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Using diversity to improve sustainable design

On Monday, Nov. 4, Dr. Christian Wells, professor of anthropology at the University of Southern Florida and founding director of the Patel Center for Sustainability, spoke at the University of Maine. Wells spoke on his involvement with the program “Reclaim, as well as on the work he does surrounding international sustainability.

The event was held at the Mitchell Center and was presented by the UMaine Department of Anthropology in collaboration with the College of Engineering. 

Wells is a trained anthropologist and works for one of the most well-recognized anthropology departments in the country at the University of South Florida. Additionally, Wells conducts research on chemical data and soil work to aid international wastewater projects. 

“Reclaim” is a group that bridges the gap between anthropology and engineering. It is based out of the University of Southern Florida and focuses on helping underdeveloped communities. “Reclaim” has been established for approximately 10 years, and currently has around 15 faculty members. Staff members work in the field, utilize supplies and incorporate lab work to involve students in the research process.

“Anthropologists are all about cultural contexts,” Wells noted during his presentation. 

Furthermore, he emphasized the significance of engineers and anthropologists working in collaboration. 

“There are major benefits in merging the two disciplines and creates potential to form a more productive and knowledgeable outcome, as well as adding a diverse perspective,” Wells said. 

One of the primary focuses of “Reclaim” is to work toward developing and improving resources from waste products, particularly in less developed regions of the world 

Wells spoke on some of the work that “Reclaim” does and discussed the project that the organization conducted in Placencia, Belize, including sending a group to conduct fieldwork after the city was devastated after Hurricane Iris in 2002. After the hurricane, the accessible water that civilians were using had become severely contaminated by toxic waste. The hurricane destroyed nearly 80-90% of the Placencia peninsula, causing a severe flood from the lagoon. At the time, the Belizeans were using buckets for human waste which they would dump into the nearby lagoon. The process was a public health issue and caused diseases to arise in the community.

With help from “Reclaim,” a large number of the residents of Placencia became knowledgeable about and aware of the water crisis.

The staff and students involved in “Reclaim” became personally involved with the citizens of Placencia while they worked there. “Reclaim” took their voices into consideration, asking for drawings of what water means to them and looks like in their community. After gathering roughly 200 drawings, they configured a coded book for a stronger understanding and perspective of the social and cultural significance of the water resources.

While engineering was able to deliver a practical solution to the water crisis, anthropologists who worked alongside them were able to highlight the human aspects of the cultural area that was affected, allowing the organization to better meet the needs of the community. 

In the past, “Reclaim” has worked with the United States Peace Corps and Engineers Without Borders. 

Wells’ discussion highlighted some of the issues of social engineering and provided a valuable lesson for members of the UMaine community: that students and faculty can help more people if they work together.


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