Blog post

Fieldwork in Kaxinawá Nova Olinda

Published on
April 10, 2017

Report of a researcher's fieldwork experience in Kaxinawá Nova Olinda indigenous land and some remarks about participatory research

The report expresses a personal evaluation of the experience as a researcher doing my fieldwork in an indigenous land from Amazon - Brazil. You will read about interesting experiences that happened, methodological and ethical concerns, as well as benefits of participatory and inter-ethnical research. The report aims at stimulating researchers to be more interested in including participatory research in their projects and lectures.

Participatory research with local communities gathers researchers from environmental sciences and several other scientific areas, linking agricultural extension, facilitation processes and ethnographic research. I have been working with Ethnoecology, Ethnopedology and Rural Extensions since 2007. These sciences look into understanding local knowledge and world views connected to land use practices to provide context-based participatory technical assistance. Besides, participatory research aims at promoting visibility of local environmental problems faced by rural communities, as well as examples of successful sustainable land use strategies. Furthermore, this approach searches for acknowledging the local ecological knowledge of traditional communities and indigenous peoples, who are extremely connected to local landscape and natural resources. It is an exciting and challenging experience to work with local groups, as it involves: 1) taking academy theories closer to local people’s practices, and enabling the incorporation of local mind-sets and practices by (non)governmental projects and policies; 2) adjusting prepared methodologies to the situations found in the field when performing the participatory work; 3) balancingacademic and local "space-time" dimensions; and 4)attending to both academic expectations and local demands. Yes! As local communities give time and private information for us, we must, in return, contribute with local reflexions or technical suggestions for their practices. We can do that, if we consider local culture/identity context, and if we are aware of the possible implications of the adoption of suggested practices for local development. These are some of the main ethical concerns of participatory research I considered in my PhD fieldwork.

I had a special fieldwork experience in the Nova Olinda Kaxinawá Indigenous Land (Amazon region from Acre state – Brazil) at the end of 2016 because of three main aspects: 1) it was my dream to research indigenous ethnicities to access holistic patterns of understanding and interconnecting to nature just like the old naturalists did in the past; 2) the eccentricity of indigenous culture and cognitive system present to us (people raised within the "Western culture";  and 3) the community mobilised itself and focused on supporting our research, creating a beautiful synergy with the research team to make the fieldwork as profitable as possible. It is important to say that this could only happen so fast because research partners from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA, "acronym in Portuguese") had previously developed a trust relation with the local people. They did that by expressing ethical commitment to bring them some returns, such as creating visibility of challenges faced by the Kaxinawás (through publications about the Kaxinawá efforts to rescue traditional practices), and documenting local traditional knowledge, cosmovision and practices in books prepared for the community. This register represents a legacy for next generations of the ethnicity, and a contribution for other researchers to adopt similar approaches to assist indigenous and other traditional groups worldwide.

The Kaxinawá leaders received the research team with traditional painting in the face and adornmentss made with feathers that express ethnic identity and political hierarchy within the community. They showed shared leadership in making agreements about how the research would occur: period of time, participation of local people and expectations with the research. After that, we were invited to celebrate and eat traditional local food (e.g. "caiçuma", a soup made of peanut, cassava and banana). During the fieldwork, I gained the local people’s trust and then, information came very "naturally". It is so amazing how data about local world views, appropriation of nature, and soil-related ecosystem services occupies all the time in the field in an indigenous area. It is so special to see that people can rethink their whole lives after a reflections we offered during a worskshop. Furthermore, someone even cried after being reminded of changes faced in his territory over the years, and realized how much his community has advanced. I could perceive that the construction of local territoriality is very much associated with the land use practices’ historically.

My data collection concerns were solved soon, but beyond that, I experienced the feeling of being strikingly disconnected to my own pattern of thinking/living. I could know a different way of understanding existence, nature, people, health, collective respect, learning process and cycle of life. I could testify to reports about cultural rescue that happened as a result of Embrapa work with the indigenous group.  I could also see that they believe more than most "Western people" in their dreams as predictions and signs, as well as in spirituality as an important part of every land use activity, having as central goal the reproduction of local food sovereignty in the most feasible harmony with nature. Food is a central element of the indigenous culture, as it represents nourishment, medicine and body-soul-spirit balance. I was baptised in a ritual by the xamã and gained a Kaxinawá name, as symbol of their gratitude and admiration for my work. The name I gained, Iriqui Banu Baque, means that I became their relative, and shows the  lineage of the animal realm I belong to: of warriors and diffusers of knowledge. I cannot extol the many details and gains of this fieldwork in these brief words, but I would like to make some remarks about the scientific ethics and importance of participatory research.

Specifically with indigenous peoples, it is important to adjust our "space-time" scale and methods to each very moment in the field. For example: when I asked about their expectations for the future, I received answers such as: -  "I can tell you about what I expect for today, but I can`t tell you about future. I can crop my food, but I arrive there tomorrow and see that the pig has eaten it. What can I do? The pig also needs to eat"! This simple speech reveals a temporality that focuses on the present and not on the future, and a spatiality shaped by holistic integration with nature. This also reveals that care with words is essential. If I change the question to: - "What is the aspiration you have for the future in your community to be obtained through land use?" then the person can mention some expectation of the future (e.g. to conserve the forests more to have more prey for hunt in the future). Indigenous people have a pure perception of things. They are not very worried with issues that are not directly related to their needs for survival. So, producing to store, sell and get profits is not part of their central concerns. They sell food surplus, but it is usually just so that they can afford to buy the food/products they do not produce. I know that some indigenous groups do not keep this traditional way of life anymore. They are seduced by capitalism and produce mainly for the market. Nevertheless, most ethnic groups are still attached to existence than profit values.
Some people ask me: - "Why do you work with traditional and indigenous groups if they are fated to disappear, as dominant capitalistic spatialities are spreading more and more"? I would say: - "Because the world is still more human for me while these groups exist. These groups maintain the balance between human beings' existence and nature's provision of conditions for human survival".

To conclude, I highlight that: participatory researchers’ work is committed to perform the social function of science. I call attention to this because, on the one hand, science has been very much financed by corporations with specific concerns towards market-oriented interests, driving researches to follow studies associated to those interests. On the other hand, the traditional neutral science - used to defend human sciences validity before natural sciences since the 14th century - has mostly led to a scientific production fragilely connected to societal reality. Thus, I defend that, beyond worrying with scientific neutrality, we need to produce a science oriented to people’s needs and realities. Therefore, social and natural sciences should work together more to support groups which do not benefit from large scale production-oriented policies and researches. Most traditional and indigenous  groups who live intrinsically connected to nature do not live in the developed countries, but they still face inheritances from colonization and neo-colonialist effects of global "neoliberalism". As the world operates in a global scale, I consider an ethical concern to support the maintenance of the existence of these groups against genocide threats. Publications and acknowledgement in the academic worlds are very much valued, and so our social function has incalculable meaning.