Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Trials and Joys of Disseminating Research - Part 2

(Reposted from the Participatory Geographies website - - published on December 15, 2015)
La Paz often feels like a large town rather than a city of almost 1 million souls.  It is the kind of place where you greet your fellow passengers with a polite ‘buenos días’ on cramped microbuses, where you run into the Minister of Culture at a bar, where you eavesdrop on a conversation between two strangers at a café and realize you know the person they are gossiping about.  This makes giving an academic talk a somewhat intimate experience, because you know that the impressions of those listening will be spread – maybe not far and wide – but like soft footfalls along those worn-down streets that take  you to the same everyday places.
In 2014 Maria Copa (left of banner) organized workshops as an extension of my doctoral research, where she brought together scientists that had previously done research in the region to present the findings of their work for the first time to the Madidi park guards.
My first presentation was with the postgraduate centre at the Universidad Nacional de San Andres’ Institute of Ecology, where in 2013 I had conducted workshops with botanists on communicating and disseminating scientific research at the Herbario Nacional.  For decades, the scientists at the Herbario have been doing research in places where they have had to negotiate their access to the land with farmers and indigenous groups, park administrations and mining unions, among others groups of people who don’t quite see the point in botanical inventories, which has made them question what they are doing to an extent I have not seen in any other group of academics of any discipline anywhere (with a few notable exceptions).  Maria Copa (a biologist) and Igor Patzi (an anthropologist), two Bolivian researchers who have accompanied this research closely since 2012, also spoke about their experiences with and perspectives on the project.
The talk was well-received, and I was critiqued as well.  An anthropologist in the audience pointed out that in my films I have only interviewed men – this was indeed a major limitation of my research in general, and something I struggled with greatly throughout the work.  Because my research was somewhat abstract (I was ‘researching research’ – not something easy to understand for most local people), I found that the people who were able to speak with facility about the issue were those who had previously been involved in research – namely men, and those in positions of power and leadership in their communities.  I had tried many times to speak with women and older people, but found repeatedly that unless the person had worked extensively with researchers in the past, they really didn’t understand what I was asking.  This made interviews with 'lower-power' members of communities extremely uncomfortable, and in general I abandoned my attempts rather quickly, as I was also aware that I did not have informed consent if people didn’t understand what I was asking and why.
The same woman said that perhaps I was like all researchers – what was my research giving back?  Again, she had a point.  To the people I worked most closely with, my research fell short of its promise, as I attempted to come to terms with in my last blog post.  But her third critique seemed rather uninformed, as she said that my work should have been about teaching people to do research, instead of just learning about their experiences with it.  After four years of pondering the ‘problem’ of research, I have learned how incredibly difficult it is to ‘teach’ people how to do research, or to see how our research processes might fit more usefully into their own lives.
For example, as part of my fieldwork I carried out evaluations of two multi-year participatory monitoring projects, in which various local actors – park guards and indigenous hunters – collected data together with dedicated and really skilled scientists, and have seen how confusions and misunderstandings can arise again and again – over what the data is for, who owns it, and even of what monitoring actually is.  In one hunter-fisher community that has hosted such ‘self-monitoring’ projects since the 1990s, I was told by several people that at the onset of the project, the local people mistakenly believed that the scientists were engaging them in a kind of ‘competition’ of who could hunt the most, rather than monitoring their monthly bushmeat consumption.  According to local leaders, this confusion resulted in the temporary depletion of certain species of animals, as people believed they would be ‘rewarded’ for the hunts by the outsiders (here it is key to understand that during the 1970s and 80s there was a local ‘boom’ in animal skins and pelts, where river traders paid locals per animal hunted).  The misunderstanding around the purpose of the monitoring project was apparently cleared up at the time and the information collected was then used by local leaders to support the territorial claims of the indigenous group.  But in 2014 I heard of a new attempt to do monitoring in the community, and how the same misunderstandings that had affected the project in previous years had once again resulted in the over-hunting of certain species.
