Connector Newsletter Issue 39

Indigenous knowledge vital to science

October 11, 2023

By Geoff Brooks, Board Director

“Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.”

— The Science Council

The recent Victorian Government announcement of blue carbon grants totally $1.2 million shared between the Western Port Biosphere Reserve Foundation ($700,000) and the Bururong Land Council (BLC) ($500,000) will include substantial co-operation between our two organisations.

The partnership will aim to produce recommendations to the government for the future of blue carbon and associated marine ecosystem preservation and management based on a combination of western science and indigenous knowledge.

This is something brought into focus for me when I visited one of Australia’s great wilderness areas in June, the vast tract of ancient land in the north-west of our continent known as The Kimberley.

Black Kite: one of the Kimberley’s ‘firehawks’. Photograph by Geoff Brooks

There I happened to hear the yarn about how the black kites were one of several raptor species known to carry and drop burning sticks to spread fire, flushing out small animals on which they prey.

This fascinating insight into ‘firehawk’ behaviour was obviously brand new to me, known only to western science since revealed in 2017 by scientists, Mark Bonta and Robert Gosford, yet common knowledge for indigenous inhabitants for thousands of years.

Bonta and Gosford note in their paper published by the Society of Ethnobiology, Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia, that:

Though Aboriginal rangers and others who deal with bushfires take into account the risks posed by raptors that cause controlled burns to jump across firebreaks, official skepticism about the reality of avian fire-spreading hampers effective planning for landscape management and restoration.”

It raises the question about the interconnection between western science according to the definition of The Science Council and indigenous knowledge. I suggest that there is plenty about indigenous knowledge that meets the formal method of western science and the two have more in common than difference.

The indigenous rangers in The Kimberley and elsewhere are drawing on thousands of years of observation and experience to understand fire risk mitigation. It may not be documented in a manner to which we may be accustomed in the west, but Bonta and Gosford’s research discovered that the raptor behaviour is “often represented in cultural ceremonies”, a known method in indigenous cultures for passing knowledge through generations.

Can we regard indigenous knowledge as “systematic methodology based on evidence”?

The Founder and Chair of Gene Campaign, Indian scientist Suman Sahai, suggests in a article, Indigenous knowledge is a form of science – don’t ignore it, that it does have scientific substance:

“Indigenous knowledge has developed from understanding and documenting the processes in nature. An iteration of practices over time has led to products and processes that are based on sound scientific principles. Take plant extracts for example. Observing that animals did not eat certain plants and assuming that this was because they were toxic, communities took extracts and tested them for a range of uses. Many were, and still are, used as pesticides in agriculture, in bait to catch fish or to treat maggot infestations in livestock,” she wrote.

It appears that others are plenty of subscribers to her argument. The authors of a Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment article, “Contributions of Indigenous Knowledge to ecological and evolutionary understanding”, note that:

“Humans were generating, transmitting and applying information about the natural world long before scientific inquiry was formalised. Indigenous people around the world have developed, maintained and evolved knowledge systems via direct experience interacting with biophysical and ecological processes, landscapes, ecosystems and species over millennia.”

The broader acceptance of the contribution indigenous knowledge can provide foundations and support for on-going scientific learning is acknowledged in data from the ISI Web of Science (July 2019) based on an examination of 11,934 scientific studies (below):

Research involving Indigenous Knowledge (IK) is growing and concentrated in the ecological sciences. (a) A search of ISI Web of Science for records containing the terms “Indigenous Knowledge”, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge”, or “Indigenous Ecological Knowledge” reveals that the number of studies involving use of these expressions has increased over time (from five studies in 1990 to 1404 studies in 2018: n = 11,934 studies collectively from 1990 to 2018). (b) The field of ecology has the most studies (n = 5228). Data from ISI Web of Science (searched July 2019).

With climate change and biodiversity loss central to the challenges and discussions about the future of the natural world and of humanity, it is pleasing to see the formal integration of indigenous knowledge into scientific exploration and learning. The best and perhaps most novel solutions to these existential problems will derive from this.

On, Australia’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies scientist, Gretta Pecl and international researchers Edwin Ogar and Tero Mustonen co-wrote “Science must embrace traditional and indigenous knowledge to solve our biodiversity crisis”, noting:

“… humans have survived through multiple ice ages and planetary transformations before – largely as a function of Indigenous wisdom and traditional knowledge…. Indigenous knowledge is very much about the present, rooted in the wisdom of the past – it supports models of sustainable living in a given place…

“… in order to survive the present century, we need to embrace Indigenous knowledge, be intimately guided and led by the knowledge holders and, where appropriate, consider it alongside the best scientific understanding of priorities needed to prevent ecosystem collapse.”

The collaboration between our Foundation and the BLC will extends over at least two years, and is a model that should become more commonplace.

UNESCO has highlighted the gaps in knowledge and data regarding the trends and drivers for many ecosystems and species and, consequently, the importance of mobilising all existing natural and social science, new technologies and indigenous and local knowledge to inform ourselves of these and of effective approaches to recovery, resilience and behavioural change.

The question of whether indigenous knowledge does meet the criteria defining western science is counterbalanced by the equally important question of whether science itself can meet the definition if it fails to take into account indigenous learning over millennia.

Photo: Black Kite, one of the Kimberley’s ‘firehawks’ that I was fortunate to encounter.




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