(Reposted from the Participatory Geographies website - pygyrg.co.uk - 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.
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.
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.
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.