DAY 21 – When is research no longer “real search”?

DAY 21 – When is research no longer “real search”?

walking-the-quinoa-trail

Me in Salinas – walking the quinoa trail alone?

What is the role of a researcher? It can be that of a non-participant observer, like one watching Aristotle’s cave. An interpreter of images on a wall.  Or is it can be a data gather.  A survey taker – rushing in to measure something looking for quantity, measurements and numbers –  Coming up with thousands of responses and statistical significance showing causal effects of something.  It is also a gather or other’s data – a cruncher of numbers and purveyor of literature – re-combining others’ ideas in new ways.

For me what’s important is the context.  What is the point of view where the data was collected?  How does it fit into the larger picture?  What influences may cause it to be presented or interpreted in different ways?  What was not reported?  How was the researcher perceived by those being studied?  How does this affect the information given?

Looking for guidance from Robert Chambers and his “participatory rural appraisal approach” creates a place for the researcher to be a part of and apart from the people being studied.  By participating in daily activities trust and experience is built.  Instead of writing that farming is hard, the researchers do the hard farming themselves.  This takes time, commitment and moments of unease and discomfort.  But then relationships are born and friendships made.

Now I’m in stage II of my research – back with my friends made over last year’s first steps into the quinoa lands.  I now know the people places, stories, histories and backgrounds.  That initial, self-conscious, deep reflection, first immersion is gone.  I know the towns, neighboring areas, the best place for lunch and dinner, it’s familiar and feels almost too easy to just relax into what I already know and verify that it’s what I think it is.  I’m beginning to feel anecdotal as I ask women quinoa farmers how their quinoa is and they tell me it’s bad, market prices are down, there are not good sales, they are owed money by their associations from past sales, they are saving their quinoa and not selling it until prices rise.

The farmers want a minimum of 600BS per quintal ($86 per quintal or about $0.39 a pound) or preferably 800Bs ($.52 a pound) which is what was considered a dignified price by the Fair Trade associations a year ago.  This is double the current 300Bs per quintal price most Fair Trade organizations are paying farmers for their quinoa.  300B does not cover production costs.  I noted this to the Fair Trade buyers and was told that farmers exaggerated their production costs and can actually accommodate quinoa production at 300Bs.  Seeing that just for a 3-acre plot (1 hectare) that produces about 5 quintals of processed and cleaned quinoa there is a $100 cost for llama manure, $30 cost for pheromone traps and $100 cost for paid labor, $230 total – the numbers do not match up.  At current prices of 300Bs a quintal total earnings are just $214.  For a year’s worth of work, the farmer makes $16 per hectare of quinoa planted.  In the heart of the quinoa lands farmers are cultivating about 8 hectares each.  This is much less than the 15-20 hectacre plots being managed when quinoa prices provided a living wage.  At current planting rates, the total yield for the year is about $128, which in Bolivian currency is enough to sustain a family of 5 for about a month.  When I tell this to the buyers, they explain that farmers need to improve their yields which the buyers are working on helping the farmers to do.  However – the delicate lands of the quinoa region do not bode well with massive production – they quinoa is a heavy feeder, pulling vast amounts of minerals and nitrogen out of the earth.  These take time to replace.  So it is an evolving problem-solution story.

After eight years of ever more quinoa production and ever higher prices – increasing at a rate of 20% a year and hen plummeting in 2015 by 300% in just two months and staying at this low price level –  this is the first time, that issues of soil loss, unpaid expenses and economic instability have emerged.

But where is the research here?  I have piles of surveys, but the high school seniors who used to do the surveying for me are away on their two-month summer vacations.  I can visit quinoa communities for observation and to offer women’s workshops but the rains finally came but now the quinoa communities are left inaccessible as the slippery dirt roads that climb the vast mountain scape become impassable.  I can offer workshops in the (accessible) larger quinoa towns, but many farmers are not present as this is time for families to be together and many have left for the cities and abroad in search of better work.  In addition, my NGO counterparts have left as their organizations have moved onto other projects.  I have lost a lot of my infrastructure and backing – and am now here in towns with friends, stories and observations.  I feel lucky and lot at the same time.

I worry about my data.  My work is about the life of the women and I worry my friends are not representative of that, or that the few people I am having informal conversations with in passing – the woman on the bus, the indigenous leader in the plaza, the lady butcher – who are all women export quinoa farmers – are not a significant data base.  I don’t want my data to be anecdotal (not really accurate or measurable) and I also don’t want to be missing important data this is not being collected.

I want to do the study that was done before one again, but now the time has changed.  Do I plug away with my old research method anyway trying my hardest to get the surveys out myself, set up workshops on my own?  Or is there something different I can be doing instead?  Or is a hybrid of a bit of both – some surveys and workshops and more participant observation, informal interviews and modified workshops?  The clock is ticking.

My friends are sympathetic and trying to help out – they introduce me to a doctor that I can tag along with for a rural site visit and offer a workshop to women while he is checking baby weights, another engineer offers to take me to his town where there is a women’s group I can meet with and hold a workshop with.  But I already started with this type of research, working with Tito as he visited Fair Trade communities – spending a few hours in each one. And I feel that a few hours spent collecting data in a community creates more questions than answers and does not give me the deep understanding I need to properly interpret the data nor does not build the trust I feel when I’m with a community for several days.  It’s just numbers – not understanding.

I feel we are applying patches rather than a real, deep plan.  But I also feel I’m in an important place in that I do have these connections and understanding.  So the big question is quality versus quantity, the degree of bias from small sample sizes, how much to measure and what…

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