This piece is the translation of the article "Migraciones ambientales en el Gran Chaco Americano. Reflexiones del trabajo de campo", published on the newsletter "Movimientos migratorios sur-sur Fronteras, trayectorias y desigualdades" by The Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).
The Gran Chaco Americano, located in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, is the largest continuous dry forest in the world. This territory, with an area of 1.1 million km², is home to rich biodiversity and cultural diversity, with 31 ethnic groups and numerous languages (Ibid). It currently faces enormous environmental and socio-economic challenges due to its history, extreme conditions and threats to natural resources.
At the request of a consortium of 11 subnational authorities, civil society and a regional organisation, the project “Environmental Migrations in the Gran Chaco Americano” was born. This project is part of the MIgration EU eXpertise+ (MIEUX+) initiative, funded by the European Union and implemented by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). Its overall objective is to advance the understanding of human mobility related to environmental factors in the Gran Chaco Americano biome.
In recent years, there has been growing interest in analysing the connection between human mobility and the global environmental crisis. However, there is a lack of adequate empirical methodologies to address the complexities of environmental migrations. In this context, the project team has developed a collective methodology taking into account the particularities of the Gran Chaco Americano. The research team includes four researchers specialised in environmental migration, one public policy specialist and five territorial experts. In addition, the project coordinator of the MIEUX+ initiative is also involved. The project methodology consists of five phases: (1) pre-diagnostic questionnaire; (2) documentary research; (3) virtual interviews; (4) fieldwork; and (5) systematisation of the information. Two rounds of fieldwork were carried out to better understand the realities of the study.
The first round of fieldwork consisted of interviews with sub-national authorities to investigate public policies. The second round focused on visiting communities, conducting semi-structured interviews, focus groups and group discussions. Both trips included members of the research team and at least one person with territorial expertise and took place in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Despite the project team’s enthusiasm, working in such a complex and extensive territory presented significant challenges. Some of the key challenges are consistent with research work, and the principles of participatory and inclusive ethics. These challenges included planning the route and communities to be visited, approaching and consulting communities in advance, ensuring effective and safe travel, fostering equal participation among communities and their members, and promoting respect and solidarity within the research team and with participants.
Planning and logistics
Numerous virtual pre-meetings were held over a four-month period to plan the fieldwork, including the selection of locations to visit and routes to follow. A main objective was to cover as many diverse villages as possible, ensuring that they were representative of the vast Gran Chaco territory and population. Key localities were identified based on the information gathered in phases (1) and (2).
Before arriving in the territory, important outreach and preparation work was carried out to establish a prior connection with the communities to be visited. The focal points in Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, guided by territorial experts, played a crucial role in this stage, using their own networks to fine-tune the details, and transmit the appropriate information about the identity and purpose of the project to the communities. Prior visits were made to all communities in Bolivia and Paraguay, and activities were coordinated in Argentina. This stage was crucial so that the research team would be well received by the communities visited.
Logistical aspects, such as luggage, food, and resources, were considered and arranged for field activities, including transport, communication, and security. Two 4x4 vans were used for travel, and food and material supplies were provided in urban centres. Activities were also coordinated with collective lunches in some places, which facilitated proximity and collaboration with the communities. In Bolivia and Paraguay, communities were visited individually, and in Argentina, representatives from different localities were summoned to meet with the team in specific locations. Other logistical challenges include purchasing travel tickets, coordinating schedules and identifying a place to house the participants, as well as providing food and drinks.
Logistics and transportation were critical aspects of the research. The team faced daily challenges in dealing with the territory, activating contacts, and obtaining up-to-date information on road conditions and weather forecasts. During the mission, several difficulties were encountered, such as the impossibility of accessing certain communities due to flooding caused by heavy rains, and road blockades due to demonstrations. Fortunately, thanks to the territorial knowledge of the experts, the team was able to keep up to date on the routes, and gain the trust of the people in the communities visited. This proved vital to achieving the fieldwork objectives.
The participation and experience of all team members were fundamental to the development of the activities. The objective of collecting data from different populations involved challenges, such as communicating in different languages, understanding gender divisions and hierarchies within communities, adapting to unconventional locations for workshops, and quickly establishing trust and connection with participants. The team wanted to give a face and a name to the stories of environmental migration in the Gran Chaco, and this required additional efforts in interacting with the communities.
For activity development, it was also important to count on the willingness and experience of all team members, both in conducting the activities, and in organising the material and recording the information (video/voice recordings, photographs, conceptual maps, etc.).
Strategies were used to reduce the hierarchy between researchers and participants, such as the use of name tags. In addition, tasks were adapted and divided to ensure the inclusion of all voices. Differentiated techniques and groups separated into gender and age were used when necessary to ensure equal participation. The advantage of having a large team allowed for multiple simultaneous meetings, sometimes up to four at the same time. Strategies and participatory activities were reviewed daily, so constant communication and feedback within the team was crucial to the success of the missions.
During the meetings, the team was deeply moved in addressing issues that resonated with the concerns and interests of the population: drought, lack of water, floods, and the fear of having to leave their land, violence, inequality and socio-environmental injustice, among others. It was clear that the previous work had paved the way for conversations to take place in a different way. The team was surrounded by an atmosphere of mutual trust and generosity, which was consciously fostered by the former through careful interaction with the participants.
Of real value was the ability to render audible and visible the issues and perspectives of people who are often invisible: no matter how hard it was, no matter how many languages they speak or how long the distances travelled to reach them. It was a powerful reminder of the diversity of experiences and opinions that exist, and the need to listen to and value each of them. By making space for these neglected voices on an equal and respectful footing, a more inclusive and equitable network began to be woven, where all points of view are recognised and considered. Thus, the commitment to share the results of the research with all the communities visited was also born.
Reflections of the team
During the time spent in the Gran Chaco Americano, everyone realised that the territory becomes the living body of the people, palpable in every corner and in every step taken. This territory reflects the daily existence of local populations that is woven into their daily lives.
Qualitative research follows a circular approach in which the entire process must be reflected upon at each stage. This can be frustrating, as none of the research steps are considered finished until the end. For those researching environmental migration, this circularity takes on an additional dimension due to the dynamicity of mobilities, of the constantly changing climate, involving changes in the socio-political context, public debates, perceived problems, and reactions. Since qualitative research is time-intensive, it is common that what is studied also changes along the way. Therefore, not only do initial ideas need to be revisited during circular research, but also the dynamic nature of human movements related to environmental factors needs to be reflected upon.
In summary, having a solid communication network and the participation of local experts was fundamental in overcoming the challenges posed in the fieldwork carried out in the Gran Chaco Americano in April 2023. Understanding the importance of and respect for the local knowledge of those who are part of and work in the territory generated a reciprocity of commitment among all project partners. This was important in achieving the mission objectives, in harmony with the ethics and performance in the territory of the local team, as well as the team of researchers. Ethical guidelines included respecting the autonomy of participants, seeking benefits, avoiding harm, and treating participants fairly. These considerations must be adapted to the changing nature of migration and research, and take into account their potential social, cultural and political impacts. By addressing these ethical issues with sensitivity and reflection, the integrity of the work and the well-being of the people involved can be ensured.
This mission allowed everyone to understand that a diverse team, with local members who actively participated from the early stages of the research, was needed to carry out a project with a participatory approach, with diverse populations and territorial extremes. The richness that diversity brought to the team in terms of age, nationality, gender, skills, and the combination of different experiences and competencies was enriching. Working on a project of this magnitude in such a complex and vast territory certainly involved challenges, but with careful planning, the support of the project network and the commitment of the team, it was possible to overcome these difficulties and achieve significant results.