Fresh from the field

LICCI, Covid-19 and the need of a paradigm change.

LICCI in times of Covid-19

Covid-19 has been and will be devastating in many ways for Indigenous Peoples. It has exposed and exacerbated the inequalities and injustices that they have been confronting over centuries. As Covid-19 cases escalate in many Indigenous communities around the world, the pandemic has also underscored the centrality and necessity to learn from the resilience and strength of the local people, and their knowledge.

Since February 2019 LICCI collaborator Yolanda Lopez started conducting fieldwork with Mayan communities in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Yucatan is one of the most culturally rich states in the country since it is the place in which the ancient Mayan society flourished. The landscape features an ancient combination of forest, beekeeping, the traditional milpa (the traditional crop-growing system), and an extensive network of interconnected groundwater caves (locally called cenotes).

A traditional Mayan patio
A Mayan house with the roof modified with modern materials due to the loss of the palm used in the past.

Several signals of climate and environmental changes have survived and have been useful for reconstructing Maya history in greater detail. The milpa, for example, is centred on maize (Zea mays) but with intercrops selected from over a hundred species domesticated. Practiced for millennia, the milpa has enabled generations of milperos overcome the poor, thin soil, and is still a central activity in traditional Maya management of environmental sustainability and a key factor in food security and sovereignty. In recent years, however, milperos have struggled to maintain their milpas alive since migration and the fall of Maize´s prices in the local and international market, has obliged them to abandon traditional agricultural practices.

Preliminary results show that Climate change has brought erratic rainfall, longer dry seasons, increasing precipitations, making the growth and cultivation of milpa less predictable and, as stated by milperos: “the size of the maize and other important crops are smaller than in the past”. Climate change has also affected other systems such as groundwater reservoirs (including for example alarming changes in the phreatic level), making evident that such aspects should have a more prominent role in climate debates. Despite those challenges, however, results also show that due to Covid-19, community members have begun restoring their cultural traditions and have returned to participate in various traditional spaces, including the cultivation of the milpa.

Coming back from the milpa in times of Covid-19

A change in paradigms

Covid-19 also highlighted the need to start to change a paradigm on research. Due to the pandemic, for example, many Indigenous communities around the world closed their territories to foreigners and outsiders. Researchers undertaking fieldwork on local and Indigenous communities were not allowed to enter nor be able to talk and interview local community members. Thus, many projects were and are still in stand-by.

The challenges for the researcher, which is an Indigenous member, were to find the ways to enter the communities and to organize fieldwork in accordance with the Indigenous and non-indigenous protocols. This included for example the permission from the local, but also to the spirits and supernatural authorities, to enter to the communities, while respecting at all times the official recommended measures of safe distance, making use of mouth coverings, etc. Local practitioners were also invited to collaborate with the aim to ensure that Indigenous communities maintain their own epistemological and methodological approaches to scientific enquiry.

Workshops, focus group discussion and interviews were conducted according to LICCI protocols. However, the approaches used included the active involvement of Indigenous People, focused on respect, reciprocity, relevance and mutual responsibility with emphasis on issues of privacy, intellectual property, data custody and secondary use of data. The researcher ensured the participation of local members particularly in the interpretation of data and review of research findings, while maintaining respect for community knowledge. The use of technology was also crucial during the pandemic, despite the local precarious internet and communication systems. For example, informal conversations were held using the phone and other apps and this was especially helpful with the elders since they were in higher risk of infection.

Thus, the new paradigm should start to be driving by local scholars within their own countries as much as possible, or by local people themselves and to study local knowledge on their own terms using their indigenous understandings and visions. This might ensure, to the extent possible, that research involving Indigenous Peoples and local communities is premised on respectful relationships encouraging the establishment of ethical spaces for dialogues on common interest and points of difference between researchers and communities engaged in projects.

Local practitioners collaborating in the interpretation of data and review of research findings, while maintaining respect for community knowledge.