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Indigenous principles can improve biodiversity science and management

May 30, 2023


(Photo credit: Markus Thompson)

A paper authored jointly by noted Indigenous leaders, researchers, practitioners, and artists, argues that incorporating key Indigenous governance principles will advance biodiversity research, management, and the proposed negotiation of reconciliation.

VANCOUVER, [May 29, 2023]— The study and conservation of Earth’s biodiversity must include the deep time knowledge, governance principles, and objectives of Indigenous communities throughout scientific and management processes. That’s the mandate handed down to the environmental science, policy, and management community in a new paper authored by a constellation of prominent Indigenous leaders from the Xaayda (Haida), nuučaan̓uł (Nuu-chah-nulth), and Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nations, university professors, graduate students, and other researchers and practitioners from across Canada and the United States.

Given the climate, extinction, and inequity crises increasingly affecting societies globally, this paper makes the case that to improve the conservation and management of Earth’s biodiversity scientists and natural resource managers urgently need to rethink their assumptions and approaches to biodiversity science and learn from the principles guiding Indigenous governance of the relationships between people, land, and sea. The paper calls on researchers to consider Indigenous communities not just as entities to be respected or consulted, but as experienced partners in the process of biodiversity science and decision-making for sustainability.

“The laws and conservation built into daily living actions are lessons left to us from our kuuniisii (ancestors), reminding us of the importance of tll’yahda (making things right), tllgaay (the responsibility of Hereditary leaders), yahguudang (respect) and tllxanda (to take care of),” says Kii’iljuus Barbara Wilson, Haida scholar, researcher, and Matriarch of the Sta’waas XaaydaGaay (Saw-whet owl people), and coauthor of the paper.

The publication, “Disrupting and diversifying the values, voices, and governance principles that shape biodiversity science and management,” appears in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, one of the world's most prestigious and longest running scientific journals in the biological sciences.

Other authors include Haida hereditary leader and past president of the Council for the Haida Nation, Gidansda Guujaaw; Hereditary Chiefs Wigvilhba Wakas (Harvey Humchitt) of the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation and wiicuckum (Anne Mack) of the ’tukʷaaʔatḥ (Toquaht) Nation; past president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Wickaninnish, along with other prominent Indigenous leaders from the northeast Pacific coast.

Along with its call to confront the colonial roots of Western conservation and biodiversity science and management, the paper outlines nine core Indigenous principles governing relationships among all components of the natural world, including humans. Shared by the Xaayda, nuučaan̓uł, and Haíɫzaqv Nations of the northeast Pacific coast, examples of these principles include: tll’yahda (to make things right in Xaayda) by acknowledging historical injustices, overexploitation, and past management mistakes, and aiming to correct them; hišukʔiš c̓awaak (interconnectedness in nuučaan̓uł) to consider interactions among species, including humans, deep time historical baselines, and intergenerational thinking in the study and management of ecosystems; and xáɫa (respect in Haíɫzaqv) the needs, objectives, and rights of diverse species and sectors of society and our responsibility to uphold them.

In a case study, the paper illustrates how these principles are being mobilized to guide more equitable and resilient management of the relationships between sea otters and people along the Northwest Coast of North America to support food sovereignty.

Scientific interest in collaborating with coastal communities has increased over the past decade, leading to several recent papers aimed at helping non-indigenous researchers improve their coordination with Indigenous peoples in biodiversity research, noted co-lead author Dan Okamoto, PhD, assistant professor of biology at Florida State University.

However, he said, this new paper asks scientists to go a step further, by deeply embedding Indigenous perspectives and principles at the heart of the scientific process, to help guide what questions are investigated, how funding decisions are made, and what research outcomes receive priority.

“A lot of these governing principles would probably resonate not just with Indigenous communities, but with a lot of societies,” he said. “And yet, many of these principles are not embedded in the basics of much of the science being done.” For these scientists and Indigenous leaders, the transparency created enables trust to be built, new knowledge to be co-created, and solutions to be co-designed.

The paper grew in part out of work by Coastal Voices, an initiative guided by Indigenous leaders representing 19 coastal nations across British Columbia and Alaska. Formed to research and plan for ecological and social changes triggered by the reintroduction of sea otters, this paper’s expanded co-author group collaborate broadly on guiding coastal ocean policy and fisheries management decisions throughout the region amid climate uncertainty, and the proposed negotiation of reconciliation between Indigenous and colonial governments.

Co-author hiininaasim Tommy Happynook, an Indigenous scholar, ḥawił (hereditary leader) from Huu-ay-aht First Nations, and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria, said a key takeaway of the paper was the importance of different knowledge holders working together.

“Whether that means Indigenous and non-indigenous researchers, or people who are trained in the sciences and people who are trained culturally, it’s about how all of those groups can come together, work in relationship, and produce knowledge that will be shared not just in academic journals, but more broadly,” he said.

Co-lead author Anne Salomon, PhD, a professor of applied marine and coastal science at Simon Fraser University said she was asked by several of the hereditary leaders guiding Coastal Voices to take action towards improving biodiversity policies in Canada by communicating these shared governance principles to a wider audience. At the same time, she said, increased public interest in equity and social justice created a unique opportunity for the scientific community to take up that message. She said it is time for biodiversity researchers and managers to confront the colonial roots of Western science, as well as its continued role in perpetuating colonial objectives in understanding and managing biodiversity.

“We’re really talking about systemic change in the way science is done and who it’s done for. The questions we ask, how we ask them, and who gets to ask them all influence how societies make choices among different policy options,” she said. “This is a real reckoning for scientists and managers.”