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Bringing indigenous knowledge to the forefront of conservation planning

Written by Matt Luizza, SoGES 2013-2014 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

Since my early childhood I have been fascinated with rural indigenous cultures from across the globe. The romantic notion of seemingly forgotten places, inhabited by people existing in primal harmony with the natural world was the most exciting thing I could imagine. My mind ran wild as I envisioned living with each and every group I learned about, from the feared Comanche horse culture of the historical U.S. Great Plains, to newly discovered tribes hidden in the depths of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest. Out of all of my childhood friends, I was the only kid, that if the culturally insensitive game of “Cowboys and Indians” were to arise, would gladly and emphatically choose to be in the latter group of wild west combatants. Now, well into my mid-to-late childhood, my naïve understanding of local indigenous communities has advanced beyond a narrow view of simple cultures frozen in time, but this formative curiosity and reverence has stuck with me and turned into the underlying passion fueling my doctoral research.

My PhD work is driven by a conviction which I, and a number of other scholars and practitioners share. It is a belief that indigenous communities, whose livelihoods are predominately tied to their local landscapes, harbor a vast wealth of important intergenerational knowledge, including empirical observations, cultural values and spiritual practices; and this knowledge is critical to conservation planning. I believe that acknowledgement and inclusion of such knowledge, values and perceptions, and meaningful consultation and collaboration throughout all stages of research and planning with indigenous communities, is necessary for local empowerment and effective conservation.

At a recent lunch meeting with renowned ecosystem ecologist and social-ecological systems scholar F. Stuart Chapin III (see Chapin III et al. 2000 and 2010), Dr. Chapin poignantly voiced a supporting sentiment when discussing the idea of “ecological integrity”. Ecological integrity can be defined broadly as a given ecosystem's structure and function, operating in a manner that fits a natural/historic range of variation. Noting first that most systems are so heavily influenced by humans that pristine places with intact ecological integrity are rare, he went on to point out the importance of knowing a system very well, as this “sense of place” affords a better intuition about the processes related to ecosystem structure and function, facilitating the ability to pick up on even the most subtle changes. This observation nicely encapsulates one of the many important contributions of indigenous knowledge, which is comprised of the same in-depth understanding of place, and further affords a better view of the intimately linked nature of social and ecological systems. An understanding that is needed to ensure the longevity of both through conservation practices which protect ecological integrity but also human livelihoods.

Indigenous knowledge is an increasingly popular topic in both the scientific and philanthropic worlds, with two key terms, “traditional ecological knowledge” and “local ecological knowledge” alone producing over 17,000 results in Google Scholar and 657 peer-reviewed manuscripts in Web of Science. Despite this, in the rapidly growing fields of risk assessment studies (see Buckley 2008 and Lindgren 2012) and ecological modeling (see Elith et al. 2010 and Evangelista et al. 2012), indigenous knowledge has yet to be adequately acknowledged. This is troubling as such powerful risk management and vulnerability assessment approaches are often the driving force behind conservation planning and resource management decision making. Many land managers and local communities have limited resources (especially geospatial) for assessing the risk posed by linked disturbance drivers like invasive species and climate change. Working in Alaska and Ethiopia provides an opportunity to employ novel approaches and engage very distinct ecologies and cultures, facing similar acute environmental changes.

My research specifically seeks collaboration with rural indigenous communities in Alaska and Ethiopia, to integrate their knowledge with geospatial applications, and better understand the vulnerability of ecosystem services (i.e. the benefits that humans receive from the environment) (see MA 2005), which they rely on for their livelihoods, to problematic invasive species and changing climate at the local and landscape scale. This spatial understanding can then hopefully promote dialogue about conservation strategies linked with local community needs and values. Alaska is one the fastest warming places on the planet (Rupp & Springsteen, 2009). Disruption of environmental processes are known to negatively affect biodiversity and overall ecosystem resilience, in addition to impacting local Alaskan communities whose livelihoods are dependent on the landscape (McNeeley & Shulski 2011). Located in eastern interior Alaska is one of my research sites, the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which is the third largest conservation area in the national wildlife refuge system. It is comprised of a mosaic of critical subarctic habitat and one of the greatest waterfowl breeding areas in North America. Additionally, seven Gwich'in Athabascan indigenous communities live within or adjacent to the Refuge and are heavily reliant on the local landscape. The ecological, cultural and economic importance of this site cannot be overstated, and currently a number of highly aggressive invasive species are noted to be present, and of growing concern for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the villages, including aquatic species like western waterweed (Elodea nuttallii and Elodea canadensis), and terrestrial species including Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), White sweet clover (Melilotus albus), and Bird vetch (Vicia cracca). Both the tribes and USFWS have an especially vested interest in understanding and managing aquatic invasive Elodea, as it negatively impacts Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) spawning habitat, becoming an impenetrable mass of tangled plant matter that clogs lakes and slow-moving creek and stream tributaries, thus holding major implications for a region that houses the longest Pacific salmon run in the world. As noted by a Native Alaskan Chief at a recent inter-tribal summit in the Yukon Territory, “water is our life. It sustains us...We define ourselves as being part of the land [and] King salmon was and is the life line on the Yukon”.

