Participatory Research: An Ethical Approach to Ethnography

The idea of participatory research was introduced to me through two readings this week, Community-Based Participatory Research: Challenging “Lone Ethnographer” Anthropology in the Community and the Classroom by Nathan Jessee et al. and Indigenous Knowledge, Community Participation and Traditional Land-Use Mapping by Karim-Aly S. Kassam and John R. Graham.  Participatory research is the title given to a broad anthropological or ethnographical community research method.  The idea is that a researcher can gain insight into community specific issues through actively working with the community to design a research proposal and set of methods that would be best at not only gaining intellectual material but also empowering the community and creating a tangible work based off of the findings that the community can use.  One of the most important aspects of participatory research is that all parts of the research process are transparent and involving either the community as a whole or members of the community who are often chosen by the community.  Also all results and materials created based off of the research is owned by the community and they get the final say in how and when it is used, thus empowering the community.  Participatory research is often used in modern anthropological and developmental studies on impoverished or isolated communities or communities with very specific problems or indigenous knowledge.

Historically, anthropological studies on groups of people were often through the lens of a “lone ethnographer” as termed by Nathan Jessee et al. or in other words, by a single researcher who would live in a community and study their everyday lives.  It was often intrusive and the end goal was to gain enough insight to publish another scientific paper or to present to a board rather than to gather information to help the community in return.  Also the research was often heavily based off of the researcher’s personal interests instead of the needs of the community and took the view of an outsider since the researcher was often not from the culture.  Thus, it merely reduced a culture to the opinions of the researcher and did not benefit the people who were the objects of study.  Like Karim-Aly S. Kassam and John R. Graham stated, as development (in this case, in the form of research) reaches out into isolated environments it tends to destroy the only cultures that have been able to, not only live, but thrive in those environments.  Participatory research is a method that is ethical in its approach since it avoids taking advantage of communities and takes into consideration the issues facing the communities and the research that would most benefit the people.  Also it gives direct control to community members by engaging them in all the steps of the research process and giving them all of the rights to the results and products created.  Fortunately, participatory research is becoming a very widespread methodology for ethnographically focused studies and it is even being taught to graduate students through service learning style courses.

When engaged in any development work or work with groups from cultures outside of your own, I believe that both direct community participation and community control of the project is a necessity in order to fully gain insight and to create results that meaningful to both parties.  A culture is not an exhibit to be studied and then turned into a research paper; the community should not be the object of study but rather the subject and authors of the study.  This participatory research approach is very similar to the work that our class hopes to engage in with the community of Intag in Ecuador.  Instead of developing conservation projects based purely off of personal interest, every step of our team’s project is in collaboration with our community partner, Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag (DECOIN).  We have matched our skill sets with the priorities of DECOIN in order for our work to be the most beneficial to the community’s needs.  I hope that through IARD 4011 and our team’s partnership with DECOIN that I will have the opportunity for deeper and more meaningful learning from the multiple views that I will be exposed to throughout the course.

Perceptions of International Development

International development, like many disciplines, has evolved as a field throughout the years.  Growing up in the US, many of us probably saw the commercials of children in far off lands starving and heard the pleas about how donating just a few dollars to, such and such, aid program can alleviate the poverty.  We would then applaud the efforts and brave actions of aid workers working to make a difference in countries fraught with poverty, political instability and disease, and to try to develop them into great nations of the “first world”.  All the while, we probably never stopped to think about the culture of the people or what the standard of development actually should be.  I will be honest that, my first perception of international development was that of people who donated their time and means to help those who were considered less fortunate through an act of charity or the introduction of technologies/products.  My idea of developing nations was the images that were created by the development agencies and aid organizations which according to the paper, The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development” and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho by James Ferguson are images that are created to fit the institutional needs of the agencies.  Nobody would donate to an Agricultural Development Agency in Lesotho if they found out that the majority of the people in Lesotho were not actually sustenance farmers who were poor due failing to adopt the proper farm techniques.  This reading, combined with many other readings in development that I have encountered the past few years, has really helped to grow and transform my understanding of what development actually embodies.  Also it has really led me to consider the different unintentional side effects that development projects can bring about.

