The body as a collective power to conserve wetlands

Is it possible to have a conversation with a wetland? This was one of the questions that came up when two researchers came together to think about the collaborative capacity of various actors when it comes to transforming socio-ecological systems; specifically the wetlands of Valdivia. Through a transformation laboratory (T-Lab) that includes scientific observation, dance, workshops, facilitation, interviews and ethnographic analysis, Marcela Márquez –who is undertaking a postdoctoral degree at the Río Cruces Wetland Center of the Universidad Austral–, together with Hannah Ennis –a student of Environmental Justice and Dance at Middlebury College–, embarked on an innovative transdisciplinary exploration. Marcela was developing the Fondecyt project entitled “Processes of collaboration and collective action in urban wetlands: the city of Valdivia as a scenario for socio-ecological transformation,” when she met Hannah, who was visiting the city to research the community restoration of wetlands. The synergy was immediate and they decided to collaborate:

Fundación Mar Adentro: Valdivia has seen important socio-environmental conflicts regarding wetlands. How would you describe the current reality of key actors in the territory you’ve investigated?

Marcela Márquez (MM): Valdivia is a wetland city that is based on these ecosystems, and is the cradle of a social movement that is a result of multiple contingencies, such as the deaths of swans due to the Celulosa Arauco contamination of 2004. This marked a milestone for the movement, so there are many environmental activism initiatives and, therefore, various actors or agents that are trying to conserve the wetlands. At the same time, this is happening in a scenario of nature conservation versus real estate development. Nevertheless, there is still environmental awareness being generated.

Hannah Ennis (HE): When I arrived to Chile I was captivated by the large presence of urban wetlands in Valdivia. Each person in Valdivia has their own relationship with the wetlands. Just by living in connection with those waters, there exists a relationship of agency (1). In that sense, we could think of key actors such as people who work in conservation, environmental managers, neighbors and many others; but I would say that agency is a transversal aspect that intersects all these actors.

MM: In addition, ecological committees have been created to bring together neighbors, meaning there is also a notion of collectivity in the conservation of wetlands.

How have you seen the capacity for transformation in your Transformation Lab (T-Lab) project (2)?

HE: Dance is a way of being more conscious of the agency that impacts other bodies. T-Lab is about collective agency –organized groups that collectively seek to protect the environment– and that is radical. Sometimes a community does not have access to power, so collective agency can become a mechanism to strengthen the power and influence of these individuals, to the extent that each person has their own expertise and understanding. This is represented in the collective movement dynamics.

MM: It’s interesting to see how different species have agency; not just humans, but the wetlands or the swans that inhabit them. The work of Chilean researchers such as Claudia Sepúlveda or Gustavo Blanco on posthumanism and environmental conflicts has been novel in this sense. It challenges the fact that only human beings have the capacity to change things, as other beings also influence us and there are multiple interactions and feedback between different beings.

Is there a metaphorical intention to project agency within and without ourselves?

MM: Yes, and also movements that represent the wetland or how one feels with the wetland, to embody the ecosystem in a personal way; that is, how it impacts each one. Another of the explorations we developed in this Transformation Laboratory was a walk along a path in which one person showed another a route they used to take every day, with the intention of connecting with the idea that that which is outside is also inside you.

In the feedback spaces you facilitated, there is surely a convergence of multiple stories, social and age contexts. What challenges have you found in these interactions?

MM: When facilitating, what is ultimately being done is creating or holding space, and this needs to be clear at the beginning and end of the session. It is necessary to explain the rules of the game when there are people from different contexts. For example, Hannah asks at the beginning of a session: “What is dance?” Then she asks everyone to forget their answers. The main thing is to then invite the participants to break free of prejudices and liberate themselves. In the workshops that include different generations, we see that children have less prejudices associated with movement than adults and young people. In those cases, we try to make corporality grow in crescendo. We are used to getting together and talking, but not moving. This process also includes a workshop with arpilleristas of the Angachilla wetland, and it was a revealing experience for them to move and connect with their bodies.

HE: Facilitation is the art of improvisation. With every workshop or experience, you learn to hold space that includes all participants. As facilitators we understand this collective process, summarizing it and trying to activate movements little by little to create comfortable and safe spaces. We seek a balance where the act of agency arises naturally from the participants.

The Fondecyt project led by you, Marcela, was presented in ANID’s new transdisciplinary line; a concept that can be a bit abstract in terms of how to effectively produce. How do you work with these expectations in the project? 

