Saturday, November 3, 2007

Indigenous Peoples and Policy Decisions: Opening Up the Conversation

Indigenous peoples face a lot of struggles today, ranging from natural resource exploitation to simple questions of self-determination and indigenous status. In the United States, one of the more frequent struggles that is covered in the media is that of indigenous peoples' heritage. That is, the stuff indigenous peoples have left behind in time and space (i.e., archaeological items). The reason that this topic gets a lot of media coverage in the United States is that for most of the history of the US, indigenous peoples of North America (i.e., Native Americans, First Nation peoples, Native Alaskan and Hawaiian peoples) have not been able to claim their past. The past has been the privy of archaeologists.

Well, during the 20th century and continuing now, indigenous peoples have been fighting for their basic rights, including the right to claim what is theirs (or at least to have a say in the study of their stuff). Archaeologists and museum officials originally fought this trend since they believed they knew best and should have sole discretion over how things from the past should be treated, studied, and kept. Now, however, they have slowly begun to realize that this is not the best approach. It is inhuman, unjust, and simply wrong. One way that indigenous peoples of the United States have gotten some of their basic rights back is through legislation: such laws and acts as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and several Executive Orders (A list of these laws and links to the actual text is here).

As with all laws, sometimes it has worked out for the indigenous peoples, other times not. However, what I want to highlight is that these laws (despite their pluses and minuses) have forced archaeologists, anthropologists, policy officials, cultural resource managers, etc.) to ask, and work with, indigenous peoples. No longer can policy makers or archaeologists make decisions about historical items without asking the people affiliated with those items what they think.

An example of this is the Historic Preservation Learning Portal, launched in 2003 by the National Park Service's Federal Preservation Institute in cooperation with 22 federal agencies and offices. The HPLP is an information-discovery and knowledge-management engine whose search function is publicly available. Currently, the HPLP indexes the entire contents of nearly 1,000 websites weekly.

What is so cool is that because the HPLP is open to all, indigenous peoples can also access the same information and tools as archaeologists, cultural resource managers, policy makers, and the like, allowing them to be directly involved in real-time with decisions affecting their culture and lifeways. This allows indigenous peoples to directly examine the historic preservation compliance activities in their traditional homeland. It also allows for quicker and more immediate access to critical information.

Have we come all the way - full circle? No, the inclusion of indigenous peoples' views, beliefs, knowledge, and understanding has not reached a nadir, but it is growing. What is exciting, at least for me, is that not only are we finally giving the respect to indigenous knowledge its due, but we are potentially making better, more holistic and informed decisions in terms of making the world a better place. Let's keep going in this direction...

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Fishery Management: A Case from Puerto Rico

I've often talked about what is called "traditional ecological knowledge" (TEK) or "local ecological knowledge" (LEK). These terms reflect the local wisdom indigenous peoples have about their homeland, their environment, the resources present, and how they change over time. The value of this knowledge is immense. The collective wisdom of indigenous peoples can bring to bear hundreds or thousands of years of place-based experiential knowledge on a range of topics. Science, a relative new comer in terms of knowledge-forming methods, is still trying to figure out how to incorporate indigenous peoples knowledge (TEK or LEK) into its paradigm. Anthropologists and others have been working on bridging this gap, although at times it can be quite difficult.

Personally, I have worked on several projects where we have used traditional ecological knowledge to inform and compliment resource management plans, natural resource damage assessments, and environmental impact assessments. Not only do you get a better understanding of the resource under consideration, but you also get to incorporate the indigenous peoples' values into the plan, allowing for a more comprehensive, collaborative, and sound result. In a recent study published in the American Anthropologist, Carlos G. Garcia-Quijano exemplifies the utility of indigenous peoples' knowledge in managing tropical fisheries off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Here is the Abstract:

Fishers' Knowledge of Marine Species Assemblages: Bridging Between Scientific and Local Ecological Knowledge in Southeastern Puerto Rico by Carlos G. Garcia-Quijano

Increasingly, local ecological knowledge (LEK) held by groups of people engaging directly with their ecosystems for food production is recognized as a valuable tool for understanding environmental change, as well as for ecosystem management and conservation. However, the acceptance of LEK for resource management has been partly hindered by difficulties in translating local knowledge into a form that can be applied directly to Western scientific endeavors. Anthropology's focus on cultural meaning makes its practitioners uniquely qualified to find common ground between different systems of knowledge. Here, I report the use of ethnographic methods to represent Puerto Rican small-scale fishers' knowledge about tropical coastal habitat connectivity and the composition of species assemblages by underwater habitats. These two topics are of current interest for tropical fishery science and their study can benefit from fishers' extensive experience with the coastal environments on which they depend.

What are some of the benefits from this particular study? Local ecological knowledge (LEK) was able to inform science about appropriate "indicator" species of fish for understanding the health of the coral reef ecosystem, the identification of representative species assemblages for different types of underwater habitats, the degree to which adjacent neighborhoods share fish and shellfish species, and habitat connectivity. As such, indigenous peoples and their knowledge can make broad contributions to the knowledge used for local ecosystem management. Just because indigenous peoples' knowledge may not be "empirical" in the standard way does not mean it cannot be used with empirical data to inform decisions.

By working together, scientists, managers, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples can all help to keep the earth in a better state of balance. Hopefully, with this study and others, we (as humans) can interact and manage our resources in a more holistic and sane manner.

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