The point to drive home: this stuff isn’t easy.  The activity of research, be it of a social or natural nature, is something very strange and foreign to most people in places like the Bolivian Amazon – the concept of collecting knowledge for its own sake, as opposed to more local and traditional knowledge practices in which knowledge and action are directly integrated.  Interestingly, this applies to all kinds of research and methodologies – people appeared to be equally mystified by social ethnographers as by ornithologists – regardless of whether our instruments are notebooks or binoculars, our activity is not easily explained or understood.
Presenting at the Institute of Ecology in La Paz. The slide reads, "What is the role of gringo-researchers?", which is something I've asked myself countless times since doing research in a politically-charged Bolivia.
Standing in front of the multi-disciplinary audience at the postgraduate centre, I was given some respite from answering questions by Angelica, the Herbario’s wonderful secretary, who suggested we break for salteñas and coffee.  It’s always a nice feeling when people approach you rather than avoid you after giving a talk (I’ve experienced both) and I was invited to give many more presentations to other institutions – too many invitations to accept in the three days I had left in La Paz.  I was able to arrange my time to accommodate two of the requests – one for the Department of Geography at the same university, and the other for the Department of Biodiversity at the Vice-ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources.  Both talks went well, with a mix of critique and valuation of the work.
The marked difference in how I was able to disseminate my research in these more academic spaces in the city versus the less formal spaces in the Amazon speaks volumes about how far I – we – have to go to understand how to communicate about what research is with those who we engage in our fieldwork.  Even presenting to multi-disciplinary audiences in Spanish, I knew that we all had in common the language of research and academia, even if we had major differences of opinion on methodology, validity and other items that social and natural scientists love to argue about.  At the end of the day, we are basically part of the same elite camp - we earn our bread by thinking, reading, investigating and writing about what we find out.  But to carve out a meaningful space for research dissemination in a village meeting, especially when the community in question is busy with issues of real local priority – farming, child-rearing, political elections – this is quite another challenge, one that I (and many others) am still struggling to address.
During my fieldwork, I spent the most amount of time with Madidi's park guards and our countless hours of conversations helped in great part to shape my understanding of the problems around research in the region. Photo by Maria Copa.
Perhaps the ultimate impact of my last months of dissemination work in Bolivia will not be seen the form of large actions, but small ones, repeated over time, spoken in different ways by different voices.  Several of those present at the talks I gave in La Paz told me that this research was very important for them because their respective institutions were working on developing norms to regulate research, but they hadn’t yet incorporated the social side of things in a meaningful way.  A few people in particular indicated they are going to try to make something happen from this – to spark a national discussion – though the form that would take is yet unclear.  Perhaps the report I was aiming to publish with SERNAP will eventually make its way into official policy, but more likely the way forward will be in the less-visible individual and collective reflection of the many park guards, community members and researchers who have been involved in this work over the last four years.
I think in the end, we are still just all trying to figure out where we are exactly and to know just how far we still need to go.  I started my research by wanting to ‘bridge’ the so-called ‘gap’ between research and action in the field of conservation, but discovered through the process how it isn’t so much a ‘gap’ as a diverse series of spaces that need to be more fully understood and inhabited.  Spaces filled with different kinds of people, ideas and processes; spaces of encounter and misencounter; spaces that can be fun or difficult or meaningful or contradictory or countless other things.  My work was about getting to know these spaces, seeing how I am a part of them as well and learning that operating within these spaces is not simple, or easy, or explained in some paper I’ve yet to discover, but something we need to figure out step by step, mistake by mistake, through openness and honesty and the bittersweetness that comes with knowing we must try to do things better the next time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Trials and Joys of Disseminating Research - Part 1

