly African American communities that experience the majority of the flooding impacts on the peninsula.  So through a grant from North Carolina’s Integrated Sciences and Assessment, he developed a relationship with a local seafood market operator who served as a community sponsor and he hired a local field technician to help with arranging focus groups and interviews in the study site.  He had been taking course work on climate justice which he felt an appropriate research lens, given the demographics of the communities.

Reading about human rights and the capabilities approach to human rights, I thought of it as analogous to adaptive capacity and whether or not people have the ability to adapt their properties and prepare for these coastal hazards, and so I had this thematic focus looking at the disaster hazard risk management,” Dr. Jurjonas said.

He also noted that in the Southeastern United States, back at the time of reconstruction after the Civil War, there were many former slaves moving off plantations seeking to establish communities at the most affordable and accessible lands because many of the higher elevation areas in the coastal plain were already occupied.

This is considered a classic southern pattern of development, and so now 150 years later, these low lying African American communities are the most vulnerable to sea level rise and occupying some of the most challenging spaces for sea level rise and flooding impacts,” he said.

There are three lenses of climate justice:

Procedure refers to the ability of groups or individuals to participate in government planning processes, comment periods, and decision making, and are all the voices being heard and at the table for those discussions.

Distribution, not only the distribution of environmental harms like toxicity, pollution, environmental degradation, or flooding impacts, but also environmental goods like social services or parks, and are those concentrated unfairly in certain neighborhoods.

Recognition, such as specifically in the southeast, there is the racialized coastal formation and do FEMA and other recovery agencies recognize that unique vulnerability in the adaptation context.

He engaged three communities: Creswell, a predominantly African American agricultural community; Railroad, a predominantly African American community on the south side of the city of Columbia; and Alligator, a unique community that is surrounded by a protected area so they can’t consider any built infrastructure solutions to flooding problems or hurricane damages.

Even though I was trying to seek out 5 to 10 participants for my focus group research throughout the community, and because they felt that their voices had been unheard and they didn’t have participation in the local government, over 38 participants from Alligator came out to share their feelings about the coastal hazards that they were facing,” said Dr. Jurjonas.  “I had my hands full facilitating that focus group.”

With the focus group in Columbia from the previous example, they were able to brainstorm and come up with solutions and at the end of the focus group, perceived themselves as being more resilient and having more adaptive capacity.  However, the focus groups in Alligator and Railroad, after raising all of their concerns about environmental justice issues and the challenges and barriers that they are facing to adaptation, they actually perceived lower resilience at the end of the focus group.

Also with respect to the pre-survey and post-survey, they found that the community had never been exposed to sea level rise projections before so it created a lot of uncertainty and raised a lot of questions about adaptation.  “At the end of the focus group, levels actually went up with uncertainty, there was higher threat perceptions, lower perceived preparedness but higher uncertainties suggesting maybe this form of outreach with powerpoint presentations and sharing that information isn’t the most effective for that community.”

As for other findings, the folks in Alligator mentioned that as the agricultural economy declined, folks sought employment in the service and tourism industry on the Outer Banks, which is about an hour away.  They had petitioned to participate in the county commission meetings, which took place at 1 pm in the afternoon, but the county hadn’t changed the time to the evening and so they felt that they were excluded from those discussions.  The community of Railroad also spoke about a visitor’s center project that was built, but they were not informed that the project would fill in two of their drainage ditches and now floodwaters take quite a bit longer to recede and are much worse during the hurricanes after the visitor’s center was built.  Additionally, Railroad also mentioned that because of the higher crime rate, the local government ignores some of their claims for participation in flood recovery discussions at the local level.

So after developing the framework through interviews and the literature review and testing it with the focus group research, Dr, Jurjonas then did a survey of 1000 addresses spread out across the peninsula to develop psychological models for risk perceptions and adaptive capacity.  The results of that survey were that sea level rise was perceived as a big risk by over half of the population and saltwater intrusion was a little bit less; over 70% of the population perceived the flooding risk.

That’s important because especially in some very conservative counties, there is some ideological opposition to talking about climate change, and we found that addressing those communities about flooding impacts or those symptoms was more effective for outreach,” said Dr. Jurjonas.

They then mapped how those risk perceptions were spread out across the peninsula and comparing it to other data such as salinity, elevation, distance to the coastline, or distance to artificial drainage networks and levee systems.  What they found was that those with the higher elevation properties had low-risk perceptions which could create challenges for outreach in the future because if they don’t perceive risk, even though they are projected to be impacted in the near future, they might not be as receptive to that outreach.

Dr. Jurjonas then produced a perspective piece on what he had learned over the three years of fieldwork as well as a bit of a literature review.  “In North Carolina, compared to the Outer Banks, it almost seems to me that climate change denial in those communities is an effective sea level rise adaptation strategy,” he said.  “The state spends millions of dollars on beach nourishment, putting the sand back up in front of these million-dollar properties every year, an ephemeral defense that washes way generally after each storm, and FEMA itself doesn’t consider erosion variables or sea level rise variables in the long-term, and so because they are being considered a disaster event or a singular event, they aren’t considering these longer-term sea level rise impacts, which might preclude those communities from getting repeated bailouts from the National Flood Insurance Program which has been insolvent in a few years, and have access to all those taxpayer dollars for recovery.”

Dr. Jurjonas also noted in North Carolina, the state contracted for a sea level rise report which came back with a similar projection as the IPCC of 1 foot by 2050 and 3 feet by the end of the century.  The real estate lobby had a lot of influence on the state legislature and they actually rejected the report.  “I think we have adequate science on hand that potentially in the future, we might see some negligence cases for the state’s refusal to act on those science findings,” he said.

He also noted that there are a lot of property owners and communities that are hardening their shorelines as individuals and not thinking collectively; those practices have been shown to shift erosion impacts to neighboring properties so there’s a need for coastal commons research and collective action to coordinate responses.  After his research was complete, he held workshops with all the folks who contributed to the research to disseminate the information.


Another research project he participated in was looking at community forest enterprises in Mexico.  In Mexico, over half the land area is taken up by communities that have to jointly make decisions about management practices and the management of natural resources; sometimes several hundred people have to make a decision on what’s going to happen.

These community forest enterprises are facing threats from climate change such as changing precipitation patterns and drought, which is affecting the timing of seeding and harvesting, and globalization has contributed to a lot of outmigration.

Rural populations are increasingly perceived as migratory in that they pursue economic activity something their community and are not as fixed in that rural place as they have historically been thought,” said Dr. Jurjonas.

There is one area that has experienced tens of thousands of people outmigrating since the 1990s, which has implications for climate change, and the destination of the outmigrants matters because, in the rural areas of Mexico, the per capita emissions are about two to three metric tons per person per year.  The average in Mexico City is much higher at six tons; the national average is 4.  In the United States, it’s much higher at 17 metric tons per person per year.

If outmigrants are forced to move because of conservation objectives or over-regulation that’s put upon them by the Government for conservation reasons, and they leave their rural livelihood behind, it could contribute to a type of leakage as we think about the natural system being converted to agriculture back to reforestation as those people leave the system,” he said.  “In Oaxaca, about 800 hectares of reforestation has happened, and the pine species that are in that area would sequester about 100,000 metric ton per year, but it only takes about 350 people leaving the community and adopting a higher emissions lifestyle over time to mitigate all of that sequestration that would have happened on the abandoned parcels.”

Dr. Jurjonas also engaged youths in those communities about their interest in continuing their traditional livelihoods in the community forest enterprises.  He found that tourism is becoming a driver for outmigration as youth are leaving behind what they view as really difficult physical labor and hot conditions to work in the service industry or the construction industry where the earnings are higher.  Higher education was a little bit of a mixed bag.  Not many youths still pursue a career to work in the traditional industries.

Dr. Jurjonas had some policy recommendations.  With Mexican policy, communal groups don’t pay taxes and therefore don’t have access to subsidies; the youth view this as dangerous because the logging equipment in some cases is 50 years old, so potentially there are microfinance options to update the logging equipment so that more youth are interested.  He also noted that as a lot of youth leave, there are a lot of other people moving in that don’t have property rights and so they can’t participate in the communal government structures; this creates a lot of management challenges because a portion of the population doesn’t have a voice at the table.   State regulation has become more burdensome; in some cases, the communities have waited three or four months to get their logging permits through during which they can’t provide a steady income to their youth and many of them leave to work elsewhere and some don’t come back as a result.  He acknowledged the local development groups that are trying to make outmigration a last resort by supporting local livelihoods and thinking about the policy implications in those communities.


Dr. Jurjonas then gave his vision for the Delta, noting that the position can serve as a bridge between the Delta Stewardship Council, and focusing on the coequal goals of improving water quality and quantity and ecological maintenance and enhancement and conservation in the Delta, as well as the California Sea Grant goals of working with communities and engaging stakeholders and serving as a resource for communities to help with decision making.

The threats facing the Delta are similar to some of the impacts facing North Carolina, such as variability in precipitation, flooding events, sea level rise, and saltwater intrusion, as well as others such as water quality, invasive species, endangered species, and endangered species.

One of the things that I think I can especially contribute to is helping with building consensus and collaboration, inclusive governance and synthesis among all the actors,” he said.  “There’s dozens of state and federal agencies within the Delta, local governments, tribal groups, and minority communities that need to be engaged to synthesize their local knowledge and come up with collaborative management decisions.”

Dr. Jurjonas noted that poverty and injustice can also be resilient to change, so instead of bouncing back to normal conditions after stress and disturbance, the community should bounce forward and be more inclusive.  He quoted Arun Agrawal: “There is no conservation without addressing poverty, injustice, marginality, and oppression.”

You need those communities on board to have effective implementation and conservation agenda, and so in my research, I strive to identify barriers to climate change adaptation focusing on regulatory burdens, injustice, or economic challenges communities are facing,” he said.  “I want to strive to improve public scoping processes, planning processes, comment periods, and decision making, and this can be done by doing analyses with communities for preferred modes of communication and engaging those communities, some audience polling or establishing community advisory boards for public works projects or conservation projects.  It’s also important to avoid tokenistic representation; sometimes you can find a community member or two to serve on decision board and maybe they are not as informed as about the issue but that box can get checked in some cases.”

Dr. Jurjonas said his approach is highly participatory.  The first year, he would work on identifying academic collaborators, tribal groups, local governments, and other nonprofit organizations that focus on environmental justice in the region.  It’s important to engage tribal groups and indigenous communities and spending time listening to understand the traditional ecological knowledge, he said.  In his initial review of the environmental justice literature, he found there were rural Latino communities with poor air quality, water contamination, and agrochemical poisoning.

I think some participatory interventions helping form community advisory boards will be useful in those communities and also helping raise awareness of Sea Grant in the Delta Stewardship Council to ensure that they are aware that this extension position can serve as a resource to those communities,” said Dr. Jurjonus.

He would engage with farmers and do stakeholder needs to understand what needs, the barriers to adaptation, and regulatory burdens.  There is also Sea Grant’s efforts to maintain youth interests in the commercial fisheries enterprises, and opportunities for nature-based tourism guides and heritage tourism throughout the Delta.

He also gave his ideas for grants that might fund some of this work that could potentially come from the National Science Foundation, the USDA, the NRCS, and others.


Question: You talked a lot about in-person interviews and focus groups and workshops and certainly you can’t substitute for face to face time.  So what would be your strategy if the community can’t physically meet due to the pandemic or for other reasons?  What would be your strategies for reaching out to communities remotely if you had to?

Dr. Jurjonas:  “In a research project I am working on now, I’m engaging project managers on their ecological restoration efforts and doing a study on whether or not they are including ecological indicators and human well-being indicators.  Especially with those managers, I have had a lot of success engaging with the telephone and zoom conversations and it seems like I’m able to collect data and process it that way.  With respect to underserved communities. one of my strategies in North Carolina was to work with the churches because in many cases, in the rural areas, the local churches are the main development organization in the area helping boost high school students, helping them get to college and thinking about some of the local challenges that they are facing.  I think finding some of those phone numbers if I’m still isolated through covid will help me identify community leaders remotely to begin conversations about community resilience and adaptation with those communities at the beginning of this engagement.”

Question: Have you ever had to deal with distrust by communities of color as an outside white scientist and how did you gain community trust?

