By: Joy Singarayer
Over the past two years, we have all faced challenges to our working patterns due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers undertaking overseas fieldwork have found many ways to redefine, reschedule, and adapt their approaches in light of travel restrictions (Forrester, 2020). My colleagues and I faced similar challenges when we began a project in the very first month of the first UK lockdown of 2020. While there have been many issues, there have also been opportunities for us to begin to reflect on our responsibilities to communities and individuals involved in field research, and to the carbon footprint of the project.
Until recently, I had not really given a lot of thought to how the data I was using to compare to climate model simulations was extracted, who was involved, or whether they were appropriately acknowledged. My research has focussed on past (prehistoric) climate change, primarily in the tropics, and the data I was using has been processed from the mud at the bottom of lakes or the stalactites from caves taken from around the world by many other scientists over decades. However, a recent decision to venture into new research avenues led to a collaboration with Prof. Nick Branch (SAGES) and scientists from the UK and South America, which has fieldwork as a central part of the project.
The aim of the research is to examine the impacts of current and future climate change on water supplying ecosystems for agriculture in the Peruvian Andes. Our project is called CROPP (Climate Resilience and fOod Production in Peru) and is funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering. It brings together an international and multidisciplinary team of social scientists, hydrologists, ecologists, climatologists, and NGOs to understand the Andean water systems and their contribution to resilience in the face of climate change. This means working directly with remote farming communities and a large funding commitment in the fieldwork budget for the UK team to undertake annual trips to Peru.
Figure 1: An example, from one of our study areas, of the varied landscape in the Ancash region of Peru – Glacial mountain peak (Huascarán), agricultural fields, and ancient human-made water courses.
The initial excitement at the prospect of working across subject boundaries and continents turned to uncertainty about when travel would be allowed and what alternative approaches could be taken to progress the research. The collection and synthesis of secondary data was an obvious way to begin while we waited to see the full extent of the impact of covid. Several months and numerous international video meetings later, we knew that it would be the South American team undertaking the first fieldwork without direct UK input.
Through our partners in Peru, we have employed local research coordinators to engage with farmers (once safe to do so) to produce and collate agro-economic and social science information through conversations and diaries. During the field season last year, we were also able to hire local student research assistants to work with the South American team to conduct hydrological and ecological field research, with remote support from the UK hydrologists. The researchers have produced excellent new data and the approach has worked well. Significant modifications to the budgets were required but our funder has been incredibly helpful in allowing us the flexibility to do this. As a result, we are thankfully in a decent position at the end of the second year of the project, although there is a lot more to do before we can pull the results together. There are also some aspects of the fieldwork that the UK team will need to undertake in person this year.
That said, we have so far saved 15-20 tonnes CO2 (depending on the emissions calculator used) by reducing our international travel, which is roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of between one and two average UK individuals or between eight to eleven average individuals in Peru (note – these figures vary depending on whether you include imports/exports or just territorial emissions). This feels like a positive outcome that we would want to repeat in future projects. In some ways, the new fieldwork set up may also allow more effective community engagement via trusted local research coordinators.
However, there is much more for us to consider in terms of using this opportunity to set up ethical field research practices that address inequalities and the often extractivist nature of field research in the global south, whereby field data are taken and processed in the global north to create outputs without co-development or proper attribution (Bates, 2020; Dunia et al., 2020; Sukarieh and Tannock, 2019). This is particularly so if we are to continue to reduce international travel and undertake more remote field research involving research assistants in other countries. Dunia et al (2020), for example, outline ways to begin to approach this, from rethinking how we view co-authorship so that we include those facilitating research in remote settings, to proper compensation and insurance. There are also broader responsibilities beyond those directly undertaking field research. For example, funding agencies could request details about how the research field practice will be fair and transparent for all involved, and journal reviewers and editors should flag questions about this aspect of the research when manuscripts are submitted.
The changes we initially made to our field research were due to travel restrictions forced on us by covid, but are now undertaking a different journey exploring our responsibilities to construct fair, sustainable, and creative ways of working.