Fieldwork: Getting stuck in

Emiel describes the first phase of his PhD fieldwork: a survey of ten villages, spread across two protected areas in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province

Photo credit: Emiel de Lange

Author: Emiel de Lange

This post is an extract of one originally published on Emiel’s personal website.

The Fieldwork

I’m writing this from the provincial town as we take a short break. After surveying six villages across three districts without any issue, we were turned back from the most recent village we attempted to survey. We had already spent the night at the chief’s house, but in the morning the news came from the district that we didn’t have permission to work there. The letters of support we carried from the Ministry of Environment and frantic phone calls with WCS were unfortunately not sufficient to resolve the issue, and we were forced to make the long and difficult trip back through the forest, empty handed. Waiting in town for bureaucratic reasons is a good excuse to write a blog post!


Photo with the chief’s family

My two assistants, Vichet and Chantheavy, and I have now surveyed six of the ten villages. As we gain experience, things seem to be going more smoothly and, for me at least, are becoming more enjoyable. Those two have become real professionals which makes life easy for me. When we arrive in a village they know what needs to be done and what needs to be organised and I can take a step back while they sort it out. While we administer the questionnaire, my job is just to keep an eye on things and select the households to sample. It’s only in the interviews and focus groups that I take a more active role – directing the discussions while Vichet translates for me.


Chantheavy administering a survey

The pattern of activity in each village is, by now, predictable and familiar. We usually arrive some time in the afternoon, after a journey that has been unexpectedly challenging in some way (more on that later), and ask our way to the house of the village chief. Sometimes we then have to wait for him to return home, but otherwise we can introduce ourselves and ask his permission to do our work in his village. In addition to granting permission, they also generously allow us to make ourselves at home underneath their house (Khmer houses are raised on stilts) so that we can put up our hammocks, and, most importantly, feed us for the duration of our stay. Although it is never requested, we always give them a small payment for this when we leave.


A typical house in Preah Vihear

Staying with these families has been a real pleasure and has offered me a great insight into their daily lives. Some of the chiefs are elderly and spend most of the day resting while their grandchildren run about, others have young families and shy teenagers. It’s the wives that are really in charge though, running the household and taking care of us. Some take a backseat after providing the meals, and others sit with us and chat and tell stories late into the evening. The last village was like this, and the young children gathered round to listen. In the day we had a little dance party where the kids taught me how to dance the Khmer way, and in the evening the two boys took us to the ancient temples, lying in ruins, smothered by the forest that surrounds the village. Pushing aside lianas to admire the beautiful stone carvings with our young guides was a unique privilege.


Our two young guides showing us their local ancient temple

We spend most of the day walking the village and administering our survey, starting from around seven in the morning. As we walk I draw a little map in my notebook and check off the houses that we visit. We’ve now visited almost 300 households and this has also been a wonderful experience. As we approach and give the traditional greeting, hands together in front of our face, the villagers often smile and immediately begin to sweep their tables so that we have a clean place to sit – before they even know what we’re coming for! Certainly, the nature of our questions might be a bit sensitive for some of them, but on the whole everyone has been so gracious and patient. Seeing such a huge variety of households has also been fascinating in itself – I’d almost like to visit 300 households in the UK just to see the way that people differ in producing the space called ‘home’. I guess my inner anthropologist is emerging.


Cooking rice

We’ve devoted considerable time and attention to one of the most important aspects of preparing for these meetings – the purchasing of snacks

In the evening, when the chief is free, we ask him to help us invite people to the focus group discussions. We’ve found that early in the morning is a good time for the men to join us as they are free before they go to work the farms, and the women find the early afternoon a good time after they’ve prepared lunch. We explain to the chief what sort of mix of families we would like to have in our discussion, and then we ride around the village together selecting the households at his advice. The chief will often, playfully, warn the villagers not to forget! When the time comes to start our discussion there is usually some waiting involved. We gather at a comfortable place, perhaps a village meeting house if there is one, or if the chief’s house has a table and some chairs we can meet there. Beforehand we’ve devoted considerable time and attention to one of the most important aspects of preparing for these meetings – the purchasing of snacks. In some villages there are little shops that may sell a few fried bananas in the morning, or perhaps a family that occasionally sells some fried doughballs with coconut or palm-sugar glazed doughnuts. Once our participants arrive, sometimes more than we expected and sometimes fewer, we start our discussions.


Village chief helping us invite participants to a focus group discussion

About those roads. I should mention that we drive three old moto’s (125cc mopeds), that require constant attention. The first set of four villages we visited are all in Chheb Wildlife Sanctuary, which is some distance from town, towards the Laos border. We visited all four in one large circular tour that took us two weeks. The roads were wide gravel, which makes for smooth driving, but that didn’t stop us from having various issues. We set off to the second village in the afternoon, but didn’t get there till the next morning. Don’t worry, we had a safe place to sleep, but not before a dramatic and stressful evening. To sum up our evening: all three of the motorbikes had an issue, one after the other, and each time we were rescued miraculously by a kind stranger who happened to be coming by. The night ended with us abandoning hope of reaching the village that day, and loading our motorbikes into an empty ice truck that was heading back towards the main road, where we were graciously invited to sleep underneath a local house.

The key lessons here were to brush up on some basic vehicle repair skills before undertaking such a voyage, and to always check the fuel tank before leaving. More importantly, I also learned about the huge generosity that people are capable of, and I will never forget the three people who helped us escape a dark night spent in the wilderness. After unloading our moto, the ice-truck driver scrawled his name in the mud on the side of his truck, so that we might find him on Facebook. It was really unfortunate then, that, the next morning after realising we’d left a set of keys in his truck, we were unable to find any trace of him. I left my phone number with the house we’d stayed at, and miraculously a day later we got a call that the keys had been returned.


