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Moira McDonald standing by the Mississippi River.

Moira McDonald by the Mississippi River as it flows south from Minneapolis toward the site of her Yazoo Delta research.

Fallout from environmental policy

U student looks at collateral damage of federal environmental policy

By Danny LaChance

From eNews, April 19, 2007

We all remember those images: stranded people awaiting rescue from New Orleans rooftops amid swirling dark water. These images were searing reminders of human fragility in the face of natural forces. But as stories of those unable to leave the devastated area began to circulate in the media, economics and race relations emerged alongside meteorology and geography as explanations for the human fallout of a natural disaster.

For Moira McDonald, a doctoral student in the Department of Geography, their plight raises some critical questions about race, class, and public policy. McDonald has spent the past three years studying federal flood control and agricultural policies in the Yazoo Delta of Mississippi. Her work explores whether federal agriculture and flood control policy plays a role in perpetuating historical economic and environmental inequalities.

"These programs do not exist in a vacuum to stabilize agriculture prices or improve the li ves of farmers," says McDonald. "They have social, economic, and environmental consequences."

In the culture of engineering, projects are often framed in stark bottom-line terms, she says. "In calculating the costs and benefits of its projects, the Army Corps of Engineers inevitably makes value judgments about what kinds of land and what kinds of people need protection," she explains. "These questions go to the very heart of the issue of ecological and economic sustainability. "

Just how those judgments get made is the focus of McDonald's work. McDonald studies the relationships federal agencies such as United States Department of Agriculture and the Army Corps of Engineers have with their local offices, members of Congress, and nonprofit organizations in the Delta. She also studies the culture of the area and how it shapes the ways people who work in regional offices interpret and implement directives from the agencies' Washington headquarters. Finally, she examines practices of large farming operations, the politics of race and poverty in the area, and the relationships of those interest groups to the federal agencies.

McDonald 's sources have been as multifaceted as the topic she's taken on. With fellowship support from the University and the Environmental Protection Agency, McDonald has been able to conduct extensive on-site research. In trips to Washington, D.C., and the Mississippi Delta, she has gathered agency documents that will help her understand how federal agricultural and flood control policy have operated in the Delta. She's interviewed federal workers and the Mississippi residents--agency personnel, black and white farmers, and representatives of environmental and agricultural organizations--who are major stakeholders in federal projects. And she has used a wide range of tools--geographic information systems data, spatial statistics, census data, and water quality reports--to examine the relationship between flood and agricultural subsidies, social and economic inequalities, and environmental quality.

"I'm particularly interested in whether the number and amounts of agricultural subsidies differ in areas with different levels of flood protection," she says. "I also want to tease out the relationship between flood protection, agricultural productivity, farm incomes, and racial characteristics of the population."

Her initial findings suggest that despite the pervasive African-American poverty--with roughly 50 percent of the African-American population living below the poverty line--flood control and agriculture debates consistently obscure racial and economic inequalities by pitting environmental and agricultural interests against one another.

A project evolves

Eric Sheppard, McDonald's adviser, says her research helps to bridge the gap between human and physical geographers. "There has been a tendency in the discipline in recent years for human and physical geographers to drift apart. Human geographers tend to neglect the significance of biophysical processes, and physical geographers often neglect the significance of social and cultural theory," Sheppard says. By examining the link between ecological and social processes, McDonald's work links those two geographical traditions.

McDonald has also brought a new rural perspective to the growing body of geography scholarship related to environmental justice, which looks at the disparate impact on human communities of the environmental consequences of human activity. Such work has focused almost exclusively on urban areas.

"Katrina forced a variety of state, local, and federal agencies to acknowledge that engineering cannot always overcome nature," says McDonald. "Inside the Army Corps of Engineers, the hurricane precipitated a real examination of how decisions were made in the past and a rethinking of how they can be made in the future."

McDonald hopes to contribute to that reexamination by helping policy makers think more broadly and critically about the social and cultural context and implications of proposed policies. She'll do that by bringing her knowledge and perspectives to higher education classrooms, where, she notes, tomorrow 's policy makers are spending their time today.

"I would like a teaching position where I can continue to examine natural resource use and conservation from an interdisciplinary perspective," McDonald says. "I want to bring students into contact with natural resource issues through direct involvement with local groups working to understand and protect wetlands and streams in their communities."