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Mining Research in the Amazon – Methodological Perspectives from the Field

In this guest post, I have requested one of our doctoral candidates Mirella Gavidia to share her insights from communicating her dissertation research in the Amazon with communities whom she studied and who were not so used to contemporary social research methods. The iterative process by which field research must adapt to field conditions shines through in her perceptive and reflexive narrative below. Connecting with the subjects of ones research and communicating findings is often a neglected arena of the doctoral enterprise and deserves more attention.

 

Guest article by Mirella Gavidia

Methodologically speaking, communicating research results to participants can be a very interesting experience. In this article, I report on my initiative to share the results of my PhD research with the population of Juruti, a municipality in the Brazilian Amazon and my case study. By using a self-reflexive approach, I discuss some of the logistical and methodological challenges faced to organize and run community workshops, and how these have affected the ability to communicate and discuss the research with locals.

Context

In 2005, Alcoa, a multinational mining company, began to implement in Juruti a large-scale bauxite mine, and operations started in 2009. Juruti is a municipality located on the banks of the Amazon River, with a current population of 47 000 people distributed in numerous rural communities, and a small urban area called ‘cidade’ (‘town’). Needless is to say that the arrival of the mining caused numerous social and environmental impacts to local population. The dynamics of these impacts, together with the implementation of Alcoa Corporate Social Responsibility strategies for fostering ‘local sustainable development’, have created a complex set of interests to be managed between affected population and the company.

In 2012, I lived in Juruti for three months, seeking to map the relational structures and mechanisms through which Juruti population and Alcoa articulate and negotiate their interests with each other. The main objective was to understand the Juruti-Alcoa relationship, in order to explore some of the factors enhancing or hindering greater fairness, considering the dynamics of voice, capabilities, and trust of the parties.

Two years after of my field work, I saw myself traveling again on the brown waters of the Amazon River all the way to Juruti. As it happens every year around June, the forest was cheia (full), and the landscape was covered in water. This time however, my objective was to gather locals to discuss what I have found, and to improve local’s awareness about their relationship with Alcoa. I was also interested in communicating the results to Alcoa employees working in Juruti.

PROVIDING RESEARCH FEEDBACK

Providing research feedback is a relevant ethical consideration for academic researchers. One of the ways feedbacks are able to improve research ethics is by contributing to the capacity building of civil society about the topics investigated. When it comes to practice, however, there are many possibilities for communicating the results, and choices are made depending on the public and their contextual characteristics

Going back to Juruti to run participative workshops for local population was identified as the best strategy to report on my research, especially in view of the geographical remoteness of Juruti population, and general low access to information and education. More than only communicating the results, the objective of the workshops was also to open a space for participants to express their opinions, and also to get in contact with other viewpoints. The aim was to engage in critical discussions depending on the way people respond to the topics presented.

The willingness of providing research feedback to communities was soon confronted by some practical questions: How to communicate the research and organize workshops considering the cultural structures of Juruti population? What kind of methodology could be used to engage people and to foster their critical thinking about the topics studied?

Overview of the workshop sessions

In 10 days, I managed to run 6 workshops for Juruti population, and 1 meeting at Alcoa for the employees in the sustainability team. In total, around 240 people participated, and the public was diversified – as it can be seen in the table below. 3 workshops were organized while I was still in Australia. The other workshops, including the meeting in the company, were organized in Juruti.

Table 1 – Overview of workshops

Juruti Workshops

Where

Public

participants[1]

EJA – School for Young people and adults (Zelinda) –   School auditorium Students from a diversity of ages (mainly young people 15-25), teachers, director of the school.

≈120

CRAS – Reference Centre for Social Assistance –         Events room Diverse public. People assisted by the social assistance, local government employees, Alcoa employees and partners (NGO’s and Sustainable council of Juruti)

≈30

Vila Muirapinima (rural community) –Community Centre Adults living in the Juruti Velho region, high school students. Presence of church and community leadership.

≈50

EJA – School for Young people and adults – Raimundo CoelhoClassroom Students from a diversity of ages (mainly young people 15-25)

≈15

Secretary of Finance of the municipality –Office Employees of local government

≈15

Juruti Commission of Human Rights –Meeting room Participants of the Commission

≈7

Alcoa –Meeting room The Sustainability team

3

Overall, the feedbacks of the sessions were positive. Although some other research has been conducted in Juruti, I was told that I was the very first researcher to actually come back to provide research feedback, and this initiative was appreciated by locals. Participants have expressed that it was constructive to be in an event where they could express their voice, and to discuss problems relative to their relationship with Alcoa. Although Juruti people are confronted by issues related to their relationship with the company on a current basis, rare are the opportunities of population to get together to talk about it.

However, when I review my performance, I can identify some methodological and logistical issues that challenged the way the workshops were organized and conducted. In fact, a full article could be written about the challenges and specific dynamics of each session. For the propose of this short article, however, I focus in the following: (1) time in the field and communication barriers, (ii) negotiating local support, (iii) explaining the research (iv) facilitating discussions, and (v) adapting the sessions into group’s needs.

Field research with art in the Amazon
Field research with art in the Amazon: Images used for community connectivity
(specially developed for the research project by Sirmano.com.au)

 

Methodological and Logistical challenges

  • Short time in the field and communication barriers

Most of the logistical challenges faced to run the workshops were related to communication barriers and short time in the field. Time is a relevant factor in contexts where information flow relies on verbal structures and personal interactions. In places like the Amazon, for example, communities are far from each other, and there is limited access to the internet and other communication channels. As a result, everything tends to require more time and physical presence to be organized.

The possibilities to manage the organization of the workshops from distance were limited by contextual and cultural structures. It was challenging, for example, to pre-arrange workshops with fisherman and farmers living in an Amazonian community from Australia. Although people in Juruti have increasing access to the Internet, it does not mean that communication by this channel is effective. As an example, despite the willingness of local contacts in helping me, the information provided (via Facebook and WhatsApp) was often limited, vague, and I wasn’t sure about what was in fact organized before my arrival.

It was a cultural clash. On one side that was me and my anxiety to organize as much as possible the events before arriving in Juruti, and on the other, there was Juruti people living in their own rhythm, and telling me that things were OK and ‘everything would be alright’ upon my arrival. As a result, once pre-organized arrangements were not well discussed, activities like setting up a place and devices, inviting and engaging people to participate, required more of my time when I arrived in Juruti.

Time constraints have also compromised the potential of the workshops to reach more people. In the thesis, I criticize the company for excluding rural communities from their initiatives, but in view of my lack of time I saw myself trapped by my own criticisms. Because of time constraints, workshops were not organized in the communities, only at Vila Muirapinima and different locations in the town. I announced the workshops in a local radio a few days in advance, but it was still not enough to rural people to attend the sessions. Due to long distances, and communication boundaries to invite people in advance, diminished the opportunity of people in the rural areas to participate. The ideal strategy to enable their participation would be to go to the communities instead of inviting them to come to me. However, it was in direct conflict to the amount of available time in Juruti and this has affected the opportunity to communicate the research.

  • Negotiating local support

Some of the logistical challenges faced in the field could have been minimized if a solid support from local institutions was previously negotiated. However, negotiating this support is also affected by the opportunities to communicate effectively with these institutions from distance. In a first moment, I sought to obtain support from the Sustainable Council of Juruti (established by Alcoa) to organize the events, once it seeks to establish a dialogue channel between the company and civil society. However, it failed by their lack of interest and available time to engage.

Thus, I sought to obtain support from other institutions in Juruti, but these were not directly focused on mining issues. Except for the previous communications with the Secretary of Social Assistance, and some school teaches and coordinators, the support from other institutions in Juruti were only negotiated in the field. Although the institutions were keen in helping, I did not benefit as much from their assistance in terms of pre-managing the logistics of the events.

  • Explaining the research

A PhD is often a complex document with different theoretical discussions, written in a robust academic language. In my case, the research is a combination of a variety of philosophical and sociological discussions about fairness, and the relationship between community and company. Thus, a research like this not necessarily is easy to be translated to general public unless it is communicated in a way that enables assimilation and understanding of the topics. Communicating an academic research may therefore be challenged by the characteristics of the public, especially when it is formed by communities located in socially vulnerable contexts, and with poor educational backgrounds like Juruti.

Yet, what I – as a researcher – know about the Juruti-Alcoa relationship is what they – the affected people – shared through stories, examples and opinions. In addition, every person in good mental condition is able to reason a situation based on their own sense of justice and fairness. Therefore, if they can’t engage in the discussions, it may not be their lack of ability to understand the topic, but my methods that are not appropriate, or well used.

On the ideal level, communication between researcher and participants happens in a participative and dialogical way. It means that the researcher has to be somehow creative when explaining theoretical concepts, so participants can be challenged to engage in the discussions from a position of understanding. The ability to engage in dialogical communication is also dependent on the performance of the researcher in the sessions, and the methods, structures, and devices chosen to support this communication.

In order to explain the research, I sought to select only the ‘most relevant’ concepts about the community-company relationship, and ‘the elements of fairness’ (voice, capabilities, and trust), and these were explained in simple language. The theoretical concepts were also reinforced by building with participants some examples of customary situations that address them. I also used illustrations made for the workshops to support the explanations with visual devices – as shown below. Despite the care with the structure of the discourse, however, it was perceived that some words were still not appropriated for local’s vocabulary. Lack of basic knowledge about some concepts used in the mining context was also a perceived to be barrier for discussing the research.

In addition, some of the ‘most relevant’ topics could have been excluded without interfering in the ability of the people to understand the research, and engage in a critical discussion. Some of the topics discussed just made the discourse unnecessarily more complex, and with more information and words to be ‘digested’ by the participants. My point is not to suggest that people are not able to engage in discussions, but to stress that an academic research has heavy material which requires sensitiveness in language and form in order to be well communicated. Methodologically it would have been more interesting to narrow the discussion, and allowing more time for people to assimilate and reflect on them.

