Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"They're taking away our knowledge..."

Map of Pilón Lajas, created as a biosphere reserve
by UNESCO in 1977,  declared a protected area
and indigenous communal lands by the Bolivian
government in 1992. Map is copyright
Wilman appeared from around the house, a long bow in his left hand, a notched arrow in his right, looking somewhat guarded upon seeing Mandu and I sitting on his porch.   Earlier in the day I’d approached Wilman to ask if we might come and speak with him, briefly explaining that I had come to Asunción de Quiquibey to learn more about how research could be of use to the community.  Wilman sat down upon a shaped tree stump somewhat reluctantly, and explained that he’d been on his way to go fishing, which explained the bow and arrow.  However, he didn’t have any gasoline for his peke, so ni modo, he said.  Too bad for him, I thought, but good luck for us.

Mandu and I had arrived a couple of days earlier to the Tsimane’-Moseten community of Asunción de Quiquibey, located in the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Communal Lands, an approximate three hour boat ride upriver from Rurrenabaque.  Armando (known everywhere and to everyone as Mandu) had worked in Asunción many years before, where he’d done research on traditional knowledge of medicinal animals for his undergraduate thesis, and had returned to create a book for the community.  A self-declared ethnobiologist, he has completed degrees in both biology and anthropology but believes that real learning comes from experience – from being in a community, speaking with the locals and getting to know their way of life. 

Mandu playing soccer with kids.
Although Mandu had previously lived in Asunción for several months and knew many of the comunarios by name, many years had passed since his last visit.  I’d hoped that with him at my side, we’d have easy access to the Moseten-speaking" locals, who are famously wary of strangers – especially strangers with lots of questions.  But trust is hard to gain and is easily lost, and our attempts to speak with the comunarios were often met with silence – or sometimes even closed doors.  However, several of the local leaders – both young and old – remembered Mandu well, which was key for being able to get some information about past and present research efforts in the community. 

Our talk with Wilman was representative of many that we had in our few days in Asuncion.  He said that many researchers (often known in Bolivia as ‘tesistas’) have come to do various kinds of studies in the community for their degrees.  He mentioned a study of medicinal plants and another that looked at animal tracks, neither of which had left the results behind.  “Some people say they’re taking away our knowledge,” he said.  But when we asked if the community felt they could reject a researcher – for example, if they didn’t feel that the research would be of any benefit to the community – he seemed somewhat confused.  The only real requirement was that those who came to the community should have a document with two signatures – one from the director of the Pilón Lajas reserve, and the other from the president of the Tsimane’ Moseten indigenous council.  If they had both signatures, the community was expected to collaborate with those who came.

Don Clemente Caimani (in center) with actor Edward Norton
upon receiving the Equator Initiative Prize in 2010.
Don Clemente is from Asunción de Quiquibey
and is currently the vice-president of the Tsimane' Moseten
Indigenous Council, to whom the prize was awarded
for their efforts in conservation.
Copyright for photo:
Mandu and I tried to explain that it was within their right as comunarios to refuse to talk with anyone who comes if they don’t want to, and Wilman seemed to agree, but the previous day I’d spoken with an older man who told me that they it would be ‘very difficult’ to reject those who came – “One must answer their questions,” he said.  I suspected he was also including myself. Part of the difficulty is that among the Tsimane’s, conflict is greatly feared, which makes it almost impossible for the local people to displease outsiders by refusing to collaborate with them.  Mandu told me that in other Tsimane’ communities he’s worked in, river traders will take great advantage of this cultural norm by charging the local people many times over for the same product, knowing that they need only to exhibit anger to get the locals to pay up.  More shockingly, it seems that some anthropologists are adopting similar strategies – imposing study after study in certain communities, even some very ethically-questionable ‘natural experiments’, knowing full-well how difficult it is for the Tsimane’ people to refuse to participate.

