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Moisés, Cacao field assistant, checking pods in a cacao garden in the Peruvian Amazon.

Getting people-powered right!

Moisés, Cacao field assistant, checking pods in a cacao garden.

Working closely with Cool Earth throughout her PhD, University of Exeter student Léna Prouchet’s research looks at refining the design and implementation of agricultural projects supporting Indigenous peoples and their livelihoods as they strive to protect their rainforest territories.

Having recently returned from the Peruvian Amazon, where she spent three months looking into the cacao project led by Cool Earth in the Awajún communities of Urakuza and Huaracayo, we caught up with Léna to find out what she had learned from her fieldwork.

1. What brought you to the banks of the Marañon River? How did you get there, and what were your first impressions?

I travelled to Urakuza to continue my fieldwork and (finally!) meet the villagers with whom Cool Earth is working. I started my project in March 2020, but was only able to travel to the community two years later because of the pandemic. These two first years allowed me to understand the strategy behind the projects and the objectives of Cool Earth in each of the partnerships. But the other side of the picture was missing: what do the projects look like on the ground? How do the local staff work with the villagers? How do villagers perceive Cool Earth’s work? I was only able to gain this understanding by spending some time in the Awajún.

At the beginning, I remember feeling a mix of excitement and stress. Excitement because I really could not believe I was finally there after months of uncertainty regarding the possibility of travel and so many procedures and requests to obtain the approval from my University. Stress because I was discovering a new environment, meeting new people, hearing a new language. I also struggled a bit to understand the social codes at the beginning, so I was afraid to not act appropriately: I did not want to leave a bad first impression. Fortunately, I was accompanied by the Cool Earth team during the first week. The team introduced my research assistant, Vanessa, and me to the Apu (chief of the community) and to the community during an assembly where we were able to explain the reasons for our trip and answer questions.

2. Tell us a bit more, but very succinctly, about your research?

My research is a partnership between Cool Earth and the University of Exeter. The goal is to produce academic work that can be relevant to Cool Earth work and inform the design of its strategy. I focus on the cacao project led by Cool Earth in the Awajún communities of Urakuza and Huaracayo. My goal is to understand whether the design and implementation of the projects are matching the needs and aspirations of the villagers it is aiming to support. To collect data, I have spoken to the Cool Earth team in the UK and in Peru, and spent around three months in Urakuza. While in Peru, we also spoke to various organisations developing similar activities, sometimes in the same area, to compare their approach to Cool Earth work.

3. Are there any key results, observations you might want to share with us at this stage?

Yes, I can share the two main ideas I am focusing on at the moment.

First, I discovered through my interviews and observations that there is a gap between the way the projects are designed and how they are implemented. At the project design level, there is a strong willingness to address power imbalances in the conservation projects, and to go towards more bottom-up approaches. In practice, this endeavour is challenged by a variety of factors and especially the fact that local staff tends to reproduce the working practices they learnt in previous projects which are often not in line with the Cool Earth strategy and principles. I share various recommendations to address this gap, for instance, by enhancing dialogue between the different parts of the organisation, and by rethinking monitoring and evaluation strategy.

A second argument comes from my conversation with 85 participants of the cacao project (out of 100 participants). We found that those participants were very different from one another regarding their lifestyle, their knowledge of cacao culture, and the reasons they decided to work with Cool Earth. This contrasts with the fact that the project is conceived as a “one-size-fits-all” package, and therefore is not able to adapt to the needs of individual participants. I propose to tailor the support given to the participants according to their profile, in order to match better their needs and expectations. For example, a farmer that has been growing cacao for 10 years might require financial support to acquire new tools, while a farmer who just started the activity will benefit from technical training.

4. What challenges did you face as you prepared for field work and whilst you were out there?

There were definitely a lot of challenges in the preparation phase: pandemic, University approval, visa, organising the logistics of the trip (I got more vaccines shots in one month than in my entire life!)… But the Cool Earth team was incredibly supportive and helped me in every step, which made it way easier!

The fieldwork was also challenging sometimes: we woke up often around 5am to go to the chacras (field) and worked until 10pm in the evening to do interviews and plan for the next day. Since we lived in the village, it felt like there was no real “break” – we were almost working every day to get the most out of our time in the village. All this would not have been possible without the support of my research assistant Vanessa, a Peruvian anthropologist. We were always together in the field, which allowed us to split some of the work but also to “debrief” together after intense days. I am also immensely grateful to Loyda, our translator and community “facilitator”. Loyda is Awajún, and she lives in Urakuza with her family. Her help was crucial: she knew everybody in the village and helped us to make the first contact with people, and arrange interviews with us. She also very kindly answered all our questions about the Awajún culture, and helped us understand what was “OK”, “not OK” for us to say/do.

5. What did the Awajún teach you?

People were always very kind and accepted to spend time with us and answer our questions, even if they had way better or more important things to do. They often shared food with us when we went to visit them in their houses, and we always got home with bags full of veggies and fruits after visiting a chacra. One day, a villager invited us to drink cacao juice that he had harvested for us, as he knew we liked it. The bottle exploded when we opened it, as the juice had already fermented because of the sun and the heat. There was little left to drink, but we had a great laugh together!