The start of fieldwork: a first pilot study

This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

“Let this be a warning to my future self: one month into the trip and none of this has gone as planned…”

Vichet, Theavy and myself ready to start fieldwork

It’s been a month since I arrived in Cambodia. Before leaving the UK I had prepared as much as I could. Via Skype and email I had arranged for two Cambodian students to meet me and to work as my research assistants. I had also prepared all the survey materials, questionnaires and focus group protocols – at least for the first phase of fieldwork. Well, let this be a warning to my future self – one month into the trip and none of this has gone as planned.

When I arrived in Phnom Penh back in June I took the weekend to acclimate and catch up with colleagues at WCS. On Monday my assistants came to meet me at the office. We signed their contracts, did some preparation and the next day were off to Preah Vihear – the town from which WCS bases it’s operations across the Northern Plains of Cambodia. I planned to use the rest of the week to translate my questionnaires and familiarise everyone with the material, and this was going well until one of my assistants got sick just a few days later. The doctor advised her to go to Phnom Penh to get a treatment at the hospital. Health is of course the most important thing, and going to do fieldwork in remote forest villages when sick is clearly not a good idea, so Vichet (my other assistant) and I resolved to have everything ready for when she returned.

By Sunday we were done, and we heard that she would have to stay away a little longer, so I gave Vichet a week off to go and finish writing his thesis. I myself took the opportunity to see another corner of Cambodia, Koh Kong, and enjoyed walking in the forest. While I was in the remote Tatai valley, with the faintest of mobile signals the news of her resignation reached me, as the doctor advised her not to travel for a month. I must admit I had a mild panic, but Vichet knew of another student who could take on the position. Before agreeing, I wanted to meet her and make sure she’d be up to the task, so I went to Phnom Penh to make the arrangements.

I lost count of the number of times I flooded my exhaust, forcing us to wait while it drained.

And so it was that on the 12th of July, nearly 3 weeks after arriving in country, I had a team ready to start the pilot study – Vichet and Chantheavy my sidekicks. We travelled to a village called Svay Damnak Chas, which is not inside one of our protected areas but has similar characteristics and is also surrounded by forest. I’d payed for the repair of 3 motorbikes that WCS had given up on, so although this was a very cheap option we were driving what might be called ‘pieces of crap’, as we soon found out. After arriving in the village we asked our way to the chief’s house, but he was staying at his rice field for a few days. We managed to get his phone number, and he advised us to speak to his deputy. At the deputies house we found that he too was in the field but would come back in the evening. I was impatient, and asked his son if he could take us to him. We just needed to get his permission to start working in the village, and find somewhere to sleep – and apparently, it wasn’t hard to get to the field. This was a mistake.

To get to the deputy, we drove for almost two hours through the forest, on roads that we found extremely challenging. Half the time was spent skidding over sand and the other half sloshing through deep pools of mud. I lost count of the number of times I flooded my exhaust, forcing us to wait while it drained. Eventually, tired and wet, we met the deputy heading back to the village on his ‘Kor-yun’ a kind of motorised cart. He said he’d have to call the chief when he got back to the village before he could decide, and so we started the aimless return journey. It was when I was waiting at the cusp of a deep pool that Vichet’s moto went wild. He flew through the air just beside me and turned on to his side in the deep pool. Some mud must have gotten into his accelerator cable and he could no longer control his speed. It was getting dark, so we hid the moto in the bush and came back for it the next day with a kor-yun. Of course, when we brought it to the village garage the problem could not be demonstrated and so nothing was done, until I fearfully drove it back to Preah Vihear after we finished our pilot.

Houses in Svay Damnak Chas

The rest of our time in Svay Damnak Chas went fairly well. We hammocked under the deputy’s house and he kindly helped us to arrange our focus groups which we held in his yard. In the meantime we walked the village selecting households to survey. We learned a great deal, both about our protocols and about our research questions, and it was great for Vichet and Chantheavy to get some practice running a focus group before we do the real thing. It certainly wasn’t as scary as they may have thought beforehand. We got a better idea for how to phrase questions so that the villagers could understand them, and we also learned that one of our methods – the single sample count – was simply too complex for them to respond to properly. When the time came for our women’s focus group only a fraction of the invitees turned up, and more than an hour late. In contrast, all the men were early and we were joined by a swelling crowd as went.

We’re here to investigate the deaths of key wildlife species as a result of pesticide poisoning. Whether these were the result of the misuse of pesticides for agricultural purposes, or the intentional use of poison for hunting, was unknown. For the first few days of the pilot study all we were hearing is that pesticides were never used here, and that many people didn’t even know what a pesticide way. It was slightly baffling, but on the 3rd day was got a lucky break. One respondent mentioned that he uses poisons for catching birds and that they sometimes got stomach pains after eating this meat. Once we knew that this was a distinct behaviour, and once we understood the terminology used to describe these behaviours we were able to unlock a wealth of information in the focus groups and interviews. Everybody we asked offered us all the information we wanted about how they use these poisons, what species they catch and all the horrendous health effects that follow and that they seemingly ignore.

Naturally, these insights meant we had to change the focus of our questionnaire quite drastically to make sure we got this kind of information in future, but now knowing more about the behaviour of interest we are able to measure psychological constructs related to this much more effectively. Another issue is we’re not sure whether villages inside protected areas might be a little more sensitive about discussing this topic. So, tomorrow we’ll go to Kandak village to do a second pilot of our new survey instrument. Watch this space.

A sunset over the rice fields by Svay Damnak Chas village

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