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.

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?


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Motorcycles, surazos and monkey dreams

A half-day journey on a motorcycle through the jungle sounds like an exciting adventure, but in truth, I was ready to get off after the first few miles.  With my heavy backpack pulling me backwards on the uphills, and the steepness of the muddy slopes crushing my body into the driver’s on the downs, it was one of the most uncomfortable and tiring journeys I’ve ever taken.  So it was relief when, four hours after setting out, we reached San Jose de Uchupiamonas, the Tacana-Quechua community I first visited last November

Young friends from last year.

Returning to a community a second time is always a special experience.  People remember you, if just barely, and are surprised and pleased that you’ve come again, even if you’d promised you would - your return is seen as a sign of friendship and trustworthiness.   As the main purpose of this visit was to begin to design the content of an upcoming workshop where the past, present and future of scientific research in the community (and surrounding indigenous territory) will be discussed, it was a great help to know that many of the Josesanos knew my name, and even my purpose in the community. 

Even the chickens try to get warm.
However, even as the obstacle of building initial trust was mostly overcome, other challenges quickly emerged in the coming days.  The biggest was the arrival of a severe surazo, which is a polar wind that occasionally blows over the Bolivian lowlands during the dry months, dropping the temperature by tens of degrees.  Last year I experienced several mild surazos in Rurre, but this was of a different class – the winds blew strong and wet and on my second morning in the community, we hovered over the kitchen fire, our breath visible in the chilly air.  At night the temperature dropped into the low 40s, and I tossed and turned under my mosquito net, wrapped in three blankets and a thin sleeping bag, unable to get warm.  Unused to a cold climate, the surazo paralyzed all activities in the community until it passed, even keeping the children from school, and most people passed the time either eating or sleeping.  I had hoped to hold a community meeting to discuss the workshop, but after several discussions with the corregidor, the main authority in the community, I had to accept that the cold would prevent people from such a gathering.

The coauthored plant book, from research
carried out by the Bolivian botanist Narel
Paniagua Zambrana.
So instead I tried to make the most of the enforced downtime.  I visited homes and chatted with friends I’d made the year before, and made some new ones.  I looked for evidence of past research in the community and found a great example of a participatory ethnobotanical project, where a botanist engaged with a large portion of the community to produce a useful and accessible book that detailed local uses of plants in the region.  An entire morning was spent in the kitchen of the family of Walter and Magally, drinking hot chica and pouring over the book, page by page, with three generations of Josesanos.  The mostly Quechua-speaking grandmother was especially interested, and insisted that her granddaughter, Jenny, write down the reported cures of the various plants listed in the book.  As she and her husband were born in Apolo and arrived to the community a half-century ago on foot, many of the medicinal plants were unknown to her, and was perceived as valuable information.

During the few days that I was in San Jose, I learned a bit more about what makes some research useful and interesting to local people, and other research unintelligible and even exploitative.  Andy, one of the sons in the house where I was lodging and a young leader of his community, explained that research done in an indigenous territory – no matter what type – should always seek to engage with its inhabitants in the deepest possible way.  Not just through obtaining permission and handing over publications, but by making sure that the activity is understood by the community, and providing opportunities to involve its inhabitants throughout.  He felt angered by some biologists that had come only to place camera traps in the territory to monitor mammal populations, but that had not presented the results of their study in the community, where they might be useful for territorial planning.  As he, as well as several other Josesanos I spoke with, hope to set up community tourism projects in the future, information on natural resources is very welcome.  

A termite-eaten book found on the shelves in the office of
the Tsimane'-Moseten indigenous council. Despite digging
through boxes for days here, I only found one thesis and
little other evidence of past research, despite knowledge
to the contrary of much previous science in the region.
However, it is important to note that in many cases, results that are handed over by scientists do not always go further than the dusty storage rooms of territorial offices, or even the homes of local leaders, who collect them in small private libraries, which leads to the general impression that most researchers “don’t leave anything behind.”  Reading material is hard to come by in these regions, and is often guarded jealously, even if it is stored away for termites to munch on more than it is read.  Even comunarios with whom I have built a good amount of trust were reluctant to share the contents of such collections, and the plant book was the only evidence of previous research I was able to get my hands on in the community.

