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