|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?
|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.
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
“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.