This project investigates how small cities balance global environmental concerns with local needs for economic growth. It seeks to answer three main questions: 1) What are the differences in the ways federal governments and local governments talk about environmental problems and sustainable development solutions? 2) How are programs developed by international non-governmental organizations that seek to foster sustainable development adopted or transformed at the local level? 3) What role does participatory democracy on environmental issues play in shaping the success of such sustainable development programs?

The Brazilian Amazon is one of the most critical places to examine this issue due to the adverse impacts deforestation can have on climate change as well as the subsequent consequences of global warming on the rich biodiversity of the area. Thus, this project investigates timely and politically sensitive issue in an empirically useful location. The study employs an explicitly comparative approach and involves ethnographic fieldwork in a mid-size city in the Brazilian Amazon, as well as in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.

Broader Impacts Addressing global environmental degradation as well as economic development needs simultaneously has emerged as perhaps the most pressing challenge for the 21st century. Research on the local implementation of transnational sustainable development initiatives can inform policy makers and may provide insights useful to local, state, and transnational entities interested in developing effective and efficient policies. In addition, the international fieldwork component will help enhance collaboration between academic institutions across national and disciplinary boundaries.

Project Report

This project’s findings are important for scholars, policymakers, and the general public interested in democratic governance and environmental issues. Intellectually, this project advances social science understanding of civic participation, which become an important area of inquiry in the last decade. The first accounts of government-created participatory spaces were celebrated as creating a more active citizenry and increasing the ability of everyday citizens to influence real and important decision-making processes. Another wave of literature tells a more pessimistic story, one that describes these spaces as ways that the State coopts civil society to achieve their own goals. The findings from this project, which used a fine-grained and detailed analysis of a particularly case, blurs the boundaries between these accounts. It shows how local actors move in and out of participatory spaces and constantly change their strategic alliances in order to deal with the national and international frameworks for sustainable development as they are implemented in their communities. Methodologically, this project also contributes to this literature. Many accounts of participatory democracy have focused solely on the government created and instituted spaces in order to assess their legitimacy and effectiveness. This project simultaneously examined these spaces while also looking at the active social movements that are, in fact, directly related to the functioning of the participatory institutions. It thus offers methodological innovations to the field of political ethnography. The results from this project have already begun to have an impact outside of the academic world. One of the project’s principal researchers, Mr. Klein, participated in a seminar with Brazilian government officials as an invited guest to discuss his experiences and ideas for future development projects. The implementation of national and international environmental frameworks, and the associated large development projects, in local communities is increasing around the world. Understanding how these projects impact local communities is important for designing better plans and developing alternatives entirely. In this case, the results from this project are of interest to policymakers because State governments are simultaneously advocating for the construction of large infrastructure projects while also trying to mitigate negative effects of such projects on local populations. With a detailed account of the impacts of a large development project, the ways people manage them, and the dynamics of local conflict, this project can significantly contribute to how policies and plans are created. Lastly, the project can have impacts on policies associated with the reduction of inequality. As large infrastructure projects, particularly hydroelectric facilities, are implemented, the negative effects tend to most significantly impact marginalized communities. This research project contributes to understanding how such projects can be implemented in ways that improve, rather than worsen, social and economic conditions of these populations.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Saylor Breckenridge
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Brown University
United States
Zip Code