Contributed by Olivia Sylvester *
*This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. Information on the Centre is available on the web at www.idrc.ca; I was also supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through a grant rewarded to Dr. Iain Davidson-Hunt.
Why do youth use forest foods and medicines? This is a question I set out to answer during the research associated with my doctoral dissertation. Perhaps the part I enjoyed most was working with young people to create an engaging and inviting environment to do research. In this process, I learned a lot about young people’s lives. In this photo essay, I have chronicled my experiences before I began to collect data directly related to my research questions. I felt that the process leading up to data collection was just as informative as the data. Thus, I was motivated to share my experiences planning a research project with young people in the ethnobiology community.
Now, let us take a step into Talamanca, Costa Rica.
When I arrived in the Bribri Indigenous Territory (frequently referred to as Talamanca), the Talamanca mountain range was the first thing I saw. The second sight, as my bus dropped me at the Telire River, was a landscape of boats and trucks full of organic bananas (is it a surprise to know that this is where your breakfast may have come from?). The Talamanca mountain range passes through the Bribri territory; these mountains reach elevations of over 3,000 meters above sea level and are home to a large part of Costa Rica’s La Amistad International Park, the country’s largest protected area. La Amistad Park, the Bribri and Cabécar Indigenous territories, and some other sites have been collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Talamanca I lived in a community called Bajo Coén, situated on the Telire River about an hour upstream from where I took this photograph.
Although I lived for four years in Costa Rica prior to starting this project, I felt a little intimidated when I arrived to live in Talamanca. I was a novice at the Bribri language and I had no experience working with Bribri youth. I tried to put aside my doubts and started my research with a few key questions: Where will I find youth? How will I establish meaningful relationships with young participants? How will I find inviting and safe spaces to collect data? How will I invite youth to talk? And, when is a good time to talk to youth? I will show my experiences working through these questions with photography (taken from March – November 2012).
1. Where will I meet youth?
I collaborated with two Bribri teachers at the Liceo Rural de Coroma, the Coroma high school. Working at the high school was important for me to meet youth and it was rewarding to be partnered with a team who would help me collaborate with community projects. However, I didn’t only work with high school students. Some high school students suggested I invite participants that were not attending classes too. “What a great idea, why didn’t I think of that?” Interestingly, the further away I got from my office, and the more I got my feet wet in this project, the more frequently I found myself asking this question. To make connections with young people not attending high school, I asked my friends in the Sebliwak women’s group to help me make some initial introductions.
2. How do I establish meaningful relationships with young participants?
Establishing meaningful and sustained relationships in my research was the most important part of this journey. Although I went into my research thinking that books or educational materials—summarizing my research results—may be important contributions to participants, I quickly learned that my friends had other things in mind. My friends and I agreed that I could make a meaningful contribution to the community by participating in the following activities: 1) a natural medicines project (this meant going to high school classes regularly, being available to help with English translations, meeting with professors), 2) tutoring English (I was available twice a week, to help students with English homework), and 3) teaching English (I became the English teacher at the primary school and taught classes four times per week for eight months).
3. How will I find inviting and safe spaces to collect data?
I met some participants at the Coroma high school; the high school administration also kindly offered me a space to hold large meetings or workshops. I was worried that collecting data at the high school would create a situation where some youth would feel pressure to talk to me, even if my activities would not affect their high school evaluations. So, in addition to the high school, I found other, more seemingly neutral places where youth could volunteer to show up to participate in this project. These neutral spots included: 1) a friend’s house (a house also used for Bribri culture classes), 2) forests, where we talked while harvesting plants, and 3) a variety of other meeting places decided on by participants.
4. How will I invite youth to talk?
This was a challenge. My young friends were excited to speak English with me, to walk with me to school and to visit me at home. Talking about forest foods and medicines with me, however, was another story. I do not think people were silent because they did not use plants. In fact many young people used forest plants to treat anything from a common cold to more severe ailments, such as dengue or leishmaniasis, yet, there was some resistance in talking to me about medicinal practices. Although this reluctance to share was something I experienced with participants of all ages, it was especially pronounced with youth. Inviting youth to talk, and respecting when they chose to be silent, meant adapting my research methods. One event we held was designed to invite young people to feel comfortable to talk about forest plants; we called this event an interactive workshop. In the picture above, we are sharing stories about forest foods and medicines both from Canada (where I’m from) and from Talamanca; this workshop was an icebreaker to start an ongoing conversation about forest harvesting.
5. When would be the best time to talk with youth?
Young people are busy. In Bajo Coén young people had families, young children and homework to attend to. Many young people also had jobs in the field, such as harvesting organic bananas, as well as jobs at home. In my work, I found that I would either wait for a day when someone was free, which was rare, or I would talk with people while we cooked, carried babies to the doctor, carried baskets of bananas on our heads, swung machetes to clear thick grass, or after we finished working on an English homework assignment. Looking back, I left Talamanca with more practical skills than when I arrived, and this unique training was a well-received change of pace.