In the field: the challenges of ethnographic research in rural Ecuador

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

This is the story of how I became an active member of the Ecuadorian real estate market.  You see, I went to Vilcabamba – a tiny town in the south Andes – to study the emergence (the construction?) of a modern real estate market.  The town is a microcosm of what is going in many other places in South America (and Asia, for that matter), which is that increasingly more regulated real estate markets are replacing informal land sales, and the corresponding changes in land representation inevitably alter the cultural fabric of the towns and eventually the countries where this takes place.   I have my opinions about the phenomena, which I tried very hard to keep out of my research, but needless to say, they do not align well with being a part of it.   Looking back, it seems that once I was in the system, regardless of my initial role as an observer, I soon was balancing two additional, and conflicting roles – that of watchdog and that of agent.

I am sitting at a terrace table on a corner of the central park.  With me are Nick, a 40 year old former yoga instructor from California looking to buy a hectare of land, and Faith, a ‘spiritual teacher’ in her 50’s, looking at land, but not committed to buying.  We are waiting for Jean, a Belgian, who gave a 20% down payment on some land he is planning to resell, to take us to see the land.  I helped Royal out with some Spanish translation, so he allowed me to tag along.  Jean finally pulls up in a taxi and sends the driver to find a car with 4-wheel drive.   I introduce myself, explain my project and ask his permission to come along.  After some chitchat in French, he agrees.  While waiting for the more appropriate vehicle for what I can only imagine as extremely hilly land, somewhere high in the mountains, I start my usual inquiries. Why Vilcabamba? How did you first learn about it?  How long have you been here? Have you ever lived here?  His response to the last question is ‘no’, so I ask him how he knows that he wants to live here, to which he says “well, if I don’t like it, I’ll just sell and leave.”  I probe him deeper: “Do you know the effects of this on the community?”  He looks at me, weary already, but doesn’t respond.  For the rest of the trip, he is cool towards me, asking me to turn the recorder off often and refusing to engage in a real conversation.  I wonder if he is thinking about my question, or just wishing he could will me away and get on with business.  Either way, I realize that I am no longer merely an observer.  Does every emerging real estate market have someone who asks the tough questions?  And who am I to play that role?  As it turned out, Jean could not find anyone to buy the land.

Several days later, I had to travel into Loja, the nearest big city to Vilcabamba, located about 45 minutes by shared taxi north of the town.  The road winds between mountains and valleys, green and misty in the rainy seasons, but my eyes can’t help but notice each and every “se vende” (For Sale) sign.   In Loja, I run my errands (including a 60 cent eye exam) and on my way back to the taxi station, stop at Frutas de Paso, a small tienda run by a former Vilcabambeno Edgar.  He sells such hard to find items as raw macadamia and almond nuts, really high quality oatmeal, organic raisins among other delicatessen. Less than 5 minutes into my sampling session, he asks if I am staying in Vilcabamba.  The word ‘yes’ is not half way out of my mouth when he eagerly follows up: “Are you looking to buy land?”  I sigh.  I’m not, but I have a friend who is, I say, thinking of Nick (and of my project).  Later, as we finish looking at Edgar’s land, after I interrogate him about why he wants to sell it (he wants to expand his business in Loja, his kids are all in university), after tasting the fruit from his trees, including dragon fruit!, he takes me to the side and explains that he’ll be happy to pay me commission if I find him someone.  I thank him and promise to let him know if I meet anyone looking for what he has, but that I would never accept commission.  He looks at me funny, kisses my cheek, and we get on our way.    

Was I wrong to suggest Nick as a potential buyer?  Should I have tried to explain to Edgar some of the consequences of selling his land?  As the month wore on, my triple role as researcher, watchdog, and intermediary became increasingly more complex, until I was engaged in all three simultaneously all the time.  I now have the next three months to figure out what this means for my research.