MM: In general, inter- and transdisciplinarity seek to solve concrete problems, such as, for example, socio-environmental issues. It isn’t easy because it requires an intersection of knowledge and creating a new and more comprehensive understanding that can’t be reached just through the agent who dances or the one that works in nature conservation. To address socio-ecological aspects it is necessary to reset the mind, so that it is fresh and creative and the disciplinary boundaries are erased or placed on hold. That is why this exploration through movement has been very interesting to cultivate creativity and cross disciplinary limits that are so ingrained in us.

HH: I feel that the fact that people introduce themselves in direct relation with their profession limits awareness of what and who we are. We are so much more than the disciplines we work in, and we can sometimes lose ourselves. With dance and movement we see how experts in certain areas have to put on hold the closed-off side of what defines them. In order to implement transdisciplinarity it is necessary to humbly consider a moment when the experts in different areas are willing to listen and learn something they don’t know; step out of their comfort zone and expand their fields. Listening with the body is important, as it can perceive another body that provides critical reflection; another being that can teach an investigation or knowledge.

It would be like moving the limits that assure us of who we are…This converses with the so-called “turns” that occur in social sciences and humanities, such as the affective turn, the vegetative turn and, why not, the wetland turn…What stage is the project currently in?

MM: The literature I’ve read on socio-ecological transition speaks of researchers’ needs to stop feeling like ‘only’ researchers and take a more active role, in addition to observing. The Fondecyt project runs parallel to Hannah’s; although her project has already finished, it opened the doors to both investigations. In fact, we want to publish a book that summarizes the movement workshops. We are in our third and last year of the T-Labs. The idea has been to plant a seed of transformation and think creatively about how we can address the socio-ecological crisis.

HH: My investigation lasted five months, during which time I joined Marcela’s project to put down roots and train other facilitators that are still working on this project. I went back to Vermont, USA to do my thesis (3).

MM: During the stage of training other facilitators, we worked with three dancers and three socio-ecologists or scientists interested in the human and more-than-human dimension of nature conservation. They were trained in this integration of disciplines, which means that there is now human capital that knows how to create these spaces of movement and transformation. I found it interesting that, when we worked with them in mixed workshops –one dancer and one scientist–, they found that their movement rhythms were different. The dancers came in at a slower pace, while the scientists had a faster dynamic.

HH: Training these trainers (facilitators) was very important. This idea stems from the vocabulary of dance, which incorporates the integrations of disciplines, the art of improvisation, and mutual respect. This is based on each person arriving with awareness of their own value.

Hannah Ennis is an Environmental Justice and Dance student at Middlebury College in Vermont, USA. Her thesis work is based on narratives of human resilience and community restoration, using wetlands as critical sites for understanding responses to anthropogenic climate change. Her studies of Earth’s climate and social justice movements are accompanied by her own movement and she can frequently be found at her campus dance studio. Hannah seeks to honor the body as a place of deep understanding and seeks to live in creative and liminal spaces.

Marcela Márquez García is a Biologist majoring in the Environment and with a Master in Ecology from the University of Chile, and a Doctor in Interdisciplinary Ecology from the University of Florida (USA). She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Río Cruces Wetland Center (CEHUM), Universidad Austral de Chile. She carries out scientific and practical work in the field of human dimensions of biological conservation. She is interested in conservation education and communication, facilitation of participatory processes, collaboration and collective action for the transformation of socio-ecological systems. Recently she has been collaborating with the Ministry of the Environment and the Illustrious Municipality of Valdivia for the implementation of Law No. 21,202, on the protection of urban wetlands. Recently, she was awarded a new FONDECYT Regular project in the Inter- and Transdisciplinary group –as a co-researcher with Gustavo Blanco, who is the lead researcher– to work on posthumanism issues, incorporating the notion of T-Labs, entitled The multiverses of conservation: exploring modes of coexistence and more-than-human care in southern-austral Chile.”



(1) The sense of agency “refers to one of the most important qualities of the human being: the capacity to act intentionally and, therefore, to achieve purposes or goals guided by reason.”

(2) A Transformation Laboratory (T-Lab) is “a participatory and transdisciplinary process that creates a space that protects and cultivates creativity, innovation, and experimentation between individuals to reveal novel paths to sustainability. Its objective is to encourage reflection on the role of participants in the socio-ecological system, and identify the practices that need to be addressed for collective action,” according to the research project led by Marcela Márquez.

(3) Amanda Salin Moreno; Valentina Gallardo; Roberto Borquez; Nahomi Manríquez; Rocío Rodríguez and Jorge Proschle.

Violeta Bustos Vaccia

Interview by: Violeta Bustos Vaccia, Head of Communications of Fundación Mar Adentro. She is a journalist, graduate in Data Visualization and Master in American Aesthetics from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She is a researcher and teacher in the field of digital communication and content creator on topics linked to art, social sciences, culture and the environment.