I am a proponent that anything done under the name of development should be projects or policies that are chosen by the people who are trying to “develop”.  A major take home message from the reading by Wendy Wolford, From Pangea to Partnership: The Many Fields of Development, was that development is not something that is clear cut and can be pursued through the same ideas and rules but rather something that is multi-dimensional and should always include considerations of the people and the place, itself.  Also both the people and the place should not be defined by a single moment but viewed through the whole history and the political setting should also be taken into consideration.  By this, I mean that when looking at a country, their way of life should not be automatically labeled as traditional but rather the influences of colonialism and the power dynamics stemming from it should also be considered.  Thus, an individual, even a scientist that is top of their field, will never fully understand the need or the development goals of an area without first talking to the people and hearing their histories (as told by them and not from a Eurocentric view as told in history books) and their ideas of  how to best improve themselves.  My current perception of development is that it is not something that can be defined generally but rather something that is defined by the people it will affect and a process that is totally controlled by the people, as well.

Landscapes and Management Approaches

This week in IARD 4011 we took a look at what landscape means in terms of land management and ecoagriculture.  A landscape can mean many different things depending on the context it is used or to the people identifying it.  In the general, everyday use of the term, landscape usually refers to an area of land and its visible features.  But when approached through a management perspective, the term landscape can mean a variety of things depending on the perspective in which it is being viewed.  From an ecological perspective, a landscape can be defined as an area of interacting ecosystems that is repeated in similar form throughout (Forman and Godron, 1986).  Whereas, according to the article, Ten principles for a landscape approach to reconciling agriculture, conservation, and other competing land uses, the author’s define landscape as “an area delineated by an actor for a specific set of objectives.” A definition that, in my opinion, is very open to interpretation but goes to show that the term landscape can be broadly defined depending on the perspective in which a person or organization is approaching the idea.

Ecoagriculture is a form of integrated landscape management that combines the two previous definitions of landscape in order to create a definition that approaches land in both an ecosystem and a human needs perspective.  According to an ecoagriculture approach a landscape can be loosely defined as an area of both natural and human modified ecosystems that provide benefits, resources and ecosystem services.  This definition is heavily influenced by the ideologies of ecoagriculture, which can be summed up by three main goals in managing landscapes: conservation of biodiversity/ecosystem services, support agricultural production and maintain viable local livelihoods.  As you might think, these three goals are often somewhat contradictory through their practice, which makes the management of a landscape through an ecoagricultural approach quite tricky.  This integrative landscape management approach becomes even more complex once you take into account the different stakeholders of a landscape and all of the different goals and ideals they might have for the area of land.  Also depending on the area of the world, these three goals might not all be equally important in the eyes of the stakeholders which would then affect the way that they define their landscape.  An example of this is in a poverty stricken agricultural area that would probably be more concerned with maintaining viable livelihoods and increasing agricultural production than conservation.  Although ideally, the three goals would be achieved through practices that not only work together but also complement each other and positively impact one another.

An integrated landscape approach can be analyzed by looking at the management of a local landscape, the Adirondack Mountains in New York.  Most of the range is currently managed by the state as a protected park although it is interspersed with private land, as well.  This creates an interesting arena with the state as one of the prominent stakeholders, along with private owners, and all of New York State’s citizens.  In this case, agricultural production has been almost totally forgone in order to support environmental conservation and to create and maintain viable livelihoods in the form of ecotourism and adventure tourism.  This is an interesting case because it shows that although landscapes may be defined and approached through an integrated land management perspective, not all outcomes will be identical or necessarily all-encompassing since ultimately landscapes are very diverse and the land’s needs, along with stakeholders’ needs, will vary greatly throughout systems.  I believe this is important to keep in mind while approaching a landscape and evaluating the area’s needs and the stakeholders’ goals since it will all be very dependent on resources and culture.

Responsible Mining

An overarching definition of responsible mining is difficult because required responsibilities are going to differ between parties.  At its core, responsible mining is mining that is carried through in a more sustainable manner achieved by looking at the impacts or associated risks of mining actions on the economy, society, and environment of a given area.  The article Managing Social, Economic and Environmental Risks by Michelle Jarvie-Eggart, in the book titled Responsible Mining, is a heavy but good overview of the different risks that mining industries have to explore and address in order to be more responsible.

