Thursday, October 24, 2013

The under-appreciated role of park guards in Bolivia

Cesar and Marcos spot a tractor in the distance, part of the
machinery Merry's cooperative has brought into the park
to facilitate mining.  Such heavy machinery is illegal in
Madidi, unless an environmental license has been granted. 
We huddled together, shivering in our clothes that had gotten wet while crossing the Tuichi river earlier in the day.  Again I suggested returning on foot to the closest village, Pata, where we’d been offered beds in a local home, but as if on cue, the rain poured with even more intensity against the windows of the pickup.  Five of us sat in the cabin of the truck – other than myself there was Cesar, a park guard born in the region, Karen, a biologist coordinating the monitoring programme in Madidi, Marcos, the head of the park guards in Apolo, and Merry, the president of a mining cooperative located in the nearby community of Santa Rosa, who’d hopped in at Pata, where we’d stopped for a home cooked meal.  As much as we were suffering in the cabin of the truck, it must have been much worse for those sitting in its bed – villagers from Pata, who’d hoped to get a ride in this wet night to Apolo rather than hiking the eight hours it takes to get there on foot.  But alas, finally we reconciled ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going anywhere – the roads were far too slippery, the slopes bordering it too steep, and the fog too thick.  There are much worse things than being cold and wet for a night.

The Tuichi river.  Earlier in the day we had to cross it in
inflatable rafts to reach Virgen de Rosario, a Quechua-
speaking community that had originally been mapped
within the strictly protected 'National Park' designation,
rather than the 'Integrated Management' area.  This is
currently being rectified in the rezoning of the park.
The conversation in the truck was at least lively.  Merry’s cooperative had recently been sanctioned with breaking environmental laws by the very park guards sitting in the truck, and somewhat seriously, somewhat kiddingly (as Marcos threatened to throw Merry out into the rain several times), they debated their different points of view.  Mining was needed in the community, said Merry.  In the past outsiders had come to mine the gold in their area, and only recently had the comunarios organized to exploit the resources themselves, instead of only serving as paid labour.  Not to mention that mining would bring better roads – the evidence of the need for which was in the very situation in which we found ourselves – unable to go back down the mountain or continue on, despite being in a 4x4 heavy-duty truck.  And the rainy season had only just begun.  The park guards agreed with her on all counts, but said that they had to do things by the law – whether inside a protected area (as Merry’s community is) or out, environmental laws apply, and for good reason.  The contamination of mercury, for example, is a major threat to the health of both the human and animal communities that live along the rivers – and such impact is not just local.  The Tuichi river, where much of this mining takes place, empties into the Beni, which empties into the Madeira, which eventually becomes the Amazon.  Mercury travels.

During a workshop with park guards to discuss the role
of science and research in the region, they show me a
ceramic piece they found while on patrol, and attempt to
find its likeness in a book on archeology in Bolivia.
Merry agreed and said they knew they needed technical help.  Not just to obtain the needed environmental licenses, but to adopt techniques to lower the environmental impact of their activity.  Her statements echoed a conversation I’d overheard the day before when another group of miners, who likewise had been fined for their activities, had come to the park office to discuss the issue with the guards.  The park guards themselves are trying to promote the creation of a ‘reglamento’ for mining in the region.  Under national laws, mining is severely restricted in protected areas, and although most of the communities lie within the ‘integrated management’ area as opposed to the more strictly protected ‘national park’, even small-scale, artisanal operations must obtain environmental licenses - a very time and money-consuming feat for communities with only basic understanding of national environmental laws and little access to legal and technical assistance.  

Now two years into the Monitoring Programme, Karen is
training the park guards to input their monitoring records
into an Excel database, and then to analyze and write up
the information to be used as a management tool.
From what I’ve seen during the last year and a half living and working in Madidi, it is the park guards, more than any other actor, that are trying to adapt existing laws to local realities, and to find ways to make conservation work for local people.  And increasingly, they are being given spaces to do so.  When we discussed the subject of scientific research during a brief workshop, in which I presented a database with past research in the region, they were frustrated by the number of studies they had no information about (which represented the vast majority), whether it was because they’d never heard of the study in the first place, or because the results hadn’t been disseminated locally.  Toward the end of the workshop, Cesar suggested that we develop a ‘reglamento’ for research – something normally done top-down, but that at present, there are opportunities to go bottom-up.  Like the mining reglamento, it would reflect local realities and perspectives, and would additional serve as a tool both for scientists to better communicate the importance of their work – whether it be focused on new discoveries in biodiversity, or more applied research from which local actors might directly benefit.

Park guards measuring the volume of water
that Madidi produces.  This is the indicator
that they are most passionate about, mainly
because declining water levels is a concern
of local communities as well.
One tool that the park guards increasingly mention during interviews and informal discussions is the Integrated Monitoring Programme that my biologist friend, Karen, has been implementing since 2011.  While the idea of this programme was originally conceived by biologists based at SERNAP and WCS in order to ‘take the pulse of the park’, the park guards have their own views of why it is important to their work.  Rather than being just a tool to be used by management, to show whether or not protection in the area is working to protect biodiversity, they are interested in having the results so as to disseminate them more locally to the communities.  

Calculations done by park guards to
measure stream flow of rivers.

One indicator that they are especially passionate about is that of water levels, which they measure with scientific precision, even in freezing cold, quickly running waters.  They are eager to show the local communities how the water levels are decreasing in areas where out-of-control fires from slash-and-burn farming have eroded landscapes, something they’ve observed over the years, both as locals living in the region and as park guards.  As one of the park guards said during a meeting earlier in the week with Karen, “There’s no point in collecting this information if we aren’t going to disseminate and use it.”  But in many ways, the programme is still in its infancy, and its utility for management and community relations has yet to be demonstrated.