Andy Limaco is a young leader of his community.  He
is currently trying to set up a project to work with gold
miners in the region to prevent mercury contamination
of regional watersheds..

The surazo even postponed my leaving the community, as one particularly cold night left me with a slight fever, and very little will to set off on the seven hour hike back to Tumupasa in the chilly rain.  In addition, I’d dreamt of a monkey, which the Josesanos assured me was a sign of delay.  Dreams have great significance for the inhabitants of much of the Bolivian Amazon, and in San Jose especially there is an interesting mix of modernity and tradition.  Even as Andy told me the various meanings of other symbolic animals in dreams (“a jaguar means someone is envious of you – an enemy”), he asked me to help him set up a blog the next time we were both in Rurre.  Despite the internationally-touted success of Chalalan, the community’s ecotourism business, Andy feels that few outsiders have an understanding of what he calls “the reality” of life in San Jose.  He wants to publish a blog to express local perspectives on topics that are important to the lives of the Josesanos – such as finding ways to balance the need for basic services (potable water, electricity and a road), while maintaining the customs and knowledge that make San Jose such a special place.

Extreme-motorcycling - occasionally the path was so bad
that Walter had me get off (like here), but more often than
not we battled on together through the mud.
Finally one dawn the sun leaked red through the clouds, and I prepared for the long journey ahead.  In the end I accepted a ride partway on the back of Walter’s motorcycle, as he was going hunting in search of chanchos de tropa (White-lipped peccaries).  “I’m going to be lucky today,” he assured me as we set off.  “My dreams told me so.”  As we parted ways in the middle of the forest, he called after me that they’d be waiting for me in October.  And just as I had no doubt that he’d hunt a large chancho to take home to his family, I knew he trusted I’d be back again. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Communities, conflicts and botanical surveys

I write from Apolo, Bolivia, where I’ve been somewhat stranded for the last few days due to a blockade erected halfway along the road to La Paz by coca leaf growers, who are protesting Evo’s plan to eradicate all illegally grown coca in the country.  Two days ago I was actually sitting on a bus headed back to the city, but as the reports came in that the blockade had not yet been cleared, and some parts of the road had even been lined with dynamite, I decided to get off – a few more days in the tranquil town of Apolo seemed a lot better than a battle with angry protesters and an obstacle course of felled trees, ditches and explosives. 

The park guards put up these signs last year to mark the
entrance to Madidi along the roads that connect the various
communities.  However, the original thatched roof of this
particular sign was initially burned by angry locals and
had to be replaced.
I can’t complain though.  I’ve spent the last week at the Madidi park guard station in Apolo, where there is constant activity to keep a researcher like myself on her toes.  It is the beginning of the dry season, the time when the conflicts in this region seem to heat up.  Less than a month ago, the local worker’s union, which is the main organizing body for the campesino communities just north of the ranger station, issued a formal request for the rezoning of the protected area to allow for mining, and for the construction of roads that would crisscross the park.  To the east, another road is being built to connect with the only Leco community within the protected area, where there is still great quantities of precious woods to be exploited.  And to the west, community members were threatening to take over the ranger station in Puina to protest the paralysation of road building activities in that area by park staff.

Marcos, 'El Jefe' of the park guards in Apolo.

However, in the face of these many threats to the integrity of the “most biodiverse place on earth”, there was a constant stream of local community leaders visiting the park office to speak with Marcos Uzquiano, the Head park guard for the Apolo region, who knows that the issues facing the park are not as black and white as those sitting behind desks in governmental offices in La Paz might paint them to be.  “These communities were not consulted as to whether they wanted to be part of the park or not,” he told me, and believes that more needs to be done to work with rather than against their efforts to improve their quality of life through development.