Mining practices would differ in their characterization of being responsible depending on the scale in which they are viewed.  Possible economic and social benefits for a country from mining might outweigh some of the possible environmental, social, and economic risks associated with mining.  But for the local area, the risks associated with mining might far outweigh any benefits.  This is especially the case if the profits do not actually go back to the local economy but rather benefits other regions of the country, such as the affluent urban/commercial areas, or international companies and other countries’ economies.  I believe that this would likely be the case for mining activities in Intag.  Although the citizens of Intag will likely benefit from some of the development associated with open pit mining – improved infrastructure/access roads, alternative options for labor/employment (miner instead of farmer if so preferred), and possible increases in public sector works (medical care and education) – the negative impacts that such an invasive activity will have on the local society and environment is not proportional to the local benefits.  This is especially true in the context of where the majority of the profits will end up which is not to help the poor farmers of the area but rather to the government and private corporations.

Mining companies can create practices that would be more or less responsible (as responsible as a practice that by nature is very destructive, can be).  In order to do so, the benefits have to outweigh the risks and associated risks must be analyzed and plans must be created to try to minimize them.  Risks will never be nonexistent though so trade-offs between the benefits and risks will be necessary.  It may be worth environmental impacts in a given area if the social and economic benefits are far greater and there are plans to address the environmental risks and how they will be managed.  Ecuador, as a whole, would probably benefit from a responsible mining enterprise but the economic gains of the country will not be long lived because mining is a non-renewable resource.  At the early stages of mining Ecuador will definitely receive capital gains that they can use to pay of foreign debt and invest in infrastructure but the majority of the profits from mining will go overseas and just like the previous crude oil extraction enterprises, eventually it will stop paying out and become another “national development failure”, as Veronica Davidov phrased it in her paper, Mining Versus Oil Extraction: Divergent and Differentiated Environmental Subjectivities in “Post-Neoliberal” Ecuador.

“To Hell With Good Intentions” – Addressing Volunteerism

In 1968, Monsignor Ivan Illich gave a speech, “To Hell with Good Intentions”, to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in which he addressed voluntary service activities, especially those on an international level.  He condemns US service organizations and international mission trips as paternalistic and states that they cause more harm within communities than good.  According to him, “do-gooder vacations” will never be beneficial for those viewed as underprivileged because there is actually no true common ground between the foreigners who come to help and the people who are truly impoverished.  Volunteers are usually middle class Americans and, as a result, already have a preconceived power over those who they come to “help” because they have money, status, and education.  But all of these privileges are the values of an American society and are products of a culture of achievers/consumers and not of profit for many of the people in whom American volunteers are going to attempt to help by “selling their ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise.”

Illich’s speech has to be taken in context to the time period it was written, 1968, not long after many international aid programs were launched, such as Peace Corps, and during a time in which the US was very active in entering countries that they viewed as underdeveloped and feared would fall victim to communism.  Although we are presently in a very different time period, I believe that the gist of his speech is still important today.  That is, mission oriented service trips that enter countries to “help” the people without fully understanding the culture or the needs of a community are essentially not very beneficial.  It is important to approach development projects in context to the community’s culture and self-identified needs rather than through paternalistic ideas of success and development.  Goals of a project should always be created collaboratively with the community and fully based off of what the community deems important to them and their idea of self-development.

It is also important to understand that the community’s values and their view of culture might be very different than we have been taught about the area.  Often time histories differ between cultures because each culture views situations in context with their own beliefs and ideals.  This is portrayed in Haunani-Kay Trask’s essay, “From A Native Daughter”, which takes a look at the difference between the histories of Hawaii that she learned from her elders versus that which she learned from mission schools.  She essentially decides that America’s rewriting of Hawaii’s history is actually just the West’s view of itself.  The idea that Hawaii was feudal comes from the western view of capitalism in that land must be owned and denies the idea of the Hawaiian perspective that land cannot be owned like a material possession, because the Western view does not have a cultural or spiritual connection to the land.  Thus, whenever you are a guest in a different culture, it is important to listen to the people’s values and understanding of self rather than assume the principles of the land based off of your own higher education.  Also it is important to acknowledge the potential power dynamics that may be formed between yourself and those of different backgrounds and to be able to understand where the assumed power may stem from, whether it is a result of a presumed educational gap or differing social status.  Although there is always a potential for the development of power dynamics, they can be better avoided if cultural differences are respected and collaboration between individuals and communities is in the fore front of the project development.

