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Recognizing the Crucial Scientific Contributions of Indigenous People

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Irene Fogarty

From rainforests to Arctic islands, there are thousands of gifted scientists around the world with no lab coats, and no degrees after their names. Irene Fogarty is working to recognize the knowledge of indigenous people, especially women, in their savvy perceptions of natural phenomena, and to help share their insight in addressing challenges like climate change.

“We tend to look at quantitative knowledge by individuals and we very much neglect that aspect of knowledge that is more oral, or done through storytelling; or song, and passed down through generations. Their knowledge comes from being passed down through millenia, testing different ways of biodiversity. So indigenous women’s knowledge can be a hugely important factor in combating climate change. Western science really needs to integrate that, and value that,” Fogarty said.

Fogarty is completing a Masters of Science degree in World Heritage Conservation through University College Dublin. She’s focusing on the UNESCO 1972 Convention. This landmark United Nations Convention links the concepts of nature conservation, and the preservation of cultural properties. The UN maintains a World Heritage List, working to protect and preserve some of the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites. But Fogarty says the people it recognizes need a stronger voice.

“I found myself being extremely interested and engaged with the idea of indigenous knowledge, and how indigenous representation has been so poor within the World Heritage Convention in terms of decision-making in general,” Fogarty said.

Currently there are more than 1,000 World Heritage Sites, ranging from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to Sri Lanka’s Ancient City of Sigiriya. But, she said, “They tend to have been managed from a very western philosophy perspective, which has been very challenging and difficult for indigenous people,” Fogarty said.

Globally, Fogarty says, indigenous peoples number around 370 million, who speak 4,000 different languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

Socio-economic disadvantages can hinder the voices of native people, who historically find it difficult to get heard, or even to get a seat at the table of traditional policymakers. But in dealing with life-threatening dangers such as sea level rise or climate change, traditional researchers are beginning to realize that knowledge observed first hand on a remote ice floe can be just as valuable as data-driven information detailed in a peer-reviewed journal. Whether witnessing cloud formations or invasive species, native women use keen observational skills to improve crop yields, restore bee populations, or manage scarce water supplies in response to a changing climate.

Fogarty has already received accolades for revealing some of the valuable fieldwork documented by indigenous women in their use of generational knowledge to understand the threats they face from climate change.

She was the inaugural recipient of the Mary Mulvihill Award. Mulvihill was a prominent and well-respected science journalist, reporting for both print and television in the Republic of Ireland. Colleagues established the charitable prize after her death in 2015.

“[Mulvihill] really was an amazing champion and advocate for telling the forgotten stories of women in science, both historically and in current days. She built up a network called WITS (Women in Technology and Sciences), as a platform for women in Ireland to engage, to make sure they were more prominent in the public sphere,” Fogarty said.

Fogarty’s winning essay focused on the forgotten role of native women in science knowledge, often overlooked, she said, by the “western brain” when talking about science. And many of the very issues causing dangers for indigenous people and their way of life are caused by developed countries, such as the burning of fossil fuels.

Fogarty also won the Graduate Student category of the 2018 AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition student essay competition for her submission, “Protected Areas Conservation, Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights.” It beat competition from 55 other entries from 24 different countries. The competition invites students to write on topics where science, technology and human rights intersect.

She said native people are immersed in nature, and at times understanding the nuances of climate, plants and animals can mean the difference between life and death.

“It is a very artificial western split, this idea that we can separate ourselves from nature. That needs to change first of all,” Fogarty said.

During her research for the Mulvihill essay, Fogarty discovered an “amazing” dictionary of the Inuit language; evolving from native people living in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.

“And you look at all the different words they have for the different nuances of snow, and that alone is key to survival,” Fogarty said.

Siku, for example, refers to ice in general, while qinu refers to slushy ice by the sea.

In these remote regions, there are no emergency services to call if there is an accident. So the proper response to even slight differences in the thickness, color and texture of ice and snow can save lives.

“This is the great tragedy of climate change, that their whole lexicon and culture is under threat. Because there are certain patterns in weather behavior that are changing the way the snow and ice behaves,” Fogarty said.

There are now some efforts aimed at sharing the differently acquired information from native and western academic sources about a range of ecosystem changes, so each can tap into the other’s strengths.

The LEO network (Local Environmental Observer) database is operated by a tribal consortium with a partnership in Canada and North America. Described as “the eyes, ears and voice of a changing environment,” it provides a simple way to report and document extreme weather or unusual environmental events using, among other tools, a mobile phone app. LEO covers vast sparsely inhabited regions in the Arctic and the northern territories of Canada, places seldom observed by outsiders.

“If you are a local fisher person, or a local knowledge keeper, or an elder from a tribe, and in your area you see invasive species; or something ‘off’ with weather patterns; or unusual animal behavior or something unusual with animals or plants, you can report it, and put it in the LEO database,” Fogarty said.

This repository builds up a very distinct picture of the regional changes that are going on, and it is shared globally.

Technology is also being used to help some indigenous populations with surveillance and protection. Drones and satellites can document criminal acts, such as poaching and illegal logging. The organization Cultural Survival assists in the collaboration of climate scientists and indigenous peoples.

Helping the world tap into native “knowledge keepers” for solutions can be beneficial for regions far beyond their own, especially as climate change is tied to more powerful tropical storms, floods and wildfires. Unfortunately, their knowledge is often dismissed or undervalued, no different from many women’s contributions in the traditional science community and research facilities.

“This attitude has pervaded the way they look at indigenous people. Women are particularly challenged; they are often disproportionately victims of violence and they are very much socioeconomically disadvantaged. They don’t have the same economic empowerments.

All those are hugely challenging issues,” Fogarty said.

Fogarty says recognition of the needs of indigenous people is also a necessity in achieving the overall goals of existing World Heritage Sites. Sites would ideally be co-managed by a consortium of indigenous tribes and regional governments, a model that is emerging in parts of Canada.

A good example of Indigenous and western science collaboration is to be found at the tentative World Heritage site of Gwaii Haanas, collaboratively managed by the Council of the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada.

Fogarty says others are surprised that the designation as a World Heritage Site can sometimes be a negative for the people who live there.

“While UNESCO World Heritage sites do bring recognition and prestige to a region, sometimes the very residents of these areas do not get a voice in the nomination process. And sometimes the regional or national government ignores the contributions of indigenous people to the site,” Fogarty said.

Language can also be a problem. If residents of a possible site write and speak a little known language, it may be daunting or impossible to complete the necessary documentation for World Heritage recognition.

Fogarty says community involvement needs to be recognized as a bigger part of the world heritage process, especially when local residents face threats and dangers to their land or even their lives.

“The problem is community involvement is not necessarily mandated. You can have people doing amazing work in heritage sites on biodiversity protection, protecting the land, fending off illegal logging. And they just don’t get the kinds of backup when you read those cases. I’m just so full of awe and admiration,” Fogarty said.

Fogarty does believe western countries are making some progress in striking a balance with the needs of indigenous populations.

“I do have hope. Ireland is the first country in the world to say that they are no longer supporting fossil fuels in terms of state investments. So for example, in state pensions there will be no longer money invested in fossil fuels. We can all change our own worlds by thinking about indigenous people. We should have a more relational view and really look at ourselves in relation to nature rather than our ego,” said Fogarty.

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Marsha Walton