Gaining Research Skills and Building Common Understandings

Community Researcher Workshops in the High Atlas

By Angela Easby, Global Diversity Foundation North America Programme Coordinator & GEN Coordinator

Since January 2016, Global Diversity Foundation has been involved in the implementation of the project “Integrated Approach to Plant Conservation in the Moroccan High Atlas”. This 2-year project, funded by the MAVA Foundation, seeks to catalyze positive change in the Moroccan High Atlas mountains where biocultural landscapes are under growing pressure from a number of environmental, political and economic drivers. GDF is working in collaboration with PhD candidate Irene Teixidor Toneu and Dr. Ugo D’Ambrosio (GEN Coordinator for European Events) to fulfil the second main objective of the project, which is to:

Document, disseminate, promote and coordinate regional initiatives on cultural practices of conservation (CPCs) and community-based resource and landscape management systems.

Irene and Ugo have been working closely with community researchers in Imegdale and Ait M’Hamed communes in the High Atlas mountains (Amazigh territory) to carry out in-depth interviews on the range of cultural practices for conservation. These interviews include questions on the identity of practitioners, description of local practices that could have a socio-environmental impact, implications for biocultural diversity, and the ways in which these practices have been affected by social or political factors.

Landscapes of cultural practices of conservation in the High Atlas mountains.

Landscapes of cultural practices of conservation in the High Atlas mountains.

In October, I had the pleasure of joining Irene, Ugo, Soufiane, Omar, Fadma, Hamid, Adil, and Touda for a 3-day Community Researcher Workshop and Exchange in Ait M’Hamed. The purpose of the workshop was to collaboratively review data collected to date, develop a methodology for the second round of interviews, and learn effective interview techniques. And, of course, team-building through shared meals, van rides, and coffee/tea breaks! I was there to witness, learn, and lend a hand with note-taking or photography. Despite not knowing anyone except Ugo when I arrived, I was warmly welcomed and invited to participate in the workshop. The first day began with a fun collaborative exercise in two separate groups, where each group was asked to come up with four plants that we would bring to a desert oasis. The exercise set the tone for the workshop- discussion, collaboration, and critical thinking. It was interesting to see which plants were the most highly valued, and why.

The community researcher workshop team. From left to right: Hamid (community researcher), Omar (owner of Marrakech Organics), Soufiane (fieldwork coordinator), Ugo, Irene, Touda (community researcher), Angela, Fadma (community researcher).

The remainder of the day involved conversations led by the community researchers on difficulties or challenges they had encountered in the field, and group discussion to develop potential solutions. After this, community researchers worked with Ugo and Irene to come to common understandings of the interview data collected to date. This was an important step, as language differences add a layer of challenge to the project. Tashelhit is the indigenous language spoken in Imegdale and Ait M’Hamed, while Darija is the national Arabic language of Morocco, and French is the language of communication between community researchers and the rest of the research team. Therefore a cultural conservation practice described and recorded in Tashelhit requires a minimum two degrees of translation- making it very important to fact-check and methodically sift through all of the data! Fortunately the research team was up to the challenge, and the day yielded many important clarifications including synonymous terms for different practices, subtle distinctions between types of practices, and precise locations where these practices occur.

Double checking translations with community researchers.

Day 2 began with the incredible experience of a group visit to an elder’s home in Ait M’Hamed, sharing tea, and witnessing Ugo and Irene carry out an interview with each the husband and wife of the household. The interviews revealed the wealth of complementary knowledge that these individuals possess on how to practice a vast array of land management strategies, who practices them, the histories of these practices, their current status (actively or rarely practiced), and their insights on the social, environmental and political conditions that affect them. In addition to adding to the project’s body of data, this exercise served another purpose: it was an opportunity for community researchers to witness someone else conducting an interview, and use this experience to reflect on their own interview methods. After leaving this home we went to another household, where a family from Ait M’Hamed had prepared us a delicious meal of tagine. Over lunch, the group discussed the morning’s exercise, and community researchers were invited to think about how Ugo and Irene had conducted the interview in a way that solicited detailed information. This discussion laid the groundwork for Day 3, where the group would formulate and discuss the strategy for the second round of interviews.

Discussing the interview process following an interview with an elder.

After lunch we piled into our van and drove further up into the Atlas mountains for some site visits, including a stop at an active agdal- one of the central cultural practices for conservation investigated in this project. Agdals consist of large tracts of land with a source of water, that are collaboratively managed by several communities with specific regulations regarding ‘open’ and ‘closed’ times for grazing or foraging, as well as who is allowed access. The site that we visited was an example of an agdal with successful management, in which users adhered to regulations and flora was given the opportunity to regenerate annually. Community researchers expertly pointed out different features of the agdal to the rest of the team, bringing to life and infusing social meaning into what might seem (to an uninformed observer) to be a desolate landscape. We were visiting the agdal at the end of the ‘open’ season for grazing and foraging, and it was clear that the flora was reduced. However, I was assured that the management of the agdal was specifically designed to ensure the health of this mountain ecosystem, and indeed the health of Amazigh communities were co-dependent on the success of this practice.

However, as Soufiane explained to me, not all agdals function as well as this one, and the management of some other agdals in the area had broken down as a result of various environmental, social and political factors. Touda noted that these agdals were obvious by the serious degradation of the flora that could be clearly observed in contrast to successful agdals or private land. These observations seem to underscore the importance of documenting the management and regulations present in successful agdals, and their impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem health. Ideally this information will be useful to Amazigh communities in future attempts to restore successful agdal management elsewhere.

Soufiane explains the agdal management system to Angela, while community researchers take a moment to relax.

On Day 3 the team broke into two smaller groups to discuss the next round of interviews. Ugo and Irene explained the purpose of this next round, which would build on the general sweep of information the community researchers had gathered and focus in on a few key practices. Each community researcher was invited to select three practices that they wanted to focus on, with the explanation that for each practice they would identify and interview approximately five individuals who had extensive knowledge in that area. They were given the following criteria to think about when selecting:

  • Which practices are of the most interest to you personally?
  • Which practices are of interest to, and important to the community?
  • How does this practice impact the environment? (To keep in mind when asking questions).

The intention of this round of interviews is to collect a comprehensive body of information for each practice. The collaborative process of choosing these practices with community researchers helps to ensure their relevance to the community, and also the quality of data collection (researchers will be more likely to collect detailed data if they enjoy the topic!). On my part, it was interesting to see the discussions among community researchers regarding their choices, particularly the different interests of researchers in Imegdale and Ait M’Hamed. I also reflected on the wisdom in this collaborative process, considering the fact that in addition to producing research this project is also building capacity among community researchers. In this light, it makes a lot of sense to allow researchers to ‘train themselves’ on specific topics that are both of interest to them and the community.

Discussing the next round of interviews.

Discussing the next round of interviews.

My participation in this 3 day workshop made clear for me the huge value of providing skill-building, team-building, and formalized check-ins within a research project. These workshops are especially essential for a project that involves several stages of interviews, and team members who are geographically dispersed and speak a range of languages. While it may be a researcher’s reflex to privilege the data collection component of the process, it is also important to do the slow, interpersonal, intercultural work of making the data make sense. I’m honoured to have participated in this process, and look forward to seeing what the project yields!