Fieldwork in Chile.

On the 30th June last year, after some in-depth research as to costs, flight times, and accommodation options, I set out on the first leg of my actual research trip to Latin America. I boarded a 14-hour flight from Heathrow to Santiago, Chile, and settled into my seat on an improbably hot plane. This was not the greatest preparation for emerging from Santiago airport at 7am to an air temperature of around 7°C, but I was soon in my accommodation and getting my bearings, including spotting a spectacular view of the snow-capped Andes from the end of my street. I had gone to Chile to interview members of the government, in a variety of ministries, as to their participation in the UNFCCC climate change negotiations, and I ascertained that I was 5 Metro stops away, including a change, from the centre of the city which housed the Ministries of Environment, Energy, and Foreign Affairs. I obtained a Metro card and arranged times over the following three weeks of my stay with my contacts; occasionally this was easier said than done, as, being civil servants, their timetables are often hectic, especially as they are required to work on both international negotiations and domestic governmental priorities. I conducted a total of 4 interviews with Chilean negotiators in person, and managed to connect with another 3 over Skype, as their timetables meant that they couldn’t meet me in person. My questions related to their views on the status of the UNFCCC as a negotiating forum, as well as the role of the AILAC bloc, and its strategic behaviour in the negotiations. Everyone I spoke to was extremely helpful and friendly, traits which seemed pretty common to Chile as a whole, as far as I could tell from my time there. I was lucky enough also to be able to visit the coastal city of Valparaíso, which is stunningly beautiful, and well worth a trip for anyone thinking of going to Chile.

After three weeks in Santiago, doing my best to arrange interviews and then to deal with the semi-impenetrable Chilean Spanish accent for my interview transcriptions, I moved on to Peru for another three weeks. I had been to Lima before, and it was lovely to be back, especially to be met by my old friend Oscar at the airport. What was not quite so lovely was the air quality of Lima, thick and heavy with pollution, especially in the poverty-ridden district of San Martín de Porres, where I was staying, complete with gunfire ringing out across the neighbourhood most nights. I was absolutely fine, of course, and I aimed to do the same as in Chile – arranging to meet government negotiators and then going to interview them in person in their ministries, although with the help of Oscar as my taxi driver, given Lima’s lack of public transport – a badly-needed resource given the size of the city! Unfortunately, the Peruvian delegation didn’t seem to be quite as organised as the Chileans, and so, after many timetable changes and rearranged meeting times, I was able to procure 2 interviews in person, and 2 more over Skype. In my spare time, when not transcribing said interviews, I was also lucky enough to be able to go to a Lima derby football match between my adopted team, Sporting Cristal, and Universitario, Oscar’s team, in the national stadium. I have never known quite such an electric atmosphere, with both sets of supporters singing throughout, and even some “friendly” encounters between them on the far side of the stadium…

Next was a short hop to Mexico, to visit a former leader of the AILAC support unit, the mini-secretariat that organises the group’s submissions and negotiating positions when it comes to COPs and intersessionals. I was lucky enough to be able to go to Cholula, a pueblo mágico, or “magic town”, which has been designated by the Mexican government as a place of special cultural interest, and therefore any gorgeous place, and I was shown the sights, including the world’s largest temple mound, and a performance of traditional Mexican danza de los voladores, or “flying dance”, where performers swing from a giant pole in a circle, high in the air, to traditional music. That interview was possibly my most useful, given the former position of the interviewee, and I was also put in touch with several other contacts with whom I could Skype when back home a few months later. I also spent a couple more days in Mexico City, which I cannot recommend highly enough, and I met a couple of Mexican government negotiators for an interview; while Mexico is not part of AILAC, I also wanted to get an outside view of AILAC’s strategic behaviour, to triangulate with the information garnered by AILAC interviewees.

I returned home from Mexico for 10 days (narrowly avoiding a tropical storm over the Caribbean), and then went out to Colombia for another three-week stint, this time beset by quasi-endless immigration queues at my change in Newark, USA, and almost missing my connection flight; as it turns out, the second plane was then delayed by three hours after a fault in the computer system anyway, so my haring across the airport was all for nothing! I arrived in Bogotá late that night, and this time had much better luck in securing interviews. The Colombian delegation seemed to be the most organised, and I met 8 negotiators during my time in Bogotá, as well as managing to conduct Skype interviews with 2 more Colombians, and a couple of interviewees from some of the AILAC countries I wasn’t going to visit in person, namely Honduras and Guatemala. Bogotá itself is a verdant metropolis, well worth a visit should you ever get the chance, and I also managed to visit several museums of pre-Colombian civilisation and archaeology. Given a small part of my reason for choosing to focus on AILAC for my PhD was a lifelong fascination with all things South American, this was too good an opportunity to pass up!

My final fieldwork trip took me from Bogotá to San José, Costa Rica, although I did have one less day in Costa Rica than planned after two cancelled flights from Colombia (it really isn’t helpful when airlines put up these notifications at 5am…). Still, I eventually arrived in the noticeably more humid San José, and began trying to arrange meeting times with local negotiators. My hotel was quite a walk from the main office buildings I needed to visit, so I got a chance to walk through the city and take in its many parks and green spaces. I managed 3 interviews and 1 Skype call with Costa Rican negotiators, as, being a much smaller country than those I had previously visited, their delegation is in turn smaller as well. I had plenty of transcribing to do from my previous interviews, especially those in Spanish, so I was kept busy all the same! I was also kept busy by the necessary constant vigilance against insect intruders into my hotel room – I think the final tally was 5 cockroaches, 1 millipede, and an unquantifiable number of mosquitos. Not the greatest hotel experience ever, but even so, entirely worth it to be able to go to Costa Rica and speak to people I needed to interview.

I then headed home, and have since done quite a few more interviews, mostly over Skype, with people I didn’t get a chance to speak to while out in Latin America, as well as several negotiators from other blocs, again, so as to get a different take on AILAC’s relations and strategy in the negotiations. I had an absolutely fantastic time, and I would recommend Latin America over and over again to anyone thinking of studying the region. In a climate context, Latin American countries are pivotal to the outcome of the negotiations, being as they are the bridge-builders between the developed and developing world. But they are also home to vibrant, intoxicating cultures, and stunning displays of natural beauty, that really reminds you of how important it is to deal with the climate change threat, else these priceless parts of the wonderfully diverse tapestry of human civilisation, and the splendour of the natural world, could be in danger.

Danny Waite.

4th Year Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar in Climate Justice, Department of Geography, University of Reading.