The park guards looking at maps and photos of the region
in order to improve the monitoring of glaciers located in
the high altitude area of the park.  They told me that they
hope that this monitoring project will provide them with
information that they can share with the local populations
on changing water levels. 
A good example is in Sipia, a community that previously was very opposed to the park.  Today some of the leaders came to visit the park office to speak with Marcos about obtaining an environmental license for a community carpentry business they want to set up using felled wood from their swidden agricultural plots.  Although such licenses are, in theory, required for any project that makes use of natural resources in Bolivia, in practice it is only in protected areas where park guards enforce their adoption.  Marcos says sometimes he feels completely alone, because while municipal governments promote development projects without taking into consideration environmental laws, the national protected area system drives a hard line to keep such development out of the park.  

Flora in the Apolo region - the main interest
for the National Botanical institute, who
estimate that there at least 12,000 species
of vascular plants in Madidi,  one-third of
which have yet to be discovered.
Marcos agreed to help the folks from Sipia through the long and complicated process of obtaining the license, but afterwards confided to me that while though on one hand these requests make him feel satisfied that their recent efforts to communicate the importance of doing things legally and sustainably are bearing fruit, on the other he is aware that his involvement could cause great difficulties in the future, if the community’s petition gets rejected in the end.  He has had this experience in the past with a mining cooperative that wanted to do things legally, but after investing much money and time in soliciting the license, they were rejected due to zoning issues, which he said made him feel like he had lied to the communities.  (There are currently 58 illegal mining operations in the park, some using mercury, and it is extremely difficult for the park guards to control their operations).    The central problem, it seems, is that the park was zoned without local input, and several communities are even located on the border of or within the strictly protected ‘national park’ designation, which by law prevents any activities other than conservation and research.

And so here I finally come to my own topic – that of research in the park.  Madidi is an interesting case because the park was initially created and zoned almost exclusively by a team of scientists, who based much of their mapping of the area on the biological importance, rather than on considerations of local communities.  As a result, the general perception of the local population is that “the park doesn’t want us to develop, they want to keep us in the stone age.” This perception has in the past led to the overtaking of the park office in Apolo for two years, during which time there was absolutely no control over the extraction of natural resources (see previous blog).

Santa Cruz del Valle Ameno, one of several communities
that is home to the endangered 'Palkachupa' bird (Phibalura 
boliviana).  This endemic species was recently rediscovered,
and several locals were hired as guides to assist scientists
with related research.

Which is why without the involvement and understanding of local communities, conservation doesn't stand a chance.  And while although there is little research in the region as compared to the more popular Rurrenabaque area, science has the potential to be a force for change and communication with communities north of Apolo.  On this trip I had the opportunity to speak with members of local communities and park guards who have worked with scientists in the region as guides.  Although it was clear (as mentioned in last blog post) that most researchers did not leave results behind, community members who had worked directly with scientists reported positive experiences and opportunities for learning.  One man from Sipia became visibly excited when I showed him a print out of a publication from the Herbario Nacional, the Bolivian botanical institute that operates in the region.  He recognized some of the scientists in the photos and went through the publication page by page, talking in detail about his experience, the methods they used and what he learned.  

Poster on the Flora inventory project, run
by the Herbario National, found in the park
ranger station in the community of Santa
Cruz del Valle Ameno.
"We know some things, and they know others.  It was an exchange."  When I showed him another guide of medicinal plants that had been made by a researcher from the Herbario for another community, he exclaimed, “This is what I want for my community!”  As we looked through the guide, he shared his knowledge of the various plants with me in detail, saying that the information was incomplete, and explaining how the guide could be improved so it would be of better use.  The great thing is that many scientists working in the region seem to be aware of the need to further involve the local communities, and interested in finding better ways to communicate are share information.  I found the same with the park guards, who lamented the fact that research results only rarely reach the Madidi park offices (especially in Apolo), as otherwise they could ‘socialize’ the information on their visits to the local communities.  Obviously much will have to happen before such an ideal scenario can become reality, but at least, from what I've seen, the willingness and interest isn't lacking.  