  • Facilitating discussions

The act of facilitating discussions between participants was sometimes challenging. In some moments, I was interrupted by participants wanting to speak, and to discuss with other participants. In others situations, discussions between 2 or 3 participants became ‘endless’. Some discussions also landed in topics far from the ones addressed in the workshops. I felt like having an internal conflict by reasoning whether those discussions were empowering the session, or whether they were becoming centralized or were taking its focus away. Without experience, it was hard to feel, for example, whether I was allowing participants to take the ownership of the session, or whether me, as a facilitator, was losing the control of the situation.

There is a continuous need for finding the middle path between sharing power and control with participants, and at the same time keeping focus on the objectives of the event. I suspect that the ability to manage these dynamics of participation is developed with practice, as it requires some skills to be sustained throughout the session. However, as taught by some experiment facilitators, initiatives such as seeking to engage different people in order to democratize discussions, to identify opportunities to ‘hook’ the conversation back to its focus, help in the exercise of facilitating discussions. Keeping this kind of advice in mind was very helpful on the ground.

  • Adapting the sessions

The structure of some workshops had to be adapted to engage people with different backgrounds, agendas and expectations. Running a session for the Secretary of Finance’s team, with 12 participants, for example, was not the same as running a session in the school for young students with around 120 students and teachers. While in some situations the need to readapt the structure of the workshops are clear, the ability to restructure the session into groups’ needs, contexts, and characteristics depends on researcher skills and sensitiveness.

When the workshop was designed, while I was in Australia, it initially included a group activity (as shown in table 2), but the group activity was conducted in only 4 workshops. In 2 of them, and in the meeting at Alcoa, the activity did not happen and the discussions were instead driven by individual comments, and topics were approached in a more interactively and dynamic ways. The focus of the sessions remained the same, and the central question in all events was how the elements of fairness could be practically improved in the way Juruti and Alcoa relate to each other.

Because I was clear about the kind of information I wished to share, and the kind of discussion to be provoked amongst participants, I felt that the adaptations made attended well the needs and characteristics of each group. However, the workshops could have been potentially improved if I had acted more preventively on how to deal with these situations. Lack of time to redesign the sessions, together with lack of previous experience, made me wonder whether the approaches taken to lead the session were the most appropriated, and wonder about other creative ways to readapt the discussions. Pre-designed alternative strategies would have saved me from the stress of realizing the need for a change, and reorganizing the structure without previous advice or preparation.

Conclusions

It could be seen throughout this article that communicating research results is dependent on the ability of the researcher to overcome many logistical and methodological challenges. Through my experience, it could be demonstrated that running research feedback for communities requires great attention and care so it can be well communicated to the public. Although the challenges discussed here may sound too naïve to researchers used to run community workshops on an ongoing basis, they represent relevant considerations for less experienced researchers interested in providing research feedback in community-based events.

Academic research often generates important knowledge that should be shared with communities studied. This is especially relevant for social researchers working in communities located in socially vulnerable contexts. In many situations, the research could contribute to locals’ perspectives to think critically their own context, in regards to the objects of the study. In these cases, feedback is not only an ethical responsibility of the researcher; but it is also an opportunity to use academic work to empower civil society. Therefore, if we seek to improve the way research feedbacks are given, more than just promoting research ethics, we are also promoting social justice.

Acknowledgments

A special thanks for Professor Will Rifkin for the suggestions about different methodologies to be applied in Juruti, and for art-house Sirmano for the amazing drawings used in this work. I also thank the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at the University of Queensland for funding part of the travel costs.

In Juruti, I’d like to thank all the people that helped me to organize the sessions including Luciana, Marlena, Elcia, Felipe, Gláudia, Gustavo, Urdiley, Walace, Iran, Berão, Erica, and the Sustainability team at Alcoa. More important, I’d like to thank all the participants of the workshops.


[1] I use the approximately symbol (≈) as some people arrived late, and others left earlier.

Comments

  1. Mario Monzoni
    Sao Paulo
    September 11, 2014, 6:57 am

    Mirella, thanks for the acknowledgments for all that the Center for Sustainability Stuudies at FGV-SP had provided to you! Best, MM

  2. Marlena Soares
    Juruti/Pará
    September 10, 2014, 1:14 pm

    E de repente chegou em Juruti uma pesquisa com sede de conhecer tudo sobre a cidade. Mirella não mediu esforços para ir as comunidades, passou dias vivendo os nossos costumes e tradições. Aprendi muito com ela, mas, ela sempre diz que aprendeu muito mais com a gente.
    Uma grande amiga que deixou saudades nos corações de todos que tiveram o prazer de conhecê-la.
    Uma grande profissional que já faz a diferença!
    Welcome to Juruti.

  3. Sandro
    Brazil
    September 10, 2014, 11:28 am

    What a beautiful piece!