Nature ~ Society ~ Waste ~ Energy
Human-environment interactions, from farm fertilizer practices to energy use choices to consumption patterns, impact the sustainability of our local and global communities. Dr. Shaunna Barnhart teaches and conducts research at the intersection of human-environment interactions and resulting sustainability dilemmas, particularly in regards to energy and productive (and contentious) uses of waste. Her work has focused on household biogas technology in Nepal as a mechanism for development, forest conservation, and participation in global carbon markets including environmental governance of changing energy behaviors. She has worked with community forestry groups in Nepal to investigate their work on not only forest conservation but a broad range of social and community development needs. In the United States, she has explored the contentious use of processed sewage (biosolids) as a farmland fertilizer. Exploring and understanding perceptions of nature, energy, landscapes and sustainability in action are part of both her research and courses she teaches.
Biogas in Nepal: Rethinking Renewable Energy, Waste Management, and Conservation
Nepal is home to over 300,000 household biogas plants that generate a renewable source of energy by capturing methane from decomposing organic matter, primarily from cow manure and household latrines. The resulting gas is used predominantly as a cooking fuel which reduces reliance on firewood for cooking. Cooking with firewood often leads to human and environmental health impacts such indoor air pollution causing upper respiratory diseases and eye diseases, stresses on local forest resources, and contributes to greenhouse gases through release of carbon dioxide. By switching to biogas, families are contributing to positive changes in human and environmental conditions, but to whose benefit? Dr. Barnhart's research investigates the use of biogas in Nepal, how and why families adopt biogas, the use of biogas as a development strategy, and its connection to global discourses on climate change, carbon markets, and environmental governance. She is expanding her work on biogas in Nepal to explore the diverse ways in which biogas is being used to address a range of energy and waste management needs beyond the rural household, including hospitals, schools, and businesses.
Forest Conservation and Human Rights in Nepal
With over 15,000 community forestry groups in Nepal, the experience of community forestry can vary widely across contexts. Overall, community forestry in Nepal has been shown to alleviate poverty, ensure social inclusion, democratize decision making, and improve forest condition. However, the opposite has also been documented. Despite shortcomings, community forestry in Nepal is often heralded as a success story, with reservations. What happens when community forestry is successful and moves beyond forest management activities to more broad social programs, whether independently or in conjunction with partner organizations? While varying widely, some community forestry groups are involved in promote biogas, manage micro credit loans for energy or business development, build roads, deliver clean drinking water, offer job training, provide scholarships to students, provide building materials for schools, and address a host of other community needs, to varying degrees of success. By first securing rights to the forest through government policy, some community forest groups that formed to manage the forest have come to enact and demand a broader range of rights – and the users of such groups expect their forest committees (often in conjunction with other organizations and entities) to fulfill this role. This demonstrates the diverse function and expectations that such groups can develop and how global forces, in the form of human rights discourse and understandings, both manifest in and are modified by specific localized cultural contexts.
Contesting land application of processed sewage sludge (biosolids) in the US.
The United States generates 8 million tons of processed solid sewage each year. About 50% of this processed sewage, also known as biosolids, is applied to agricultural land as a fertilizer, down from 60% a decade ago. If not land applied as a farm fertilizer or for mine reclamation, then the solid waste much be disposed of in landfills or through incineration. Land application of processed sewage, known as sewage sludge by opponents and biosolids by proponents, has resulted in local, regional, and national opposition on the part of communities who live amongst the fields where the processed sewage is land applied. Such tensions play out in local government meetings, on the steps of state capital buildings, and through competing yard signs. Proponents argue that biosolids are a nutrient rich fertilizer that can return needed nutrients to the soil and completes the cycle of extracting nutrients from the land, sending food to cities, and the nutrients returning from the city to the land through biosolids. Opponents to land application of sewage sludge cite concerns for human and environmental health, water quality, and devaluing of rural quality of life using knowledge of local landscapes and ecological processes to support their claims. Dr. Barnhart's work explores these tensions through an application of political ecology to understand how non-sovereign power, local democracy, and local knowledge are mobilized to contest the land application of biosolids/sewage sludge.