In IARD 4011, we are extremely lucky to have partnerships within the Intag region of Ecuador in which we will be working closely with in order to develop a project that they deem most beneficial.  Also the program was created by a local of Intag and developed to foster cross community collaboration and learning.

Stakeholders of Open Pit Mining in Intag

For the first reflective blog post of IARD 4011, we were asked to watch Malcome Rogge’s documentary, Under Rich Earth, which takes place in our class’s area of interest, Intag.  Intag is a mountainous region of Ecuador named after Rio Intag and is a biodiversity hotspot which includes the cloud forest ecosystems.  Unfortunately, the region also sits on top of copper reserves which have attracted many foreign mining companies since the 1990’s.  Under Rich Earth is a short documentary on the Intag mining conflict which focuses mostly on the confrontations between villages of the region and the Canadian mining company, Ascendant Copper (now named Copper Mesa Mining Company).

The prospect of mining copper is of interest to many different people both within Intag and Ecuador, itself, and outside the region in foreign countries and continents.  Thus, there are many parties that are potential stakeholders in whether or not large mining companies such as Ascendant Copper are able to mine the Intag region.  Perhaps one of the largest stakeholders and often the least represented in policy decision making are the farmers and community members of the towns located in Intag.  They will be greatly affected if mining is allowed because they are the people who will lose their land and way of life.  As shown in the documentary, many of the community members and land owners oppose open pit mining because of the potential negative impacts that such activities would have on the environment and natural resources left for their children.  Since the rural people of this region often lack power and representation in government offices dealing with the policies regarding mining in the area, community based initiatives have been started to create an alternative economic income to mining and to protect the natural resources of the area.  Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag (DECOIN) is a community conservation orientated NGO that has been created in the Intag region and has been one of the main players opposing mining to protect the environment.  The people of Intag have been successful in keeping out mining companies through more direct but non-violent means such as road blockages/ approving the people who enter their communities. They have even gone as far as making a citizen arrest and detaining over 50 paramilitaries, hired by the Canadian company to set up camp in the region, until the government was willing to intervene.  Although many people in the region oppose copper mining, there are also a lot of community stakeholders who support it.  They see open pit mining as a source of income for the area and an opportunity for new jobs, even if it only has temporary economic gains.

Other stakeholders include the government of Ecuador and the Foreign Mining Companies/Foreign countries.  The government of Ecuador primarily has all of the power to eventually approve or disapprove of foreign copper mining but very few of the people that would be locally affected are included in any of the departments creating the policies.  Thus, although the government has most of the power in determining the outcome of this conflict, they have little association with the region in which the outcome will potentially greatly affect.  If the government approves open pit mining they receive economic benefits for the country, as well as, potentially create new jobs for their citizens.

The foreign mining companies are the last huge stakeholder in the prospect of copper mining in Intag.  These companies have a lot of monetary resources which often equates to power.  They also are willing to go to extreme measures to push their agendas, measures that are often fraudulent.  In the documentary, it is shown how Ascendant Copper and its subsidiary companies use their power to buy paramilitaries to force their way into the region and instill fear in the communities, pay-off people to create false accusations against those who oppose them and give out palliatives in the forms of goods in an attempt to buy community support.  If the companies are successful in opening up mines in the region, they will gain vast wealth from selling the precious metals and foreign governments will also boast their economies with the new resources being extracted from Ecuador.

Under Rich Earth was an interesting documentary and served as an introduction to the mining conflict.  The Canadian owned company, Ascendant Copper has since been expelled from Ecuador.  But starting in 2012, the Ecuadorian government has taken an interest in open pit mining and has opened up copper exploration to foreign investors.  An interesting article that addresses the mining conflict as of January 2015, is Ecuador’s 20-Year-Old Mining Conflict by Grégory Salomonovitch and Caroline Pothier.   

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