Recent years have seen new efforts ranging from the government to researchers and even software developers, to include Indigenous traditional knowledge (TK) in conservation and sustainability policy. These efforts show promise for not just Indigenous peoples, but for the society writ large, and demonstrate a newfound appreciation for the value of traditional knowledge and the unique insights it can provide. While large bodies of TK have evolved amongst Indigenous societies for generations, this knowledge has often been closely guarded or viewed with extreme skepticism by non-Indigenous society. Below are some recent examples of efforts to work collaboratively to protect Indigenous TK, and to wield its insights as we seek to sustain biodiversity and combat the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
We have written before on the topic of collaboration between Indigenous peoples and government bodies, NGOs, and researchers. Recently, the Government of Canada and the Inuit of Labrador entered an agreement to help protect marine biodiversity. Additionally, see our blog on researchers collaborating on TK and scientific research here.
Lethbridge is the first city in Alberta to involve Indigenous elders in land use planning to ensure that the city’s growth does not disrupt land use by the Blood Tribe. Under this consultation mechanism, the elders will provide input to the municipality on decisions regarding the construction of roads and bridges, and will also give the elders a chance to voice concerns if a proposed project will disrupt a sacred site. This will hopefully mitigate development on sacred sites. Having elders involved on this project may also reduce lengthy and costly litigation, as was recently seen in the Ktunaxa decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. The City of Lethbridge has also completed a TK study of the entire municipality, with the goal of understanding how the Blackfoot used the land historically and in the present. This sort of initiative will hopefully be emulated by other municipalities who are looking to preserve biodiversity and their Indigenous histories.
Moving from the prairies to Ontario, an Anishinabek/Ontario Fisheries Resource Centre employee, Jesse Popp, has helped create an app that allows Indigenous peoples in northern Ontario to record moose seen and harvested while out hunting. Combining technology and tradition and will permit Indigenous communities to have a tool to pool knowledge of the moose population. This is useful considering that moose populations have declined by 20% over the past decade. The idea is to expand the app so it is available to other communities and to tailor it to meet each community’s needs. Similarly, the University of Alberta also created an app that allows hunters to track the moose population, which was previously primarily done by researchers using a helicopter which was more expensive than relying on those already out on the land tracking and hunting moose. These sorts of apps use technology to capitalize on the knowledge and increased numbers of hunters (compared to researchers in helicopters) to monitor and conserve the moose population.
The above initiatives are similar to the Nature Conservancy of Canada's (NCC) work with the Cree Nation Government, seeking its input to advance conservation efforts. The Cree in Quebec have maintained their trapline system, where each family benefits from a specific tract of land for hunting, fishing and harvesting purposes. The knowledge from each family has been passed down through the generations, giving the Cree unique insights into the environment of their traditional lands, including how they have changed over time. The hope is that working with the NCC will help combat biodiversity loss by quickly recognizing impacts to local ecosystems resulting from environmental stressors like climate change. Some of the work involves mapping the land used for the trapline, which overlaps with areas that are most important for conservation generally. Combining the knowledge of those who work and live off the land with other scientific efforts will result in improved protection of resources.
While Indigenous TK has evolved and grown for centuries, fusing its insights with western science is a relatively new phenomenon. The examples above provide a glimpse of how different knowledge systems can work together toward common goals, so long as any access of TK is done with the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous provider of TK, and that they benefit for their contributions.