(Reposted from the Participatory Geographies website - - published on December 1, 2015)
38°C in the shade and climbing. I step hard on the kick start of the motorcycle – nothing. Sweat rolls in massive drops down my face, I reach underneath to flip the choke, give it some more kicks, a slight putter gives me hope. I turn off the choke and concentrate on the palm tree in front of me – a swift kick and - finally – the machine roars to life.
Rurrenabaque, at sunset. View looking west, over the Beni river and towards Madidi National Park
I am in Rurrenabaque, a small town in the Bolivian lowlands, the entry port to Madidi National Park – one of the most biologically and culturally diverse landscapes on the planet, and also the place where I did my doctoral fieldwork. I originally came to the region in 2012 to carry out a ‘participatory science’ project with a community, the specific topic which was to be determined together. However, I soon realized that there was so much confusion and frustration about the topic of research in general that I decided that instead of creating a new project from scratch, I would try to study what had already been done and what the impacts were on the local people.  Part of this research involved working with two communities, two indigenous leadership councils and a protected area to record the research already conducted in their territories, discuss what their experiences had been in the past, and what they would want to change for the future.  In 2014 I recorded some of these perspectives on video and presented them at the Royal Geographical Society’s conference session on ‘Fuller Geographies’.
After being away from Bolivia for over a year, during which I finished the writing up of my PhD thesis and passed my Viva Voce (thesis defense) at Lancaster University in England, I returned to La Paz in September 2015 to begin the long process of translating most of the thesis into a language and format easily understood by those who were involved in the research. One major obstacle to all of this is time – in Bolivia I only have three months to do this work due to rigid visa laws, not to mention my precarious state of being unemployed and without funding.
Three months may seem like a good long stretch, but the challenge of working at multiple scales requires significant time to sufficiently disseminate the findings with all of the different social actors I worked with – indigenous communities and leadership councils, protected area staff, and government ministries. This is one of the major challenges of doing a regional research project as opposed to one based in one single community – the scale of people one works with is large and diverse, and so dissemination requires almost as much time as one invested into collecting the data in the first place.
20-page 'guide' to the research in Spanish, which explained the process of doing the research, a brief description of results, plus a copy of the DVD.
Based in La Paz, I worked on the translation with the intention of producing a report that would be easily understood but also detailed enough to explain the main findings. The idea was to make it into a publication with photos, a long list of thanks, and a video explaining the process through which I carried out the work at the end. However, about a week into my stay in Bolivia, an opportunity arose to publish the report together with the National Service of Protected Areas in Bolivia. It would be presented as a report authored by that institution, but I decided to take the opportunity, considering that it might have more impact in influencing policies on research practices at the national level. Instead of producing the one document, I opted to create a second product alongside the report – a kind-of ‘guide’ about what research is, the different steps of research, with a very brief summary of the results at the end of the report, plus a film about my personal research process. This guide was never meant to be the main dissemination tool, but as the report lay in the hands of the government ministry, awaiting a final decision from the institution’s director, I decided to use it in that way.
Almost two months and more than $1000 later (spent at the printers in producing the finished booklet and DVD), I flew to Rurre and borrowed a motorcycle with the determination to share the guide far and wide. However, with only three weeks left, I was landing not only into an entirely different geographical and cultural context, but also a changed political one. When we leave the field we remain stuck in time – the last time we were in that place, and we write from that static perspective. But life goes on, often in a very rapid, dynamic way. In the case of Madidi National Park and the communities within it, two major government-led development projects – a hydroelectric dam that would flood thousands of hectares, and a national decree to allow for oil extraction in protected areas - threatened to change everything.
With such a short timeframe to accomplish my aims, I rode the motorcycle back and forth, visiting offices, calling community leaders, setting up presentations. But the problem was that the guide didn’t really report my results, and the video much less so. When I stood up in front of the park guards and presented the two videos without much prior explanation (I had only been given a 30 minute slot, and the videos made up 20 minutes), I looked out to see a sea of blank faces. Something wasn’t right. I had decided ahead of time to allow the last 10 minutes as a space for them to give me feedback. And so they did – those who I knew the best, who I had interviewed multiple times and had spent time in the field with, even in their own homes, were the most detailed in their critique. They told me of everything that was missing from the video – the parts of the work that had been the most important for them: to explain that research should directly link to the needs and concerns of the place in which it is carried out, and that it should have a direct benefit for the communities involved. I strongly believe this to be true, but I was so focused on the importance of returning to Bolivia, that I forgot why exactly it is so important to return. Not just to show face, but to ensure that the results are usable to those who could most use them.
Standing in front of all of them I felt ashamed. We had spent so much time together over the last three years - I worked in their offices, accompanied them on patrols and trips, played football with them and we even sang karaoke together - and for them the work was incomplete. But perhaps like many others who attempt research dissemination, I had written up the ‘final’ materials after a full year of being ‘out of the field’, at a great distance from the research (in both time and space). The key lesson for me in this moment was to realize that when we leave the field, we can forget what is most important to the people we worked with and get lost in projects and materials that perhaps are not quite as useful as we imagined they would be.
It is hard to do anything in tropical heat, and even harder when you feel as if what you have to offer isn’t good enough, but I called a good friend and she told me not to worry – ‘ánimo!’ That word, which can be translated to English as ‘strength, energy, good vibes’, kept me moving, kicking the motorcycle to a start, visiting the communities I had previously worked with, getting out there and trying to be present, to show them that, at the least, I had come back.
Link to video I made to explain my research to the communities and other local actors. It is in Spanish, but I will make a new version, taking into account comments from the park guards and others, to upload on YouTube with English subtitles.
With less than a week left I headed to San José de Uchupiamonas, one of the indigenous communities where we had attempted to create a norm to regulate future research on their lands. With three days to think over my experiences thus far and to organize a proper presentation – this time explaining that the video was only a partial representation of the work, and that I was aware that much was missing – it was a better experience. The screening was well attended by a mix of women, children, men and older folks, and something changed in my relationship with the community in that space. I felt accepted for the first time since I had arrived to San José in 2012 – not just as a visitor, but as a researcher. I remembered something one of the park guards, Sixto, had said to me after the presentation of my films the week before. “Your work is just beginning,” he said. “Now is the part where you need to go out and share what you’ve learned, and to show how research should be done. Your research should be the recipe for all research.”
My PhD work is far from being the recipe for any research, but perhaps the experiences I’ve had can shine light into some of the many issues researchers face in attempting to make research relevant and useful for communities and other local actors. The main lesson that I learned from these last couple of months: that dissemination isn’t about products, but rather about process. By focusing so much of my time and efforts on the publishing of reports and burning of DVDs, I missed out on giving enough space and time to re-enter the field and remember why the research was meaningful to those who had been most engaged with it.
Next week I am back in La Paz with a very different challenge, presenting for multiple academic audiences – botanists, biologists, geographers and anthropologists, as well as selected government ministries. Being a gringa-researcher, the topic is not only academically sensitive, but also politically so. This makes giving these presentations even more nerve-wracking than usual! Stay tuned for the next blog post in which I will share these experiences, as well as my plan for – what next? Will I be given a second chance to try again? Can we ever know the true legacy (or impact) of our research in a given place?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Caminante, no hay camino...

