Honoring a hero: Janette Bulkan

Janette Bulkan– My Hero

This month we are writing on suitability analysis in planning. Today, I want to take another look at that.  And look at someone who challenged the ways that we understand suitability.

That photo is of Janette Bulkan, and she is my hero.  We met in August 2010 when she was working as an ethnographer at the Field Museum in Chicago on a project looking at attitudes towards the environment in various neighborhoods in Chicago.  (You should follow the link and look at some of the cool research we found).

She was a great researcher.  With a passion for engaging communities.  She was also a great, fantastic supervisor.  She helped me grow as a researcher.  She would take me on trips to meet with community members.  She took me to fancy events, like the launch of GOTO 2040. But what stood out for me was her quiet ability to deal with people whom she disagreed with.

Going to their apartment for the first time was like walking into a research library. In their small home in Chicago they had some of the only copies of forestry plans for many developing countries. These were things that she had collected over the years, and through the process of government changes, natural disasters, and lack of care for forests these plans had been lost.

After getting to know her and her partner Jon, another story emerged, that of her bravery.  Essentially, while she was doing her PhD at Yale, she came to understand somethings about logging policy in her home country Guyana (South America).  She realized that they were creating policies that favored the policy makers at the expense of tribes and the environment.  “And I thought, ‘I have a choice. I can simply plod on with my fieldwork—the easier road—or I can publicize my findings.”  She went deeper in the research– she interviewed more people to try and find out about the environmental risks.  In the process, she risked her life and the lives of her interviewees, as she was beginning to interfere with more development coming into the forests.

The land was being used illegally: out of 33 long- and medium-term logging concessions issued from 1985-2005, only 5 were still operated by the original Guyanese licensees; 4 were acquired by known criminals; 19 were held by or illegally rented to several Asian-owned logging companies; 1 was rented to US-based Conservation International and not logged; another was exclusively for heart-of-palm harvesting; 2 were inactive; and the last was theoretically inactive but was probably used fraudulently to “legalize” timber that had been illegally cut elsewhere (source).

Speaking up and bringing a voice to these issues had consequences:

  • Under pressure from the government, she was removed from a World Bank panel.
  • Their email is watched and possibly hacked (I have witnessed this myself!)
  • Has been vilified– her name is sometimes front page news.  Imagine how’d you would feel if you saw this on the front page:  “Janette Bulkan’s nutcase rationality” or “Janette Bulkan promoting self-interest, disregarding facts on forest sector”

I give Janette as an example, because she is such a wonderful example of finding an issue and persevering.  Doing development work is not going to be easy, but that does not mean that it should not be done.

Janette is my hero. Who is yours?

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