Resting in the shade on the road through Chheb wildlife sanctuary

The remainder of our time in Chheb went more smoothly as we’d learnt our lesson. Driving down the wide roads for hours at a time and passing nothing but the forests and grasslands on either side, gave a great sense of freedom and adventure! A recent camera trap survey showed that the area is still inhabited by wild cattle, elephants, leopards and wild dogs. Although we never saw any of these, it definitely felt like a very wild place.

Kulen Promtep, the other protected area we are surveying, is a different story. Rather than wide gravel roads, the villages are reached by ox-cart tracks which wind through the forest. At this time of year they are frequently flooded, prompting dozens of narrow moto tracks carved into the mud to scatter through the bushes, bypassing the flood. The trick must be to know which of these tracks is the right one to take, but as first-time visitors we clearly lack this knowledge. Often we’d get stuck, and have to push our motos through one at a time. While doing so, as the mud sprayed onto our clothes and the sweat soaked our shirts, a local youth might happily skirt around us and whizz off into the distance.


The Science

The first phase of my fieldwork is a survey of ten villages, spread across two protected areas in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province. We’re trying to understand the ways that people learn about and make use of pesticides, and how this varies from village to village. In particular, we’re interested in the misuse of these poisons as a tool for killing and eating wildlife – a practice with obvious conservation and public health implications. Much of the conservation work here is focussed on a handful of critically endangered species, so the poisoning of just a few individuals (as has been documented in the past) could be catastrophic. In each village, we administer a structured survey to a sample of households, and hold focus group discussions for both men and women. We also interview and talk to anyone who might know something more about these issues in their village.

The second pilot village was very different to the first, so a lot of the things we thought we’d learned were thrown into question once again.

As you will know if you read my previous blog post, we had the opportunity to pilot our instruments in two villages before starting out – this was incredibly valuable. The second pilot village was very different to the first, so a lot of the things we thought we’d learned were thrown into question once again. To recap – the first village was quite isolated, and the villagers (belonging to the Khoy ethnic minority) were largely subsistence farmers. Our data suggested that pesticides were not commonly used for agricultural purposes, but there was a common practice of using poisons to hunt wildlife in the forest, especially in the dry season. The second village was bigger, more connected, and generally more developed. The villagers had large farms, and used modern tools such as tractors, as well as pesticides and fertilisers, and produced crops for sale to middlemen. Our data suggested that there was very little use of wild meats, let alone use of poisons for hunting – a practice that shocked the villagers due to its obvious health risks. On the other hand, we learned that poisons can also be used to defend against the flocks of birds that raid the rice fields.

The key lesson, I think, was the need for some flexibility in our questioning. The nature of the focus group discussion or the unstructured interview means that these methods can easily adapt to the kinds of information they generate. If new behaviours come up in the discussion, we can flexibly ask and get more information about that new behaviour. So, rather than have a set protocol for the discussion, I decided to generate a bank of questions covering all foreseeable avenues of inquiry, which we could refer to during the discussion. This has worked really well, and to date most discussions haven’t strayed too far from those avenues. The structured questionnaire was trickier to adapt. Naturally, if a respondent tells us he engages in behaviour ‘X’ we can still ask him specific questions about this behaviour that we couldn’t ask another respondent, but if we want to get some quantitative data that we can use to make comparisons between villages, we need to have a fixed set of questions that will make sense when asked in all villages, and to all people.

The final questionnaire we’ve been using contains a number of sections. We begin with some basic demographic questions, asking about the respondents age, gender, position in the household, and whether they participate in any conservation activities. Next is a simple set of wealth indicators, adapted from a Basic Necessities Survey dataset carried out previously in these villages. We ask respondents whether they own a number of objects, all of which are considered necessities by most people in the village, but some of which are easily acquired by most people and others which only the wealthy can acquire. Our first questions about poisoning practices are asked indirectly, using a technique called the Unmatched Count Technique. As some of these practices are illegal and sensitive, respondents may not be truthful when we ask directly, so instead we show half of them a list of five activities, including the poisoning practice, and ask them how many of the activities they do. The other half of respondents see a list of four activities, without the poisoning practice, so that we can estimate the prevalence of the behaviour from the difference between these two groups. Just in case some people are willing to talk, we then have three sections – one for each of the poisoning practices we know of, where we ask them directly and can get more details about the practice. We start innocently, for example by asking them what pest issues they face and what methods they have for dealing with them, before asking whether they use pesticides. As I think the use of poison for hunting in the dry season is probably the behaviour that is most concerning from a conservation perspective, we also have a set of Likert-style questions to assess respondent’s attitudes and perceptions of social norms around this behaviour, before the direct question itself.

As some of these practices are illegal and sensitive, respondents may not be truthful when we ask directly

We’re administering these questionnaires using the Open Data Kit – an open source bundle of software that allows you to design surveys and collect the data through an app on an android tablet. This makes it very easy to enter the data and collect it all into spreadsheets afterwards. It’s a bit of a learning curve to design the XLM forms used to produce the survey, but this is more than compensated by not having to carry hundreds of paper forms and typing these manually into a computer. I also carry a portable set of solar panels so we can recharge these tablets during long stints in the forest.


Maintaining my mud-splattered zen despite the stress of riding in the forest