Anyway, off for another dinner of fried chicken and rice (pretty much the only thing available in Apolo after dark), and fingers crossed the protesters run out of dynamite by the weekend!

Presenting the results from my first field season and plan
       for this year to the Madidi park guards.  One key 'product' I
hope my research will provide is a guide for future
researchers in the region, with topics of interest identified
by local stakeholders, such as park staff and local communities.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The 'other' side of Madidi - Apolo

This past September at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, it was announced that Madidi National Park, the protected area I’m working in, is likely to be the most biodiverse place on the planet.  This news surely made more waves in international scientific circles than it did here in Bolivia, where I only heard about it a couple of weeks ago in passing from a friend.  Indeed, even some of the park’s staff didn’t know anything about it.  

Mysterious Madidi - view from Apolo
However, the announcement will almost certainly affect the region – especially in terms of future research.  How many young scientists will be now setting their eyes on this area, where it is estimated that two-thirds of its biodiversity has yet to be discovered?  But as visions emerge of teams of researchers traveling up and down its remote rivers, climbing its giant trees, seeking to prove once and for all that is indeed IS the most biodiverse place on the planet, I ask myself – how will this help to protect it?  How will the discovery of yet another mammal or bird species directly lead to future conservation efforts in the park?  Surely, research will lead to more research, just as funding tends to attract more funding.  But for Madidi’s nearly 4,000 human inhabitants, many of whom live in extreme poverty, how will such investigations contribute to the development of sustainable livelihood strategies that support, rather than are in conflict with, efforts to protect this magnificent piece of planet earth?

The long, dusty road to Apolo
Yesterday I returned to La Paz after two weeks in the remote region of Apolo, the “other side” of Madidi.  Until now, I’ve focused on the well-paved path of most researchers to Madidi - the Beni river, the touristic region where foreigners flock in droves, accessible by a 45-minute flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque.  Apolo, in contrast, is an uncomfortable (albeit spectacularly scenic) 14-hour bus ride through the Altiplano, las Yungas, descending into the tropics of the Amazonia.  Here twenty-two ‘native peasant’ communities are located within the park boundaries, as well as one indigenous Leco community.  Although poverty exists throughout the park – in the Beni region as well – it is in this area that it is most extreme.  Even up until the 1980s, a local form of slavery, known as ‘habilito’ was practiced, in which land owners would exploit the campesinos through unending cycles of indebtedness.  According to statistics from the 2001 census, 98% of the population in the municipality of Apolo lives in conditions of poverty, and for the vast majority, such existence is on the margin.

Tobacco drying on traditional mud-brick home
As a result, the conservation of biodiversity is not exactly a local priority.  As very little tourism comes through, people live the best they can from the land – traditional swidden agriculture is practiced, with a focus on products that can be sold at the market in Apolo (coca leaves, tobacco), as well as for basic subsistence (yucca, corn, rice).  The only economic alternatives come at the expense of the natural environment – gold mining, for example, is viewed as one of the only possibilities for advancement – a chance to earn a bit of extra money to send one’s children to secondary school.  Previously there was talk of a road being built in the region that would crisscross the park, and more recently, there are rumors of oil explorations in the area.  These possibilities have been met with hopeful anticipation by the vast majority of the local population, who in past years, have taken up machetes and chainsaws against the park, even taking over the park guard offices in Apolo in 2010, in protest for what they see as their basic rights to development.

But despite these realities, when asking about research and conservation efforts in the region, I was more than often met with shakes of the head, shrugs of shoulders.  “Very few researchers come here,” I was told again and again.  And those that do?  More shrugs of shoulders.  “They don’t leave results behind.” 

