Thursday, November 21, 2013

What is research?

Hernan works for the ecotourism project
called San Miguel del Bala that is owned
and managed by his community.
“Ana, I want you to tell me something,” Hernan says to me as we walk along the trail from the center of his community, San Miguel, to the house where he was born.  “I want you to explain to me what research is.”  I look at Hernan, somewhat surprised.  After all, we’ve been talking about my research project for the past year, and his concern about the way research has been carried out in his community in the past is the main reason he invited me to come to San Miguel in the first place. 
           I muse for a bit as we walk, thinking of how to explain the activity that has consumed me for the last two years.  Luckily, only the week before I facilitated workshops with the park guards of both Pilon Lajas and Madidi together with my friend Mandu, who has a lot of experience teaching non-scientists to do research through ‘community research’ projects.  In both workshops, he started the discussion with talking about what the park guards understood by ‘research’, as well as ‘researchers’.  What is research?  Who is a researcher? 
At first, the questions were met by a bit of silence.  What is research? 

Talking about research with the Pilon Lajas park guards.
There is a wide gap of knowledge among the new guards
and the older guards about what research is, as in the past
there were more opportunities for park guards to
accompany scientists on fieldwork.
In the workshops with the park guards, many had a good idea of what research is – Margot, a park guard with Pilon Lajas, said that she thought it was ‘to get to the bottom of something.’  However, there was a lot more confusion among community members of San Jose de Uchupiamonas, where I held a small workshop to help create a ‘community norm’ that would regulate research carried out in their territory.  During the workshop it became clear that many of those present had never heard of research, despite their community being one of the most researched in Bolivia (a quick search on google scholar of ‘San Jose de Uchupiamonas’ pulls up studies of amphibians, insects, climate change, tourism, ethnobotany, plants, cultural relations, mammals, ‘ethno-logic’, conservation, history and birds, among other topics, all conducted on lands belonging to the community).  One woman thought that it might have something to do with when someone steals something, you must ‘investigate’ who stole it (the word research is ‘investigar’ in Spanish).

Workshop with the Madidi park guards.  Mandu, the
person standing, has been working with indigenous
communities in Mexico and Bolivia to do 'community
research' projects.  At present, eh's working  with a
T'simane community in Pilon Lajas to monitor fish
populations and to set up a reforestation project
with native tree species.
After discussing the concept of what research is for a little while, we also asked participants who they thought researchers are.  In San Jose de Uchupiamonas, a woman said that she thought anyone could be a researcher.  This sentiment was echoed in the workshops with the park guards, where some of the park guards felt that their entire job was research – finding out what was happening, why it was happening, and finding ways to resolve the situation.  In San Jose I also asked the participants if they thought scientists were the same as researchers.  It was interesting to learn that they believed scientists to be those who ‘know about the weather’, but biologists were something very different.  To them, while ‘scientists’ had never visited their community, biologists were often coming to do things with plants and animals – during the workshop they weren’t always able to say precisely what.  Social scientists seemed to be another source of confusion – few had heard of the term anthropologist (except for one man, who confused it with archeologist), and some called them ‘voluntarios’ – as San Jose often receives volunteers who teach English and play with the children.  As one woman told me later, “There are always researchers coming – and those who call themselves ‘voluntarios’ – we know that they’re just researchers in disguise, as they’re always asking questions.”

During the workshop with the Madidi park guards, we
created a collective memory of research done in the park
by asking the park guards to write down studies they could
recall.  This worked well with the park guards, but when I
tried the same in San Jose de Uchupiamonas, few people
could remember what research had been done and when.
This wide range of understanding about what research is reflects the spectrum of exposure and involvement people have had with researchers in the past.  While some (usually the leaders, and always men) have had multiple experiences working as guides for scientists, others (the older Quechua-speaking inhabitants, or women) have had very few, if any, opportunities to participate in the past.  While this may seem like an inevitable outcome of scientists looking to hire the most experienced guides, and conduct fieldwork as efficiently and quickly as possible, it has important implications for how research is understood (or not understood) at the community level.  Many of these implications are cultural, some are ethical, and all have practical relevance for the field of conservation science. 

Zenon Limaco is a community leader in San Jose and has
worked extensively with scientists in the past.  It was
through conversations with him that the idea of
creating a community norm to regulate research in his
community came up.
With regards to ethics, if people don’t understand what research is, it begs the question whether the general ethical protocol of obtaining Prior Informed Consent is enough.  Some of those who didn’t know what research is in San Jose had been interviewed in the past, but they hadn’t realized that they were participating in a research project.  While this could be because the researcher failed to obtain PIC, it seems to me that if people don’t have at least a basic theoretical understanding of what research is and where the information ends up, their ability to give PIC is naturally very limited. 
          Culturally, the tendency of scientists to favor working with a ‘more educated’ subset of community members also has its impacts.  Over the last two years I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with men in indigenous communities who were brought up to respect traditional norms and knowledge as related to their culture, but who have also taken opportunities to educate themselves, whether formally or informally, in western epistemologies.  They tend to be leaders, and often spend a significant amount of time in cities, attending workshops and meetings, on behalf of their communities.  While I think that the role of these leaders is very important in giving voice to their peoples, my concern is that the gap between ‘those who know’ and ‘those who don’t know’ is becoming increasingly wider at community and territorial levels.  As indigenous leaders learn about biological monitoring and sign up for Linked-in, their neighbors and family members continue to subscribe to traditional cosmologies and do not always know how to read or write.  While there is nothing at all wrong with either way of being or thinking, this growing gap could in the future come to create divisions at community and territorial levels.

One of the most important things for scientists
to remember is that knowledge-exchange with
local people has to be two-way and of mutual
Finally, the best reason I can think of for conservation scientists to be more inclusive in who they work with has to do with a concept I’m calling ‘spaces of encounter’.  One of the most positive roles I’ve found scientific research to have in the Madidi region has to do with the personal experiences and human relationships that develop out of such ‘encounters’ between scientists and non-scientists.  People converse, they share food, they laugh, they challenge each other – they learn and so they grow.  And with growth come new ideas, new possibilities, new hopes and ways to face the challenges of modernity. 

Regina and German, the couple in the photo, are from
Gredal, a T'simane community located in Pilon Lajas.
They approached Mandu and myself to help them write
up their ideas to set a project to 'rescue' traditional
knowledge of handicrafts,such as wooden masks,
natural pigments and native seeds. 
For me, this is what research is really all about.  And it all starts with knowing that one has the ability to think of a good question, and the capacity to find a way to answer it.  This is what I told Hernan, my friend from San Miguel.
 “First, you need to think about something that you don’t know the answer to.  For example, the number of chanchos in the forest.  Or whether the fish in the river is safe to eat, or if it has too much mercury from the gold-mining upriver.  And then, once you have your question, you have to think about how you’re going to answer it.  Finally, when you have the information, you can use it to make decisions.” 
 “So anyone can really be a researcher then, right?  You just have to have a question you want the answer to, and to find a way to do it.”

Hernan seemed happy about this.  Suddenly, research seemed important and accessible – something that could potentially provide answers to pressing issues in his community.  When research is thought of in this simple way - answering a question - the possibilities become endless.  Involving local people in research takes time and patience (and perhaps new skills for researchers), but there is much to be gained in the attempt.