Reading the Society of Ethnobiology's 'Code of Ethics'
during one of many hours of downtime in Asunción.
Given that in the mornings people are in their chacos,
 at lunch they are eating, and in the afternoon they
are resting, Mandu and I had all day to read and think!
To Mandu and myself, who were only in the community for five days, many of the locals seemed to adopt a kind of passive resistance, not openly refusing to speak with us, but being quiet and vague when we tried to explain our purpose and ask to speak further with them.  I thought this a good strategy (albeit frustrating for us!), but Mandu said the problem is that many researchers don’t ask for consent, but rather oblige the people to collaborate – knocking on doors with their questionnaire and not leaving until they’d filled it out.  Wilman told us that previously, several scientists had come to have the hunters fill out registers of their hunts – part of the self-monitoring project mentioned in a previous post.  He said that although in the latter years of the project, the comunarios understood the objectives and gained something from the experience, at first they simply hunted as many animals as possible to fill out the register quickly.  

Some other conversations we had over the next few days were equally illustrative of how local people understand (or don’t understand) what research is.   One man told me that the studies that come only help to enable the tesistas to obtain their degrees.  He said that they come from the city or other countries to learn, because they don’t know about life ‘en el campo’.  But research doesn’t make much sense to him, he said.  “We know about things here.”  Other stories emerged as well.  Several comunarios mentioned a biologist who’d come to do a study of the Chonta palm.  Apparently he was trying to measure its rate of growth, but the comunarios said he was measuring the wrong part of the tree.  “He put his rulers on the outside sections – but they don’t grow,” one man laughed as he related the story.  “The chonta grows from the inside up and outward – so his study was all wrong.”  We asked if they’d told the scientist of his mistake, as he’d apparently been in the community for many months.  They shook their heads and grinned.  “Nah, we let him do his study, we never said anything.”

Houses in Asunción.  Typically the kitchen is in a separate
structure away from the main living quarters.
Perhaps it was best that they’d kept their opinions to themselves, as Mandu told me of experiences in which scientists become very defensive – even angry – when their expertise is put into question by local knowledge.  He told me about an encounter with two biologists in Mexico who’d come to set up camera traps near a community where he was working.  The scientists hired locals to carry their equipment, but weren’t interested in their ideas about where to put the cameras, despite the fact that they hunted in the area and knew where the animals went.  When after several weeks, the biologists had few pictures and Mandu suggested that they ask their guides for ideas about where to put the cameras, they got very angry.  “We’re scientists from the UNAN – an internationally respected institute!” they retorted.  “How could they know where to put the cameras better than we do?”

But the fact is that the local people will always know more about local conditions and realities than those of us who come from cities and learn from books.  So what do researchers like Mandu and myself have to offer?  Perhaps a great deal, it turns out.

“Research is like a weapon,” one community leader told us.  If the results of research are designed to be of use to the community, and are left in local hands, such information is of great importance and interest.  As hunters and fishers who live directly from the land, the comunarios of Asunción have a great stake in the health of local ecosystems and natural resources in their region.  They are also greatly concerned about the rate at which traditional culture is disappearing.  One young man lamented the loss of certain games he played as a child – making toy bows and arrows, for example, or learning how to trap doves.  These games directly enabled the skills needed for hunting for sustenance as an adult, but now children were more interested in playing with toy cars, or even with their parent’s cell phones.

Mandu talking with Don Jose, a community leader,
about the bows and arrows he makes - both for traditional
use in hunting as well as for selling to tourists.
Mandu and I talked about the possibility of returning to the community in the future to develop and train local ‘research teams’, in which the community directs and participates in all phases of the research process – deciding what to study, how to study it, and making sure that the results are of direct relevance to the community.  Mandu has been working for several years with these kind of research teams, and in one Tsimane’ community the locals chose to do a comprehensive study of all of the plants used to produce bows and arrows, as well as a video on their hunting techniques.  What is especially interesting here is that the topic that this particular community selected would also be of interest to many scientists – confirming a growing realization that us ‘outsiders’ might have more common interests with locals than might seem on first appearances.  Indeed, in asking a couple of people what kind of study they would like to do in their community, the topics mentioned were ones that would be happily supported by biologists – “a study of animals!” exclaimed one man.  “A register of local birds,” suggested another. 

So why not turn research on its head?  Why not simply show up in communities and ask people what would be of use to them, and then do that?  Perhaps this is the real question. 

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous stuff Anne. I nominate you to update the ethics code!!!