The experience of being in the last leg of a PhD is quite a unique one, and from what I can see of friends around me in similar stages it is different for everyone.  Sure, all of us find ourselves engaging in at least one or two somewhat strange behaviours, but a PhD is such an individual experience that none of us is going through precisely the same thing. 

Frame of documentary short I'm making (in Spanish) about
 what research is and what a researcher does.

In my case, the pressure to write and submit papers is compounded with a commitment to the participatory action components of my research.  So while I’m plugging away at Word documents I’m also having Skype chats with co-researchers in Bolivia, creating a short documentary about my work, and writing small grants to support additional dissemination work in Latin America after the thesis defense.

This stage of the process also brings the inevitable worries about post-PhD life, which well-meaning friends and family help to keep present by asking the classic question, “So what’s next?”  For me this brings up standard anxieties about job hunting and post-docs, but also bigger existential concerns, such as: What do I want my life’s work to be?  Where can I best achieve that – in Latin America or in the UK, or back in New York?  What is most important right now – what will be most important in the future?

The question of geography is a big one.  Can I truly be committed to the ideals of participatory research that I’ve discussed so much on this blog if I don’t live more permanently in the place where it’s happening?  I’m not sure, but I know the idea of repeating the kind of ‘six months here, four months there’-lifestyle that I lived during most of my PhD doesn’t seem very sustainable or appealing.  But if I don’t wish to continue spending so much time based in Latin America, can I continue to support efforts there?  In a way, the role of an ‘involved ally’ appeals to me, but I worry about my naïveté in being engaged from a distance with efforts on the other side of the globe.

Perhaps there is no one right path, and simply by reflecting, sharing my concerns, and putting myself out there I’ll find my way.  I know that I want not simply to ‘talk the talk’, but to ‘walk the walk’, and so this must be my guiding principle above all else.  And so I fall back on one of my favourite poems (by Antonio Machado):

Caminante no hay Camino

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Wayfarer, there is no path 

Wayfarer, the only way
Is your footprints and no other.
Wayfarer, there is no way.
Make your way by going farther.
By going farther, make your way
Till looking back at where you've wandered,
You look back on that path you may
Not set foot on from now onward.
Wayfarer, there is no way;
Only wake-trails on the waters.