FIELDWORK IN HIGH-INTENSITY CONFLICT ZONES:
PRAXIS, ETHICS, AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Leslie E. Sponsel
Introduction Actually, the only high conflict zones I have ever witnessed are faculty meetings, in recent
months cyberspace, and the AAA convention this year! But those are different contexts from the one we
are preoccupied with for this panel. I have never conducted fieldwork in an active high conflict zone. In
the Venezuelan Amazon I did fieldwork with a northern subgroup of Yanomami called Sanema, but that
was certainly not a conflict zone by any stretch of the imagination, although the Yanomami have long
been a zone of conflict among anthropologists. There were some quarrels in the village, mainly marital,
one club fight, and three false alarms of a raid, but otherwise, like John Peters, Ken Good, and others, I
was most impressed by how harmonious village life was on a daily basis. Personally, I never felt in any
danger or risk myself. Indeed, in walking through the forest, the Sanema were very careful to alert me to
any poisonous snakes and other hazards. Previously while doing primate research in Ethiopia I road in a
jeep with a Kerayu nomad pointing his rifle toward my head, but was assured that it was not loaded.
Fortunately, he didn't pull the trigger to determine whether the rifle was loaded. More recently in southern
Thailand, one of my informants had only one leg, the other was blown off by a land mine set by extremist
Muslim separatists. I guess all three of these situations had some potential for conflict and violence, and
maybe I was just naive and lucky, but it would have probably been better to be more prepared, sensitive,
and alert to possibilities of conflict and violence.
Why is this topic important? Now about one third of the world's countries are involved in some kind of
warfare, and about two-thirds regularly resort to abuses of human rights (Sluka 1995:276-277). Clearly
the chance of an anthropologist getting accidentally caught in a conflict has been increasing in recent
decades. It must now be considered by fieldworkers and also by professors in training and advising
graduate students about fieldwork, and this together with my long-standing concern for human rights is
the main reason I agreed to the invitation to participate in this panel.
Furthermore, conflict and violence is very likely to increase in coming years and for decades. Why?
There are numerous reasons, but certainly in many cases they include increasing population and and
economic pressures on land and resources with consequent competition often becoming violent. Thomas
Homer-Dixon and colleagues have systematically studied the rise in resource competition and correlated
violence in a large cross-national sample, the results published among other places in an article in
Scientific American in February 1993. Norman Myers, R.D. Kaplan, and others have written about this
gloomy future as well. That is why this topic is so important, and increasingly so in the near future.