Dr. Jurjonas:It would have been very challenging to engage those low lying African American communities I described, but we recognized that very early on and part of my motivation to get this research extension with Carolina’s Integrated Sciences and Assessment was that it allowed for hiring this local field technician that had been identified.  Him being an African American man helped immensely with immersion and scheduling my interviews and focus groups and building trust with those communities.  I think also having a reputation from spending many months up there and having connections there that helped with engagement.  I think especially because Alligator experienced a lot of mistrust in the past dealing with the local government and the state government, they were reluctant.  Because this local technician helped facilitate that focus group and had personal connections there, it led to the community coming out and sharing their story and talking about their adaptation barriers.”

Question: Can you differentiate your experience entering the community that previously had little social infrastructure for this work and a community that has a long history advocating for itself with mixed results?

Dr. Jurjonas:  That was highlighted in those focus groups.  The first three were done with predominantly white communities, and those were the ones that brainstormed adaptation options and management solutions for dealing with it; those communities had seen sea level rise projections before and were more connected to their local government.  Conversely, we saw that these low lying African American communities felt largely left out of the dialog and it was shown, especially in Alligator, that they hadn’t seen a sea level rise projection.  Some of those disparities are very challenging to deal with, and I think moving forward what I learned from that is I’ll have to have a lot more conscious and planned outreach effort within those communities to bring that information in a step-wise fashion in those communities so it’s not a big shock at the beginning and it doesn’t cause that same sort of reaction.  More of a planned immersion over a period of time would be effective engaging some of those historically marginalized communities.”

Question: How has information from your research changed policies or influenced decisions about risk reduction or risk and land use?

Dr. Jurjonas:Because I collaborated with the Coastal Hazard and Resilience Specialist and the coastal economists with the North Carolina Sea Grant for doing these focus groups, and what we discussed was that there’s a lot of towns that have seen the projections and understand climate science, and even if they don’t politically acknowledge it, they are taking actions to adapt.  They are aware of North Carolina Sea Grant and so very quickly, that personnel’s time can get filled up with all of these towns requesting those services.”

Meanwhile, in these more remote isolated rural areas, they might not be aware of the programs, such as FEMA’s resilience grants or North Carolina Sea Grant services for building adaptive capacity.  One of the takeaways I was most proud of is helping raise awareness and bringing Sea Grant staff into those communities.  When we did those closing workshops, Sea Grant staff came with a lot of resources for grants for government officials and even individual property adaptations and solutions that those communities can engage with that they didn’t know about prior to that.  So some of these findings and engaging these communities face to face helped add those concerns to North Carolina Sea Grant’s long-term planning for the coastal plain.”

Question: We’re currently working on a climate change adaptation strategy at the Council.  What’s the most important advice you have for us, based on your experience?

Dr. Jurjonas:Some of my work in the past is that these climate justice issues, historical exclusion, and marginalization of certain communities are very important.  Especially in that study site, I found that those communities had the greatest need for adaptation so I think it’s very important to include engagement with those diverse communities and language within planning documents and reports about what the needs are of those communities to avoid these sort of recognitional justice issues that are from not recognizing that these communities can have unique adaptation needs with climate change.”

Question: I very much appreciate your acknowledgment of the benefits of traditional ecological knowledge.  Any more specifics about the best approaches to ensure that future research would increase awareness and incorporation of TEK by the broader community?

Dr. Jurjonas:  “That’s a very tough question because the way we’re raised and the way we culturally understand science if that’s the career we’ve chosen, it takes a lot of effort and understanding to perceive different types of knowledge.  What I have striven to do in Mexico, especially with these indigenous communities, is to say very little initially and do a lot of listening to try to understand the way they are seeing the natural resource challenges and management challenges so that I can have a greater respect for those challenges.  And when it comes to incorporate and to use qualitative strategies like member checking where you’re reviewing any written materials that you’ve made or publications or reports to make sure that the community is in agreement with those and that it adequately captures their type of knowledge, and that you’re actually getting permission to synthesize what their world view is in that way moving forward.  So I think engagement starts with a lot of trust-building and constant interaction over time to make sure that your efforts are in line with the needs and the wishes of those communities.”


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