April 16, 2021, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)
Fieldwork in the Yucatan during the Covid-19 pandemic – An interview with Karla G. Hernandez-Aguilar
Karla G. Hernandez-Aguilar is a PhD candidate on the Palaeobenchmarking Resilient Agricultural Systems (PalaeoRAS) project.
Photograph above: colour diversity in a maize variety called Gallito (little rooster) harvested in the same milpa plot in Xoy community in Southern Yucatan – by Karla G. Hernandez-Aguilar
When was your first research trip to the Yucatan and how did it go?
My first trip to the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico and Belize) took place on January and February 2020. It was a very successful trip and allowed our group to visit eight different communities across Yucatan and Northern and Western Belize. We established new connections with different stakeholders, including indigenous farmers from both countries, researchers and relevant government agencies.
When you started planning this second trip, what problems did you face?
My second trip was originally planned for summer 2020 but, due to Covid-19, I had to postpone until January/February 2021. I had been preparing since August 2020 and it involved a lot of logistics, from getting travel permits from the University to monitoring community restrictions in Mexico and Belize, then requesting access to visit those communities in the middle of the pandemic. Identifying safe local accommodation and transportation from the UK was difficult but I was greatly assisted by Joanna Smuga-Lumatz of the Future Food Beacon.
Booking flights was not straightforward and flying for 20 hours wearing a mask and face shield is not pleasant! Safety was a priority throughout, which translated into taking a total of five separate Covid tests during the trip.
Additional complications arose as the journey unfolded, such as: unexpected travel bans; the borders closing in Belize; extreme weather events impacting our field equipment and causing data loss; controversial infrastructure developments affecting one of our research sites; and even an infestation of honeycomb wasps in our field equipment!
In temperatures of 30-35oC, I had to wear double masks and a face shield to protect myself and the farmers, while walking across plots of between 1-3 hectares; this made the discomfort of the flight seem like luxury.
How did it feel returning to Mexico, had it changed? If so, how?
I landed in Mexico City, which has a population of 21 million people and is one of the largest, loudest and busiest cities in the world. The city is usually characterised by innumerable street businesses and thousands of commuters, so it was shocking to see it so quiet and desolate: I felt like I was somewhere else.
I had to self-isolate for 10 days in In Mexico City but, happily, I was able to do this at my family’s house. Seeing my parents safe and sound after one year, in the middle of a pandemic and spending some days with them for the winter holidays, was the best gift ever! My Covid test was negative but, while I was preparing my equipment for fieldwork, the traffic light system in Mexico City unexpectedly went from orange to red, meaning I couldn’t travel to the Yucatan anymore. I had to postpone my flight, wait and make new arrangements.
When the government allowed local travel again, I was eventually able to fly to Yucatan but, upon arrival, I was asked by the community gatekeepers to quarantine for a further week before visiting any communities. I also had to provide farmers and community field assistants with Covid-testing kits. I found it mentally challenging to self-isolate in a hotel that week.
When my quarantine finished, I felt the joy of being able to do fieldwork for almost 3 weeks! The most rewarding moment of this trip was harvesting different native varieties of maize and then enjoying a farm-to-table meal made from that maize, plus other milpa crops. I gained a whole new, first-hand experience of how milpa works as a food system. This made overcoming all the obstacles on this trip worthwhile!
How did you manage to stay in touch with the farmers during the pandemic?
I used Whatsapp to communicate with the farmers when possible but the signal in their rural communities is often patchy and some do not have access to the internet at home. Fortunately, I was able to stay in touch with the help of community research assistants, who have experience with data collection and easy access to the internet; I am extremely grateful for their support and commitment. I trained them how to use MS Teams so we could hold monthly meetings, in addition to messaging via Whatsapp and emailing.
On top of the pandemic, communities and farmers in Mexico and Belize were hit hard by a total of seven extreme weather events between June to November 2020: Tropical Storm Amanda (Yucatan); Tropical Storm Cristobal (Yucatan); Hurricane Category 1 Nana (Belize); Tropical Storm Gamma (Yucatan); Hurricane Category 2 Delta (Yucatan); Hurricane Category 2 Zeta (Yucatan); and Hurricane Category 4 Eta (Belize). All our research sites were heavily impacted by these events and several of the farmers we work with estimate they lost up to 80% of their crops, drastically reducing their income and food security.
How did Covid-19 affect your research methods?
Not being able to be physically present in the communities, and not being able to monitor farms and interview farmers in person, forced me to adopt two new working strategies. Firstly, I expanded my research around about the impact of Covid-19 and extreme weather events in farming systems; this is providing me with insights into how farmers adapt to known and unknown challenges. Secondly, I hired four local field assistants with previous experience of data collection to help with my research. From August to December 2020, we developed a unique community research team and it was great to finally meet them in person in January 2021.
I have continued to work closely with the team on new and innovative methodologies, making sure we can collect data in a way that is safe for researchers and farmers alike. This led to us co-create the Maya Milpa (Kool) calendar.
The Maya Milpa (Kool) calendar
This unique calendar allows farmers to record daily data from their fields in an easy and creative way, during the pandemic and beyond. The calendar is not only a tool for data collection, it honours the working lives and livelihoods of thousands of small-scale farmers. For me, it serves as a reminder of everything that is connected in our food systems.
Special acknowledgements to: Shirley Rodriguez, Nailea Dzul, Cristian Canul, Wilberth Xicum, Mr. Amilcar Ceh Cih, Mr. Santos Hoil and Professor Roger Medina, members of our community research team and gatekeepers within Maxcanu, Xoy and Tzucacab communities in Yucatan for the incredible support and assistance throughout Covid-19.
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