When Azucena Morán took a role at a research centre as a ‘side gig’ she discovered academia offered her the career she wanted but hadn’t been looking for. As part of the Springer Nature Storytellers programme, she told her story of how she has come to study participatory and deliberative democracy, particularly in the context of the climate crisis.
“Those surveyed agreed on the fact that just a few participants, or actually none of them, had ideas that were too different from their own,” said Azucena Morán, research associate of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS Potsdam) and a doctoral researcher at University of Potsdam, “and things started getting tricky from there.”
Azucena’s research explores the interface between social and political philosophy, democratic theory and citizen participation in contemporary politics. As well as her work at IASS Potsdam, she’s a senior research fellow at Public Agenda, engaged in the Healthier Democracies Project.
She described her transition into academia and her experience researching a climate change general assembly, as part of the Springer Nature Storytellers programme which harnesses the power of storytelling to help expand authors’ influence beyond their scholarly circles.
In acknowledgement of our commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), our recent focus for the programme has been on the food–energy–water nexus, hearing stories about related research.
Azucena opened her talk by explaining her early career aspiration to be a journalist. And why academia isn’t as far away from that role as it may first appear.
“My dad was a journalist during the Guatemalan civil war,” explained Azucena. “200,000 people were murdered, disappeared. The nation was left dealing with genocide and the person responsible for the genocide was free.”
As a child, Azucena spent hours in her dad’s office and eventually began to go through his magazine archives. As her interest grew, her dad encouraged it – taking her to interviews and meetings.
“I had decided I was going to be a journalist,” she said. “I started a school newspaper, I got really engaged with social media. Years later, I was editing the magazine of my university and [a friend] knew I was looking for extra gigs and I needed money. So he was like, ‘You know, there's this opening at the research centre I'm working at, you should apply.’”
Little did Azucena realise that what she’d originally viewed as “an extra gig” would lead her down a completely different career path into academia.
“I discovered that it was basically everything that I loved,” she explained. “Reading, interviewing, constructing and deconstructing ideas, finding the words to explain really complex things, failing and starting all over again. It was somehow like a tweaked form of long, really slow journalism.”
Her research career developed from mapping hundreds of cases of citizen engagement in Central America and the Caribbean to focusing on really specific cases of people deliberating environmental futures.
Azucena decided to revisit topics that had not been adequately addressed in the Guatemalan peace accords – the democratic governance of constructivism and land distribution. And she realised that there were strong parallels between these and the civil war.
“These topics today mean new proxy conflicts,” she said. “[There are] forced displacements, extrajudicial killings of environmental indigenous leaders, entire villages burned to the ground. It’s just like during the war.”
Her research looked into how communities are defending their land against extractive capitalism and nationalist agendas. She wanted to understand how communities were demanding the right to be consulted and to set up deliberative processes within their territories.
When Azucena learned about a climate change general assembly linked to COP, the UN Climate Change Conference, she was initially very excited about the potential it held.
The global assembly was a process that gathered 100 citizens from all over the world. The deliberation of these citizens would not only reach NGOs or civil society organisations but it would also reach international lobbyists and governments that had historically benefited from extractive capitalism.
Azucena became part of the evaluation team for the global assembly, led by Professor Nicole Curato. Responses to the surveys from participants of the assembly were overwhelmingly positive, however it wasn’t long before Azucena began to question whether the process truly reflected the challenges she’d seen in places like Guatemala.
“One thing remained constant,” she said, “and all data was pointing to it – survey data, the data that I was coding from video recordings, interviews, everything – there was almost no conflict. People would hardly disagree with each other.”
To Azucena, this lack of conflict felt in direct contradiction to her on-the-ground experience during the consultation process for the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Guatemala.
“[During this process] there were unlawful detentions, there was the criminalisation of indigenous leaders, there was the criminalisation of activists, there were protests, there were complaints about NGOs, there were even several jokes about researchers doing academic research on these processes,” she explained. “And there were young voices really struggling to decide between the promises of extractive capitalism in one of the poorest regions in Central America and the historical demands for land ownership and deliberative autonomy.
“So for me deliberating on the climate crisis was messy. But the climate assembly, the global climate assembly that I was seeing on my computer, was not really messy.”
This contrast between her research experiences and what was coming out of the general assembly made Azucena question the whole process.
“[The general assembly] was bringing people whose suppression built the climate crisis to deliberate on top of the same foundations that created this ecological crisis,” she said. “I eventually started tying [the lack of conflict] to what a facilitator described in an interview as a predefined structured process that made you feel straight-jacketed.”
Azucena concluded her story with some of the big questions that she feels need to be answered and the concerns she has about how democratic responses to climate change are currently being conducted.
“I wonder whether the Eurocentrism of academia is actually letting us look in the right direction when we talk about democratic responses to the climate crisis,” she said, “and I wonder whether the governance of this transition will make space for the difficult questions and all of the voices that are going to be affected by the crisis upon us.”
You can watch Azucena’s full story below: