During her years in Mexico, Senior Researcher Hanna Laako took a large leap in the multidisciplinary research of global politics. Empirical and fieldwork-based research is slowly gaining relevance in International Relations.
- Text Sari Eskelinen | Photos Varpu Heiskanen, David Andrade/Laako home album and Miguel Urbina/Laako home album
The Usumacinta River flows through the Mexico, Guatemala and Belize border region. Approximately 35% of the extensive 73,200-square-kilometre River Basin is protected. Hanna Laako has spent more than a decade of her career as a researcher in these borderlands. In her latest research, she has been delving into the interactions between transboundary conservation and international relations in international border regions.
“As a researcher, I’m interested in exploring how conservation projects and tools shape international relations in international borderlands, as evidenced in the Usumacinta River Basin. I also examine how international relations are embedded, transformed and built by conservationists in such borderlands,” Laako explains.
These issues are in the focus of Laako’s research project, which is funded by the Finnish Kone Foundation. In the project Laako examines Mesoamerican tropical conservation politics in the Maya Forest. The Maya Forest refers to the region that was first shaped by the Mayan civilisation and then rewilded again during colonization.
“The Maya Forest (in Spanish Selva Maya) is a concept developed by conservationists and scientists in the 1990s to promote its protection as an eco-region.”
Nature and conservation are often reduced to background in International Relations research
The Maya Forest is one example of transboundary conservation strategy, which has been promoted both by international conservation organisations and regional ones. According to Laako, the strategy’s aim has been to protect the international borderlands full of biodiversity as wildlife does not obey human-imposed political divisions.
“On the other hand, the strategy also stated that transboundary conservation promotes peace-building between the countries. This has been a provocative statement especially for scholars of political ecology.”
Laako notes that nature and conservation are often reduced to “a background extra” in International Relations research despite the fact that natural environment is often the central stage for many political processes, especially in border regions. Political borders are frequently created in accordance with natural landmarks, such as the Usumacinta River, which draws a 356-kilometre fluid border between Mexico and Guatemala. Nations, border communities and conservationists working in border regions also mould international relations in complex and intricate ways.
“During our fieldwork, we found that conservationists have plenty of expertise and they actively engage in environmental collaboration to forge these relationships. Further, the communities living in these kinds of remote areas in the Maya Forest are in more contact with communities across the border than they do with their own country’s central government.”
Currently research on the Mesoamerican Maya Forest 2019-2024, funded by the Mexican CONACYT (2019-2020) and the Finnish Kone Foundation (2020-2024).
Previous research: Conservation Politics in the Transboundary Usumacinta River Basin (2017-2019), Mexican and Latin American Midwiferies (2014-2016), Mexican Southern Borderlands (2012-2014), Decolonization and the Zapatista Movement (2006-2011).
The international research project brought Laako to conservation politics
During the past years, Laako has researched nature conservation politics in the Usumacinta River Basin, which flows through the border region between Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. The research project, which began in 2017, included biologists, geographers and social scientists from 21 universities and research organisations.
“I took a multidisciplinary leap in the research project when the geographical focus became part of my research, especially in the understanding of spatiality and territorial transformations. Undertaking a multidisciplinary research project has been challenging – projects like this force you to go outside your comfort zone and extend beyond your own conventional perspectives, but they are also extremely enriching for the same reason.”
Simultaneously conservation politics became part of Laako’s research trajectory. At the same time, she also revived her interest in borderlands, which was already familiar to her from her doctoral dissertation. Laako and her colleague Edith Kauffer recently published an article in the prestigious Political Geography journal, in which they employ the concept of frontier to examine how nature conservation is embedded in the territorial transformations of the border region. The term, originally developed by the North-American historian Frederic Jackson Turner, has been controversial and yet frequently employed concept for a long time.
“Recently the concept has made a comeback in political ecology related to Global South. In recent literature, the frontier refers to resource conquests, which transform power relations in naturally rich peripheries, and it therefore has more emphasis on environmental dimensions.”
Transboundary conservation also involves some colonial characteristics
The broadly debated frontier concept is employed to examine all kinds of resource appropriations that transform power relations in border regions. In this context, ecological actors are conceptualised as their own frontier operating in the border region: Namely, as an eco-frontier.
“The politicization of nature conservation plays a role here. There are concerns about whether conservation is merely another resource appropriation or conquest.”
Laako and Kauffer observed that nature conservation is embedded in borderlands dynamics in complex ways. It also involves global and colonial aspects.
“On the other hand, we also found that nature conservation is a way for communities in the borderlands to resist multinational companies and mines. Many communities in the Usumacinta River Basin have worked with conservationists to resist resource appropriations and extractivism. The states have a complicated role both in implementing conservation measures and in resource extraction. Nature conservation policy has many points of friction, especially when it comes to the activities of the state.”
Nature conservation politics is also a tool for communities to resist extractivism.
Doctoral dissertation on Mexico’s Zapatistas
Laako’s international career path began as an undergraduate. She completed her MA degree in Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Next, her path took her to the University of Salamanca in Spain, where she started in a doctoral programme in Political Science. The programme was specifically focused on Latin America.
“My interest in the Zapatistas in Mexico emerged already in Aberdeen. I was fascinated by the history of the Zapatistas because they had managed to prepare in hiding for a decade before coming to the world’s attention in 1994. The movement also veered in its course radically after the initial armed uprising and turned its focus towards civil society. I was also interested in how the movement became part of the broader wave of Indigenous emergence especially in the Americas. Suddenly the Indigenous movements had become influential actors in world politics.”
At the University of Aberdeen, Laako also became interested in issues of decolonisation. Various young and critical researchers involved in these kinds of subjects had recently become part of the teaching staff. Decolonizing International Relations, a 2006 book written by Laako’s opponent at the public defence of her dissertation, Branwen Gruffydd Jones, also inspired Laako to delve deeper into the subject because it examined the ways in which International Relations are shaped outside the Western countries.
“My research has always been connected to perspectives of Politics and International Relations. In other words, my research topics always involve analysis of global power relations and structures.”
Laako eventually completed her doctoral dissertation on the Mexican Zapatistas in the field of World Politics at the University of Helsinki and as part of the Graduate School for North and Latin American Studies in 2011.
Laako made something of a “bypath” in her research career between 2014 and 2016 when she developed a research project on Mexican and Latin American midwiferies. The midwives and politicization of midwifery captured her attention in the context of the birth of her second child that was attended by autonomous Mexican midwives.
“Until that point, I had kind of taken the midwives for granted and had certain perceptions based on the Finnish context. However, in the Americas, the profession of midwife was almost completely eliminated with the advent of modern medicine.”
Laako was indeed interested in midwifery as a social movement. In North-America, midwives had promoted the revival of the profession. The situation in Mexico has been to some extent similar.
“In Mexico, professional midwives had been phased out by the early 1960s. Some midwives have fought to bring back the profession. Currently the Mexican legislation recognises midwives only vaguely.”
Traditional and Indigenous midwives are also organised in Mexico and fought for the right to practice their own medicine.
“The issue of traditional midwives continues to be politicised globally.”
This turned out to be important for a researcher of global politics. The midwifery research was completed with the publication of the recent book by Routledge, Midwives in Mexico: Situated Politics, Politically Situated, authored by Hanna Laako and Georgina Sánchez Ramírez.
Empirically-based research in the field of International Relations
Laako carried out extensive fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation in Mexico. During the long transatlantic flights, many key research questions that had seemed to previously of major importance started to seem irrelevant, and Laako eventually decided to enrol as a visiting researcher at Mexico’s Anthropological Research Institution CIESAS in Chiapas.
“At this point decolonisation became the central point in my research. I had to take critical distance to some traditional power relations related to social scientific research, and it was Anthropology that gave me useful tools to deal with this. It was also my first multidisciplinary effort. Now decolonisation has gained more visibility also in European research and science.”
Thus, Laako extends her gratitude to the Mexican researchers and research community for giving her the opportunity to grow as a researcher.
“The importance of a multidisciplinary approach became very evident there. In my own research, this has given me an understanding of the local context in addition to global politics, especially when it comes to the situatedness of knowledge. Empirically-based and situated research in International Relations is gaining relevance, but this kind of approach has certainly not been its predominant endeavour.”