Alumna Jennifer Rasmussen ’22MPH Publishes Paper Advancing Environmental Justice
The paper grew out of her graduate research project while she was an MPH student in the Public Health Practice program.
By Matthew Goncalves ’23
Alumna Jennifer B. Rasmussen ’22MPH recently published “Advancing Environmental Justice through the Integration of Traditional Ecological Knowledge into Environmental Policy” in a special issue of the journal Challenges devoted to planetary health. The publication grew out of Rasmussen's graduate research project while she was a student in the MPH in Public Health Practice program at UMass.
“This publication was based on my MPH capstone research paper,” says Rasmussen, who currently serves as an Education Junior Fellow with the Planetary Health Alliance. “This topic is an issue that is important to me, and my capstone professor, Dr. Daniel Goldstein, was a guiding force for me as I developed, researched, and produced this paper.”
“This research project influenced my current professional work because it opened doors for me that otherwise would have been more challenging,” she adds. “In addition to having my paper published in Challenges, I was selected to present my paper as a poster at the Planetary Health Annual Meeting (PHAM) at Harvard Medical School in November 2022.”
Rasmussen networked and made connections with professionals working in the planetary health sector while attending PHAM. During her time there, she gained insight into their work in this field, and it was also where she learned about fellowship opportunities with the Planetary Health Alliance.
“My PHP degree allowed me to focus on those areas of public health about which I am most passionate. Before starting this program, I was a full-time registered nurse and wanted to pivot my career to the environmental, global, and planetary health field,” she says. “Not only did this PHP program give me the opportunity to do that (through its classes, accessible and knowledgeable professors, capstone project, and practicum experience), but it gave me the confidence to seek out opportunities in this field.”
In the article, Rasmussen examines several ways Traditional Ecological Knowledge implementation can provide better policies to protect and maintain an environment’s existing biodiversity. She also explains how this community-based knowledge helps to reduce the exploitation of already disadvantaged communities.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge is defined as the accumulated knowledge gathered over long periods of time by Indigenous folk based on their interactions and experiences with their environment. Indigenous communities have been found to have very preserved and healthy biodiversity in the land that they occupy. This careful maintenance of their environment is an essential way the rest of the world can discover how to preserve and restore the ecological systems that have been disturbed by climate change.
"Biodiversity is the biological variety and variability of living species on Earth,” she writes. “From plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria, biodiversity includes the ecological, evolutionary, and cultural processes that support life." Biodiversity is very important for the planet and without it, it would diminish the variety of life and organisms that are present on earth. It provides homes for species to occupy and reduce the possibility of interaction with humans which can cause harm to both parties through things such as zoonotic diseases.
Rasmussen explains, for example, that "The eastern coast of Mindanao in the Philippines is home to the Manobo people, who have occupied a region of that area known as Pangasananan. The Manobo people have relied on this land to cultivate crops, hunt, fish, and gather herbs and have implemented techniques to conserve the land for centuries. It is thanks to these conservation practices that the Pangasananan region has remained ecologically intact.” Thanks to these communities, one can see how Traditional Ecological Knowledge can be incorporated into environmental policy across the globe.
The Biden Administration has acknowledged the value of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the face of climate change. First, in 2021, they published a memorandum to recognize Traditional Ecological Knowledge and its contributions to the "scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of our nation." This recognition and implementation are important in fighting declining biodiversity because it gives a voice to these indigenous communities who are often overlooked by societies in the areas that they still occupy and preserve. Additionally, in April 2022, the US Department of the Interior announced Indigenous communities would be receiving $46 million in climate resilience funding.
Rasmussen still recognizes the shortcomings governments have had regarding how minority populations – especially Indigenous folk – have been impacted by climate change and the decline in biodiversity. She mentions how certain implementations of Traditional Ecological Knowledge have caused other issues to arise. For example, she cites the need for supplemental nutrition to be provided due to food insecurity resulting from changes in reindeer behaviors in the Saami community in northern Europe, or how efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may interfere with Indigenous people's land and resources. There is no clear-cut answer for the restoration and maintenance of biodiversity, but there are methods to get closer to a better place.
Rasmussen concludes with suggestions for ways to ensure that the implementation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge is focused through an environmental justice lens to ensure that different communities aren’t inequitably impacted by climate change and biodiversity degradation. This includes acknowledging the tribal sovereignty of Indigenous communities to their land, resources, people, and sacred sites. She also recommends giving more positions of power to Indigenous leaders to ensure all points of view work together in solving the issues of biodiversity. Finally, Rasmussen concludes that expanding voting rights in the US are necessary to ensure voting is accessible to all communities. Not only will this provide for the preservation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, but it will also lend a greater voice to communities who are often voiceless.
Following her graduation in May 2022, Rasmussen became actively engaged with multiple organizations such as the Planetary Health Alliance, finished an environmental health nursing fellowship with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, advocated for improved air quality standards on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and authored an article on eco-anxiety for a respected nursing publication.
“I am truly grateful that I went through this program and to be a PHP alum,” she says.