Bound in Belize: tied up (for brief moments) in a mini-series of ethical dilemmas in a Central American village

Bringing Babies to Biomedicine?Fight for Your Rights in Sight?


Why am I here?
What is going on here?
Who are these people?
What am I doing here?
Who is here doing this?
So what’s the issue?
Why am I here?

A national foundation pays me (and a bunch of other anthropologists, archaeologists, ecologists and climatologists) to investigate how culture and ecology, and their intersections, have changed throughout the past several thousand years in this area.

I hang out and chat with the present-day residents of the village, learning and recording their thoughts and practices surrounding a wide-range of topics- health, the environment, heritage and education are some major ones.

I also run around and chat with kids because we are in the process of developing and teaching a curriculum based on the research findings in local schools. We learn a lot from them too.

The residents are well informed about the project and, generously, continue to invite us back. I hold regular meetings to explain my research goals and activities and emphasize that their participation in my activities and interviews is not required. I ask them what kinds of research are interesting to them and incorporate them into my plan to bring the most benefit to the community. I go where I’m invited and respect that consent to my intrusions is ongoing and voluntary.

These research decisions are guided by the ethical principles that are key to my field of study: respect for persons, beneficence and justice.

I’m also guided my own ethical research principles of humility, reciprocity, transparency and communication.

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What’s going on in this place?
This research takes place, primarily, in a small village located in a sparse-inhabited area of lowland Belize. There are about 500 residents that live in 92 households. There is no electricity, except for a couple of solar panels and generators, and there is one unpaved road leading to the Caribbean coast on one side and the Guatemala border on the other. Both are about an hour away by vehicle. Three families in the village have a vehicle.

This village is unique in that it was the first in Belize to earn the rights from the government to continue to use its land traditionally, without the private or government land ownership. Their traditional ecological knowledge, therefore, has potential increased value in helping them make a living from their land.

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Who are these people?
The members of the village all belong to an indigenous ethnic group. Like people who belong to many indigenous groups, they have experienced a history peppered with discrimination and lack of access. While this discrimination is not as marked as in many of the neighboring countries, their ethnic status defines them as a vulnerable population.

Adding to their potential vulnerability, the village members are primarily subsistence farmers. This immediate and intimate connection to the land means that any fluctuations in land quality or ownership impacts them severely. This is why the land rights case and the traditional knowledge study are so important.

I interact with all members of the community including the leaders of various community groups, the women and the children. All are important to gaining a complete picture as part of the research.

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What am I doing here?
The community’s residents put up with my poor tortilla-making skills and incessant questioning and I hope that what I find out and put together is useful to them (and the world at large) in some way.

I chat and observe and participate, as well as conducting more formal interviews and using more specific means of data collection- pile sorting for example. For the most part, people are keen to participate and I am always careful to express my gratitude for their time and knowledge.

Beneficence is very important to me. I try to ensure that the community members benefit from my research by asking them what’s important to them, humbly following their lead and providing reciprocity by sharing information about myself and helping out where I can.

I help out by holding classes for the local children, teaching them some research methodology and sharing the results of the research with them. This helps them value their traditional knowledge.

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Who is here doing this?
Our research project consists of many trained anthropologists, archaeologists and ecologists. Students are supervised by professors but need to build their own relationships in the community. There is potential for ethical problems when ethnographic encounters happen with some of the project team that are not ethnographically trained. The project leaders address this by offering additional on-site pointers and tips for ethical interaction. Nevertheless, the possibility of misunderstandings and threats to local values exists within the research project as a whole. Project leaders encourage communication from community members and all researchers so that dilemmas can be avoided.

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So what’s the issue?
As a whole, the research runs very smoothly and ethical values are easily upheld by all members of the project. However, ethnographic research is rarely without any moments where a pause and consideration is necessary. The dilemmas presented here a simply a window into the types a small ethical decisions that need to be made everyday while in the field. Not every ethnographer would reach the same conclusions as I did. Explore the possibilities and read about how our core anthropological values factored into my decisions. Feel free to disagree! Every dilemma has an area where you can tell me, and everyone else, what you think.

Bringing Babies to Biomedicine?Fight for Your Rights in Sight?

What do you think?

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