Playing with Fire: Using Forum Theatre to Research Social Conflict in the Aftermath of 2019 Bolivian Wildland Fires

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Geography Politics and Sociology


In 2019, Brazil experienced more than 72,000 wildland fires, which represents a staggering 84 percent increase from the previous year. The burning of the Brazilian Amazon continues to be the subject of much international attention. Less visible, however, has been an equivalent environmental crisis unfolding in neighbouring countries in South America. In 2019, for example, NASA estimated that Bolivia had a burned area similar in size to Brazil, but in a country eight times smaller. The total burned area was over 5 million hectares, five times greater than the previous year and the largest area burned over the past 20 years. Wildland fires are having devastating socio-economic and environmental implications in rural Bolivia. The Chiquitania region, an area in the Eastern part of the country that hosts one of the largest and better preserved dry forests in South America, has been particularly affected by the recent fires. Here, the exceptional devastation of recent fires, especially on protected areas and indigenous territories, have exacerbated tensions among local communities (indigenous peoples, migrant peasants, ranchers, Mennonites) with different ways of living and using the land and natural resources.

This project aims to advance local and international public debate on the complexity and urgency of wildland fire crisis through the creation of research-derived artistic work. We deploy a community theatre approach as a conflict mitigation tool to facilitate critical dialogue within and between different rural communities in Bolivia's Chiquitania region. We draw on a popular community theatre methodology called Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) (Boal 1974) to create a Forum Theatre play with members of different local groups animating their lived experiences of the wildland fire crisis. This play will then travel, to be performed in four fire-affected communities. Forum Theatre is a theatrical form in which spectators (reframed as spect-actors) can physically enter the theatrical 'fiction' to make an intervention that might lead to a different outcome. Our objective is to bring people from different social groups into (potentially tense) dialogue and to create an uneasy sense of incompleteness that seeks resolution through real action off stage.

This project will document for the first time the application of TO methods to a wildland fire crisis. It will focus on complex situations of oppression stemming from inter-community conflicts involving multiple dimensions: cultural and ethnic stigmatisation, incompatible livelihood strategies, political competition, relationships to the natural environment. We will develop an innovative approach to understand the linkages between multiple dimensions of oppression and how these are reflected in a major socio-environmental crisis such as the one provoked by wildland fires.

The research team will follow alongside the travels of the play to record audience interventions and to interview key actors in local communities to glean a fuller understanding of issues and experiences. The creation and performance of the play will be recorded and, drawing on the individual and collective journeys of the project participants, a documentary film and a photography exhibition will be created. Visual arts will become, in this context, powerful means to engage with national and international audiences in order to enhance public awareness and debate on the complexity of wildland fire emergency. A photo and video exhibit will tour several major Bolivian cities, international festivals and academic conferences and will also be available through the project website. These will thus encourage continued reflection on wildland fire crisis beyond the scope and duration of the project.

Planned Impact

Our project proposes a co-production methodology based on the Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) approach, which is unique in its way to generate both research findings and solutions to community problems simultaneously rather than sequentially. This simultaneous production of research and social transformation is in line with the urgency call's mandate, as it ensures results in a very short timeframe that fits the emergency context.

The primary beneficiaries are local communities affected by wildland fires. We aim to make an impact by deescalating ongoing conflicts and prevent future tensions from arising, with positive effects on community wellbeing and quality of life, in the following way: 1) In line with TO pedagogy, we expect FT activities to be reflected in more inclusive and less conflictive community strategies, actions and narratives during the next fire season and electoral cycle; 2) Reports summarising key proposals and actions emerging from the performance and post-performance discussions will work as bases to inspire community agreements and action plans. We expect the reports to strengthen local institutions based on deliberative, inclusive mechanisms of decision-making and to generate more sustainable and collegial strategies for livelihoods and forest conservation; 3) A photo mural exhibition depicting FT scenes displayed on community walls will aim at changing daily interactions during the next dry season by reminding people of previous experiences of dialogue and reconciliation. Community impact will be assessed through follow up fieldwork to identify and capture any changes in local practices, narratives and attitudes.

A project report will be created for Bolivian policymakers based on data from interviews, theatre activities and direct proposals and actions identified by the communities. The report will be disseminated via meetings between the PI, Bolivian Co-Is and civil servants and MPs directly involved in the relevant policy agenda. This contribution will be timely as the new elected government is expected to revise some controversial pieces of legislation on land and forest management approved by the Morales administration in recent years.

Our local NGO partners will directly benefit from the participation in the project via the strengthening of their international profile and partnerships and the participation in training on new cutting-edge methods and transferrable skills based on TO approaches. This will increase the range of actions and tools available for local partners in their daily work to address conflict and foster public dialogue and a culture of peace, increasing their effectiveness.

The UNDP Governance team will support the dissemination of our results and facilitate outreach to other UN agencies in Bolivia, at the UNDP Latin American and global headquarters. The aim will be to enhance UN officers' understanding of fire emergency-related conflicts and offer lessons learned from a conflict mitigation endeavour based on TO methods. This will feed into the UN advisory role to national governments and as international broker of best practices.

The project will be the incubator for the development of new collaborations among a highly multicultural group of practitioners based and from Bolivia, Colombia, Italy, New Zealand and the UK, which will lead to unique artistic outputs, including a FT play, a documentary film and a photo exhibit. The impact of the visual outputs will be through their capacity to convene complex messages in an immediate way that can reach a broader audience of non-experts. By so doing, the aim is to generate awareness on fire emergencies and their complexity in a moment in which these issues have already gathered the lay audience attention as a result of the vast media coverage received by the Amazon fires in recent months.


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