Park guard photographing tracks of a tapir for the parkwide
intergral monitoring program, in which park guards collect
data on various ecological and social indicators.

Housed at the Madidi park guard station in Apolo, I searched the office in vain for past reports of any kind of research that had been done.  Few of the guards could tell me about previous scientific activities, aside from the discovery of an endemic bird - the Palkachulpa (Phibalura flavirostris) - in 2000.  I visited the mayor’s office, a local historian, and spoke with local indigenous and campesino communities – no one knew much about any past research, and some of those that had come had generated anger and mistrust due to empty promises given of ‘reporting back’.  One leco leader told me that his community had been "betrayed" by an anthropologist who had come from the United States to do research on traditional knowledge, and had never returned despite having an official research agreement with the indigenous organization.  More than anything, it was apparent that the region had been pretty much neglected.

Madidi park vehicle crossing the Marchariapo river.
In the wet season this crossing is impassable.
So my question of “Who decides what research should be done,” began to expand…  And I have found myself asking not just “what”, but “where”?  Who determines where the greatest threats lie, and who decides where more information is needed?  Because on a cursory glance, it seems that this region, much more so that the ecotouristic hub of Rurrenabaque and the Beni communities, is in great need of more information, more technical support for local communities, more understanding of how to address the present and future threats of mining and oil drilling.

In this home in the village of Palillos, I was unable to
communicate with the Quechua-speaking owners.
Happily, that didn't prevent them from offering me
several delicious cups of freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice.

So why then the lack of research in the region?  One answer might point to the difficulty of working in Quechua, especially for foreign researchers.  I gave a couple of drawn-out, Bolivian-style (say something, and then repeat it five times) speeches at meetings with local leaders, only to realize afterwards that less than half had any idea of what I was saying.  Another possible region might be the remoteness of the area.  One community, Asariamas, is located in the largest remaining area of tropical dry forest of the Andes-Amazon, yet in the wet season it is only accessible via a muddy two-day journey on foot.  A third reason might be the ‘campesino’ rather than ‘indigenous’ status of the resident communities.  It is much less sexy to researchers (and the foreign institutions that fund them) to work with peasants than with ‘natives’ – even if that label is just that – a label.  Indeed, in ten years time these communities might all become ‘leco’, affiliated with the Leco indigenous organization that is vying for allegiance with the longer-standing Federation of Campesinos – but that decision will be much more based on politics and economics than anything to do with cultural roots.

The beauty of las yungas - another reason researchers
should come to the Apolo region
Why does it matter that there is or isn’t research done in a given region?  I suppose I see the role of the researcher as going beyond simply collecting information and publishing articles, and as one than can have a catalytic, transformative impact.  If it is not those of us who have the time and funding to investigate what is happening in a profound way, and to report on our findings, then who will?  Who will go into these communities and find out the real stories, who will look at existing laws and policies and identify their weak spots, who will bring to light the gaps between what is supposedly being done and what is actually happening?  In a nutshell, what the hell is the point of publishing academic papers, if the ones who are making the decisions don’t have access to the information?

Questions and more questions, and in two weeks time I finish my first field season in Bolivia and head back home for a while.  But before I go I’ll be setting things up for next year.  In light of all I’ve learned these past months, I’ve decided to change my methodology.  Instead of working with only one or two communities in the park to do a ‘community science’ project, I’ll be carrying out a regional analysis of the past, present and future of research in the region – mostly via community workshops.  I hope to be able to answer the question of to what extent research has directly supported conservation and sustainable livelihoods in the park, as well as to identify opportunities to ensure that future research is more locally relevant and participatory.

Six months have really flown by here in Bolivia...  Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat and lovely Lancaster awaits, but some part of me is already looking forward to being back in this land of discoveries, mysteries, wonder, that has somehow lodged itself deep into my bones...

Feeling tough in Apolo -
ready for my next field season in 2013!