A ‘Pivotal Time’ for Ecology and Indigenous Knowledge

Ecological research has been slow to incorporate Indigenous knowledge, but it could prove vital in the fight against climate change.


Scientists around the world are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of Indigenous knowledge. In fact, recent studies have shown that partnerships with Indigenous knowledge holders are crucial in everything from combating the climate crisis to improving health outcomes for Indigenous patients.

But despite this increased awareness, many scientists still have a long way to go towards truly cooperating with Indigenous knowledge holders.

A recent study from the University of Waterloo investigated this in the context of ecology, finding that the vast majority of ecological research projects carried out on colonized Indigenous lands don’t include crucial Indigenous knowledge in their analyses. By omitting this knowledge, the authors say, these projects don’t capture the full narratives of the ecosystems they’re studying.

The study was led by Kyle A. Schang, a PhD student at the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability, and was published in FACETS.

Indigenous knowledges help increase understanding

Given the long-standing relationships that many Indigenous peoples have with the lands on which they live, Indigenous knowledges are particularly important when carrying out ecological studies.

As an example of this, Schang and colleagues discuss how land management practices dating back many millennia continue to have an impact on the land today. They point to a study in Nature that explored how 13,000 years of occupation by British Columbia’s coastal First Nations led to enhanced rainforest productivity in the region — a particularly interesting result, given that human occupation is often thought to degrade landscapes.

Along the same lines, a study in People and Nature found that plant biodiversity in British Columbia is strongly impacted by the habitation histories of Indigenous peoples in the area. Plants with higher cultural significance, for example, tended to dominate in regions that had been inhabited by Indigenous groups.

Both of these examples demonstrate the large impact that Indigenous stewardship has had — and continues to have — on the land around us. These insights are important for providing context to ecosystems in the present, while also shedding a light on how these same ecosystems were managed and kept sustainable in the past.

Given the predominance of oral (rather than written) knowledge systems for many Indigenous peoples, direct involvement of Indigenous knowledge holders is crucial for ecological studies. Collaborating with Indigenous peoples, where appropriate, can provide researchers with the full context of an ecosystem’s history and allow them to develop a more holistic understanding of its status today.

Most ecology papers don’t acknowledge Indigenous stewardship

Indigenous perspectives are clearly crucial for many ecological studies — but are ecologists actually incorporating this knowledge into their work?

To answer this question, Schang and colleagues reviewed a decade’s worth of papers from within the field. They focused on regions that had undergone colonization of Indigenous lands within the past 500 years, which is relatively recent in geological timescales. This included North America, South America, and Oceania.

While Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world also have important relationships with their land, the authors mention that the long histories of colonial influences in these regions are difficult to disentangle. These regions therefore aren’t a focus of this work.

For each paper included in their study, Schang and collaborators made a note of whether the authors had addressed the effects of Indigenous stewardship, acknowledged the Indigenous Territory or lands, or named the Indigenous group(s) on whose Territory the research was being conducted. They found that out of more than 100 papers published over the last decade, less than 7% fit these criteria.

The results depended slightly on where the research was being conducted. Eight out of 99 papers published in North America made reference to Indigenous Territories and/or Indigenous peoples, whereas three out of 20 did in Oceania. None of the papers published in South America made reference to Indigenous Territories and/or Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous stewardship is key to ecological research

The authors go on to discuss the importance of acknowledging Indigenous Territories and/or Peoples, as well as including Indigenous knowledge, in ecological research. They explain that as a first step, simply acknowledging the Indigenous land that a study is conducted on is a basic ethical standard that researchers should abide by.

But going further, researchers can greatly improve their understanding of our world’s ecosystems by including and learning from Indigenous knowledge (where appropriate, and with permission). The authors describe how this could take the form of engaging with Indigenous knowledge holders, for example, or including historical information about past Indigenous management of the land as a contextual factor in ecological studies.

While only a small fraction of studies in the field of ecology have included Indigenous knowledge to date, Schang and collaborators hope that these numbers will increase going forward.

“We are at a pivotal time where Indigenous stewardship, past and present, needs to be braided into how we think about and conduct our scientific ecological research,” Schang said in a blog post on the study.

“[I] wish to uphold these obligations while urging those conducting ecological field studies on Indigenous land to do so as well.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.