How ecological assessments can benefit from engagement with Indigenous and local knowledge

Part of a new Special Feature, Informing decisionmaking with Indigenous and local knowledge and science, Pamela McElwee and colleagues look at the important role of Indigenous and local knowledge in initiatives such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment.

BES_Indigenous and local knowledge_BlockInterest in Indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) has been growing, but not everyone knows what ILK is or how it can help them in their scientific work. As we show in our new paper, fields like applied ecology and resource management can indeed benefit from engaging with ILK and partnering with Indigenous People and local communities (IPLC) in their research. My co-authors and I were all contributors to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment (GA), released in May 2019 to worldwide headlines about threats to species and ecosystems on which people depend. What is less well known is that the GA was the first global ecological assessment to systematically draw on ILK as part of its work. Using our experience with the GA as a guide, we outline how other assessments can benefit from use of ILK, and what steps to take to do so.

What is ILK?

ILK has been defined as ‘knowledge and know-how accumulated across generations, which guide human societies in their innumerable interactions with their surrounding environment’. ILK comes in many forms, from oral histories to written reports to art and song. ILK is tremendously important in helping manage ecosystems, conservation initiatives, and resource-dependent economies in vast regions of the world, as IPLC either control, use, manage, or co-administer an estimated 25-28% of the world’s land area. Yet because ILK often focuses primarily on local and contextual knowledge, that makes it challenging to aggregate and scale up, which is the primary job of most assessments.

IPBES_Peter Bates
A side event held in NYC during the meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples Issues, April 2019, to discuss the forthcoming IPBES GA. Photo: Peter Bates

How to include ILK?

To include ILK in the review and synthesis of evidence that was being done for the GA, we took several deliberative steps: first, a small group of authors formed an inter-report working group to design and answer questions focused on ILK and IPLC; second, we decided to integrate inputs from ILK across all chapters, rather than having a stand-alone ‘ILK chapter’; third, the GA issued an online call for contributions to identify other types knowledge in languages outside of English and in other forms; and fourth, the GA encouraged IPLC to be key stakeholders and contributors to the process, through face to face dialogues and through reviewing and commenting on drafts.

What does ILK help with?

Each of the steps we took helped to identify evidence emerging from ILK that could inform the findings of the report, and each chapter drew on ILK in different ways and for different conclusions. For example, in chapter 2, which assessed the current state of nature and nature’s contributions to people, ILK helped identify unique benefits and services that ecosystems provided. There were also a number of indicators of ecosystem change embedded in ILK that were aggregated to provide trendlines. For example, as described by researchers working with Indigenous communities in Canada and New Zealand, the condition of wild animals appears to be deteriorating and their sizes decreasing in some areas, which are observable through looking at fat in hunted animals. These types of indicators are both locally relevant, as they influence decisions about where to hunt and how, and can also be used to show trends of use to scientific monitoring (Table).

Trends in ecosystems Total ILK indicators  Examples of indicators Direction of trends
Decreasing resource availability 74 Distance needed to walk to hunt

Length of harvest season

Daily catch

83% are negative
Declines in wild species populations 283 Abundance of culturally significant species 56% are negative
Decreases in health conditions of wild animals 88 Behaviour of animals

Colour of fat of harvested animals

80% are negative
Arrival of new pests/alien species 25 Increased pest occurrence 95% are negative
Shifting species compositions within landscapes 59 Changing proportion of palatable and unpalatable plants on rangelands

Appearance of new species

81% are negative

Table: Examples of using ILK indicators to show trends in nature

Overall, our Journal of Applied Ecology article outlines some key content areas of the GA where attention to ILK was particularly important for questions of interest to applied ecology. These included: 1) enriching understanding of nature and its contributions to people, including ecosystem services; 2) assisting in assessing and monitoring ecosystem change; 3) shaping international targets and scenario development to achieve global goals like the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and Sustainable Development Goals; and 4) generating inclusive and policy-relevant options for people and nature.

We conclude that other assessments and initiatives seeking to engage ILK can learn from our experiences. Successfully bringing ILK into an assessment and into policy arenas requires a deliberate framework and approach from the start; this approach needs to recognize different knowledge systems and engages with networks of stakeholders reflecting diverse worldviews. Assessments need extra money and time to do this right. In return, fostering inclusion of ILK and partnering with IPLC can help these projects understand how natural and cultural systems co-produce each other, identify trends of change through diverse biocultural indicators, and improve sustainable development goals and policies for all.

The full article, Working with Indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) in large‐scale ecological assessments: Reviewing the experience of the IPBES Global Assessment, features as part of a Special Feature between Journal of Applied Ecology and People and Nature: Informing decision‐making with Indigenous and local knowledge and science. All articles in the feature are free to read for a limited time. Take a look at the Editorial bringing the feature together.

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