Probably, when people think of scientists, two images come to mind: the book-hermit and the lab-hermit. The former frowns deeply while bent over a book in an office with nothing but more books (and potentially a coffee machine). The latter frowns deeply while bent over a test tube in a lab with nothing but more lab equipment (and potentially a coffee machine). Both images are right in imagining the scientist to be removed from what is being studied; a distance imposed by either a book or lab equipment. Of course, when interviewing people I am close to them, but the questions I ask and how I analyse their answers, is decided by me in an office.
In the 70s, a new type of research started to be conducted, aiming to decrease the distance between researcher and the researched. The idea was that by having locals participate in research, knowledge would be gathered that could immediately be used to improve the participants’ situations: participatory action research. Examples are projects where fishermen facilitated by a researcher reach an agreement on seasonal closure to maintain the stock, or preparing rural areas in Myanmar for climate change. Key is to go through the entire research cycle, from design to evaluation, together with locals. The researcher thus has to give up the comfortable independence, and see where the project leads. For me, it led to 5 lemon trees of which one was tragically enough devoured. But let’s start at the beginning.
My reasoning was that the effort of removing Coralita and keeping your land Coralita-free needs to be worth your while: it’s very hard work to dig up the two meter deep roots, going far beyond regular weeding efforts. Maybe we could think of a purpose for the land that would be good enough reason to put in this effort. So I gathered a group of people and got permission to use a piece of land as a testing ground. We had a brainstorm evening where fruit trees received a lot of support, since they will provide something tasty and their canopy might be a deterrent for Coralita which is a sun-lover. And that’s how I ended up planting 5 lemon trees, together with a network of Sabans. Which was quite an interesting experience for the hermit-scientist I was used to being. While frequently reminiscing about contemplating books, it was very gratifying to finally be doing something rather than thinking about things that others do. And it was great to feel others’ support, such as Ms. Peggy and Raymond, the former messaging me every day about the latter watering the trees. But not being the sole decision-maker anymore, did mean giving up a bit of autonomy. And sometimes I felt slowed down by partners being off island, while I’m sure people wondered how I could need so much time to confer with my professors. So it was surely a project evoking many contradicting sensations, but most importantly I experienced the barriers a land owner on Saba wanting more than Coralita runs into.
And barriers were definitely encountered! One fluffy, one fluid. The furry barrier are the free roaming goats, who devour our lemon trees in an instance if they aren’t fenced in. Now, fences are costly business on Saba: a local contractor estimated $10.000 to fence in 500 m2. Government has been supporting farmers with recovering fences from hurricane damage, but people just wanting to do some amateur gardening are not eligible for such support. We were lucky enough to get personal assistance from the agriculture department, helping us to put fences around each lemon tree. But well, one such fence turned out not strong enough to resist a hungry goat. Which at first seems a set-back, but is reflective of the hardship of agriculture on the island frequently described to me by its inhabitants in the past few years. Having this happen to "my" trees is part of living the land owner experience.
The other barrier identified was a fluid matter: plants need water to grow, and on sunny Saba a lot of it. Rainwater is the main source of water, which is collected via roofs and stored in cisterns underneath the house. There is an old cistern on our test land, which the government was so kind as to fill with water. However, for the individual land owner hoping to get through the dry period without having to call the, extremely expensive, water truck, this is definitely a barrier. And thus we unveiled a Coralita circle: it grows on unused land, which goats and the water challenge make very expensive to change, causing land owners to leave the land unused, offering Coralita every opportunity to invade and conquer.
So, experiment failed? Well, we did not find the golden egg when it comes to Coralita management, but it would have been naive to think I could mend in a few years what Sabans have been struggling with for decades. And experiencing the barriers like this gives much richer data than interviews or surveys do. Because, let’s not forget, this was also a scientific experiment! In every scientific experiment there comes a time where you need to empty your test tubes and rinse out the Petri dishes pipette. In a week I’ll be returning to Saba to reflect on this project jointly with the participants, and then I’ll have to transfer the trees to someone else. Sad, but that’s life outside of the hermit’s office.