Ixchel: Building understanding of the physical, cultural and socio-economic drivers of risk for strengthening resilience in the Guatemalan cordillera

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences


This project is based on in-depth research in rural and indigenous communities in the cordillera of Guatemala (volcanic arc and southern highlands) that are located close to active volcanoes and in the vicinity of Lake Atitlán. This region has an extraordinarily high level of hazard exposure that intersects with, and is exacerbated by, existing forms of socio-economic vulnerability. People die, suffer and lose livelihoods in disasters in part because of Guatemala's geological and climatological conditions that make it prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes, as well as frequent landslides during the rainy season. The dynamic and interactive nature of these risks are still poorly understood. There is then an urgent need to gain better understandings of physical processes and, in particular, of multihazard interactions in the Guatemalan context from a scientific perspective. However, this hazard exposure cannot be separated from long histories of landlessness, state-led violence and genocide that manifest themselves today in colonial and discriminatory attitudes towards poor indigenous and mixed race (ladino) Guatemalans. Such attitudes result in failures by authorities to protect, warn, evacuate survivors, exhume and properly count the dead, and to relocate or rehouse people with dignity and in culturally appropriate ways. These experiences also mean that local people often do not trust state agencies or western science, and indigenous peoples also have their own knowledge systems and modes of understanding risk and resilience that they deem to be more reliable. The losses and complexities of recent disasters such as the June 2018 eruption of the Fuego volcano and the building of resilient communities urgently require research that brings physical sciences into dialogue not only with social sciences and humanities, but also with diverse cosmovisions and beliefs. This project involves a close collaboration between physical scientists, social scientists, humanities scholars and Guatemalan community leaders in communities exposed to multiple forms of risk. It is based on a shared commitment to reduce the suffering caused by hazards and disasters but involves people who work with very different epistemic, theoretical and methodological approaches and knowledge frameworks. We ask whether we can better understand risk and do research that is both respectful and useful to local people by putting these different knowledge systems on an equal footing. We will therefore combine quantitative monitoring techniques with artistic and ethnographic work and a range of community engagement activities. The scientific and the cultural will be combined in a 8-episode television series produced in collaboration with local organizations, actors and mediamakers in which the complexity of rural community lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples living with risk will be ethically represented and followed up by a range of outreach activities in community spaces and on radio, television and social media. We will produce a cultural product that will provoke high levels of audience engagement and debate by scientists, community members, development practitioners, emergency managers and government agents.

Planned Impact

This project aims to benefit and strengthen capacities of vulnerable populations facing natural hazards and systemic risks and government institutions and civil society orgs. responsible for and working in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) in Guatemala. Impact will be achieved through a series of research-into-action activities that bring physical sciences into dialogue with social sciences and humanities as well as indigenous cosmovisions. The significant percentage (over 20%) of the budget requested for these innovative activities also reflects their importance within the project design. This proposal has been co-developed with Guatemalan investigators and stakeholders, ensuring knowledge production with end users and grounding in the local context, thus increasing its potential to generate impact in the short, and long term. Co-designed engagement and impact activities include:
1) Three project workshops in Guatemala that will bring together scientific, government, intergovernmental, civil society, private sector and community representatives. These will provide a space for exchange and assessment of the research methods, questions and results and a discussion of pathways to embed that knowledge in practice at the policy level. We will also coordinate a dialogue-focused symposium to share our results and invite collaborators from other GCRF projects, to strengthen interdisciplinary and cross-organisational dialogue around DRR priorities.
2) Data collection will take place through a series of interdisciplinary workshops, participatory art and ethnographic research designed to give voices to indigenous and marginalised peoples and acknowledge different knowledge practices and ways of representing risk. This will produce new knowledge about hazards and risk and useful tools to help respond to them (maps, evacuation routes and plans).
3) The capstone docunovela will have multiple forms of impact, both as a process and as a final text. By dealing with the question of risk in a way that takes account of the multiple geographies at play in Guatemala, it will speak to different audiences, not only communities at risk, but also government agencies and emergency managers, development practitioners, hazard scientists and Guatemalan ladino elites. It will put urgent debates on the political agenda and will function as an advocacy and mobilising tool. We will seek to export it to other countries so that its benefits can proliferate globally.
4) Capacity strengthening activities for this project take place at all levels of our engagement with stakeholders. By the end of the project, the government institutes responsible for hazard monitoring, assessment and emergency response will be able to use a range of tools and methods that will outlast the project duration and improve their capacity in the short and long term. Local communities will also have enhanced capacities and be trained in research methods including ethnographic methodologies and knowledge exchange. To ensure lasting impact this project will also engage with the higher education sector in Guatemala. During the technical visits from UK researchers, we plan to impart two short courses targeted at undergraduate students and researchers associated with risk management, to strengthen long-term physical and socioeconomic resilience.
Our findings will be presented in academic papers and reports in Spanish, Mayan languages and English. The promotion and dissemination of research results and methodologies in different languages has the long-term potential to benefit institutions in Guatemala and those working with populations at risk in similar contexts elsewhere.
To monitor and evaluate project impact we plan to apply the Theory of Change methodology. We have drafted an initial version for the proposed project and we will further co-develop this strategy with representatives of key stakeholder groups who will be invited to participate in this exercise at the first workshop.


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