Melissa Johnsonís Research and Writing
Naturally Creole: Nature, Community and Identity in an Ecotourist Paradise
My main research, the focus of both my dissertation research in the mid-1990s, and on-going field research through 2009 in Belize and among Belizean migrants in the U.S., explores the meanings and practices of nature and progress in which rural Creole Belizeans engage. The bulk of my research centers on processes of wildlife conservation and rural development in the Belizean Creole (Afro-Caribbean) communities of Crooked Tree and Lemonal in Central Belize. The newly independent Government of Belize established the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary in 1984, at about the same that a locally run ecotourism industry began to grow in the village. On the surface, this situation seems to exemplify what current theorists and planners are calling for: local-level involvement in and benefit from protected area management. Yet all is far from perfect here. I argue that a central problem in this is, as in many other situations in the global South, is a fundamental conflict in the ideas of nature and progress held by the various groups of people involved in Crooked Tree. These include various constituencies within the village, the government of Belize, Belizean NGOs, transnational conservationists and other multi-and bi-lateral agencies. Along with conflicting sets of ideas (and the practices they inform), a major issue is the uneven distribution of power, both in terms of decision-making and the resources (economic, cultural and political), that go along with this. This uneven distribution repeats historical patterns of marginalization of rural Creole peoples, and sets into play dynamics of hegemony and resistance. Thus, both ways of thinking and patterns of practice generate difficult circumstances for implementing sustainable development---or simultaneously conserving biodiversity and nurturing a local socio-economic system.
I am currently completing a book-length manuscript for publication that focuses on what nature is for rural Creole Belizans within this context, and how ideas about what nature is are intertwined with conceptions of progress and the visions rural Creoles have for their communities. I have three journal manuscripts related to this project in various stages of the publication process.
I am particularly interested in the relationship between rural Belizeans and jaguars. A camp for trophy jaguar hunting (of previously trapped and cages cats) run by a man from the U.S. employed several Creole men in the 1960s; jaguars are listed as endangered species day; jaguars threaten cattle herds and village dogs; and jaguars occupy a big place in everyday discourse in rural Belize.
I have been thinking about the relationship between migration to the U.S., senses of identity and hunting, fishing and game fish and meat products.
I have written recently on ideas of dirt and matter out of place in Belize, reflecting on how people think about nature, modernity, and the material that 21st century consumption generates
Another major research project concerns the mutual constitution of racialized identities and socially constructed landscapes. Belize is famous for its racially and ethnically homogenous villages, and these groups in Belize are patterned in particular ways in the natural environment.† I explore how colonial discourses about nature and race both created these kinds of patterns and how these particular discourses in Belize were also shaped by the practices of different groups of Belizeans, within the constraints of the colonial economic and political apparatus.† In this project I focus primarily on the emergence of the Belizean Creole identity, and the construction of the Garifuna (formerly known as Black Caribs). I have two articles published on this project, on in Environmental History, and one in Belizean Studies.
In the Summer of 2009, SU Environmental Studies major, and Junior, Kimberly Griffin, and I began working on a social and environmental history of a small section of the San Gabriel River that runs through Georgetown. The river has been the central focus of human activity in the area for thousands of years, and over time, and changes in various peoples relationship to the river reveals shifts in the social make up and the relationship between humans and nature in this part of the world. As with my work in Belize, the tight entwining of ideas about race and nature provide a fruitful analytical framework for our inquiry.
This was an inter-disciplinary student-oriented project conducted with Drs. Laura Hobgood-Oster in Religion and Emily Niemeyer in Chemistry. Along with students (7 in the summer of 2002, of which 5 are pictured below: Santiago Guerra, Angela Townley, Ben Thompson, Kelly Sharp, and at the front, Claire Campbell).† Laura, Emily and I aimed to better understand how people cope with living in heavily degraded landscapes along the border, the nature of that degradation, and the attempts made by both community members and outside groups (especially church-related service efforts) to improve these conditions.† My capacity in this project was supervisory, with most of the ethnographic research conducted by students. Our project was the subject of the lead article in the Southwestern alumni magazine.† Claire Campbell, Santiago Guerra and Emily Williams also joined me in a panel entitled Environmental Justice: At Home and Abroad at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, November 24, 2002 in New Orleans. Emily Niemeyer and I published an article, Ambivalent Landscapes: Environmental Justice in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, in the journal Human Ecology.
Last Updated 8/09