As the rain poured down and we huddled ever closer together, I thought what an interesting mix we made – two park guards, two scientists, one miner.  Arguing, laughing, shivering, snoring, cuddling.  We were all in that truck for different reasons, we’d all been brought to the region for different purposes, but in the end we were all just trying to do our best with the roles we had taken on, and see how they fit together along the way. 


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The role of communication in the knowing-doing gap

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve sat down to write a research blog – not so much due to lack of adventures as to lack of time – but recently I’ve been coming across discussions in the world of conservation that have given me some extra inspiration to share my own experiences.  One of these is a blog written by Dr. Toby Gardner, a biologist at Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology, in which he argues that we can’t simply hope that achieving better dissemination of our research will suddenly make human society act in ways that are not detrimental towards the environment.  Rather, he writes, “even the most integrated approach to studying the linked problems and solutions facing the management of environmental resources (or any other problem) in a given region will likely have very little impact if the people who are intended to benefit from, or be influenced by, the work are not intimately involved in the research process itself. Evidence on its own is not enough.”

Madidi park guards presenting a list of priority research
questions for the protected area.  Park guards in Bolivia
are engaged in just more than patrols and fines - they
monitor biological and social indicators and are even
involved in setting national policy in some cases.
With my own research, I’ve been observing this trend that pushes science to have greater impact at several different levels in Bolivia.  In recent months, I’ve been invited to participate in and facilitate such discussions at various government ministries and scientific institutions.  One of these is Bolivia’s National Service of Protected Areas (SERNAP for its acronyms in Spanish) current effort to develop a ‘research strategy’ for the entire protected area system, with the aim of determining gaps in knowledge for improving the management of the entire system.  During two days of workshops in La Paz in August, park staff and representatives of scientific and government institutions met to develop a set of priority research questions for these areas, based on management needs and missing information.  

During Day 2 of discussing the research strategy, scientists
and representatives of academic institutions were invited to join the discussions.

One issue that kept emerging, especially during the second day of the workshop, had to do with the need to go beyond figuring out what kind of research has been done and what is lacking, to discuss how the information will actually be used.  Another question might be, by whom?  Who are those making decisions about land use in these regions, and on what information are they basing those decisions?  Is it enough to involve park management and scientific researchers in the development of research agendas, or should other stakeholders be involved?  And if they are traditionally excluded from such discussions, what needs to be done to change this situation?  

Scientists the the Vice-ministry of the Environment's
Department of Biodiversity (where research permits
for the study of flora and fauna in Bolivia are granted)
discuss the knowing-doing gap in natural resource management.
In tandem to this research strategy, Bolivia’s Vice-ministry of the Environment is also in the midst of developing lines of research in biodiversity and natural resources of national priority.  After giving a brief talk on my research to the Department of Biodiversity, a lengthy and somewhat heated debate emerged on the role of local knowledge and participation in biodiversity research.  One person brought up a situation in which they had to define research priorities in collaboration with indigenous stakeholders in the Bolivian Altiplano, but as the researchers were on a restricted schedule and the local people didn’t show up to the meeting on time, they went ahead and defined topics they found scientifically interesting - animal behavior, genetics, etc.  Afterwards, when it was time to present the information to the stakeholders, the local people disagreed with the priority topics that the researchers had defined, asking, "How is this going to be of use to us?”  Instead of the topics the scientists had come up with, the locals were concerned about a plague of sarna that was affecting the local vicuña population (Vicugna vicugna), and instead wanted to redirect the research agenda towards studying the health of the vicuñas.
Igor Patzi, a Bolivian anthropologist who is helping me to
design workshops with stakeholders, explains the
importance of understanding the concept of 'identity'
when attempting to communicate science with
non-scientists, such as indigenous peoples.
Much of these issues have to do with communication, and its definition as a dialogue towards reaching mutual understanding, as opposed to the one-directional transmission of information.  Many scientists believe that if they can only improve their powers of persuasion, their work will achieve desired impact.  But communication is so much more than that.  During two workshops with the National Herbarium, the key botanical research institute in the country, I facilitated participatory exercises along with other Bolivian researchers, designed to get the attending botanists to reflect on what it means to communicate science to non-scientists, and to better understand the pitfalls scientists tend to fall into when working with people from other walks of life.  Among other issues, we reflected on the importance of appreciating non-scientific worldviews and knowledge, of understanding the local history and culture of places where fieldwork is to be conducted, and of finding ways to incorporate local input into different stages of the fieldwork process.  

During this role playing activity, three 'botanists' attempt to
explain to a 'community' why their scientific inventory of
plants in the region is important, and request permission to
continue to do research in the region.
Some of the most interesting insights came out of the final exercise, during which the botanists had to role-play various scenarios that involved communicating science to non-scientists.  Those stepping into the shoes of the non-scientists (community members, indigenous leaders, etc.) found themselves sometimes aggressively challenging those whose role it was to present the scientific information.  Why should we trust you, they asked, when others have come before and promised things and left nothing behind?  Why should we care about this information?  We already know what species of plants are on our lands and what they are good for.  Why is your knowledge any better than our own? These questions led the scientists to ask themselves what their science and research indeed had to offer these communities, where there is often a great deal of local knowledge about the types of plants and their uses.  

Reflecting a bit on the issues brought up during these various events, I have some questions of my own.  If communicating science is more than the dissemination of information, then what does it mean to incorporate different ways of thinking and seeing the world into other stages of the research process?  What does it mean to truly step inside of the shoes of the other, and shape our work so it makes sense to her way of interpreting what she sees?  And if we believe that it this is way forward for conservation science, then how do we do it?