Over 7,000 miles away, across the Pacific Ocean, is my other research site, Ethiopia. Like Alaska, the wonders of Ethiopia cannot be overstated. As the headwaters of the Blue Nile, Ethiopia provides the majority of water for both tributaries of the longest and most recognizable river in the world. The lush, forested southern reaches of the country are captivating and home to some of the most spectacular biodiversity in the world. The Bale Mountains National Park, located adjacent to one of my project sites, is noted to be among the world's most irreplaceable Protected Areas for conservation of amphibian, bird and mammal species (LeSaout et al. 2013). The flora is equally impressive with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) noting that “...the conditions and the isolation of these areas have led to the evolution of unique plant communities that are found nowhere else” (UNEP 2008). Preliminary results of my current work in Ethiopia reveal important gender distinctions of plant knowledge and valuation of plant-derived ecosystem services (Luizza et al. 2013). For more on this project, please visit my blog post on NREL's EcoPress site, and see  what other projects are occurring in Ethiopia through the recently announced strategic alliance between the Warner College of Natural Resources and Ethiopia.

In both Alaska and Ethiopia there is a need to include indigenous communities in conservation planning, through novel, interdisciplinary approaches, which are above all community-driven. Indigenous communities in both places (and around the globe) are facing an array of challenges fueled by a number of environmental and anthropogenic disturbances. As I prepare for the next round of field work in Ethiopia in April 2014 and Alaska in August 2014, I am aware of the vast amount of work that lies ahead, but excited to see the growing number of scholars, land managers and local practitioners seeking collectively to bring indigenous knowledge to the forefront of conservation planning.


Buckley, Y.M. 2008. The role of research for integrated management of invasive species, invaded landscapes and communities. Journal of Applied Ecology 45: 397-402.

Chapin III., F.S., Zavaleta, E.S., Eviner, V.T., Naylor, R.L., Vitousek, P.M., Reynolds, H.L., Hooper, D.U., Lavorel, S., Sala, O.E., Hobbie, S.E., Mack, M.C., and Díaz, S. 2000. Consequences of changing   biodiversity. Nature 405: 234-242.

Chapin III., F.S., Carpenter, S.R., Kofinas, G.P., Folke, C., Abel, N., Clark, W.C., Olsson, P., Stafford Smith, D.M., Walker, B., Young, O.R., Berkes, F., Biggs, R., Grove, J.M., Naylor, R.L., Pinkerton, E., Steffen, W., and Swanson, F.J. 2010. Ecosystem stewardship: Sustainability strategies for a rapidly changing planet. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25(4): 241-249.

Elith, J., Kearney, M., and Phillips, S. 2010. The art of modelling range-shifting species. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 1: 330-342.

Evangelista, P., Norman III, J., Swartzinki, P., and Young, N. 2012. Assessing habitat quality of the mountain nyala Tragelaphus buxtoni in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Current Zoology 58(4): 525-535.

Le Saout, S., Hoffman, M., Shi, Y., Hughes, A., Bernard, C., Brooks, T.M., Bertzky, B., Butchart, S.H.M., Stuart, S.N., Badman, T., & Rodrigues, A.S.L. 2013. Protected areas and effective biodiversity conservation. Science, 342(15): 803-805.    

Lindgren, C.J. 2012. Biosecurity policy and the use of geospatial predictive tools to address invasive plants: Updating the risk analysis toolbox. Risk Analysis 32(1): 9-15.

Luizza, M.W., Young, H., Kuroiwa, C., Evangelista, P., Worede, A., Bussmann, R.W., and Weimer, A. 2013. Local knowledge of plants and their uses among women in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Ethnobotany Research and Applications 11: 315-339.

McNeeley, S.M., and Shulski, M.D. 2011. Anatomy of a closing window: Vulnerability to changing seasonality in Interior Alaska. Global Environmental Change 21: 464-473.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). 2005. Ecosystems and human well-being: a framework for assessment. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Rupp, T.S., and Springsteen, A. 2009. Projected Climate Change Scenarios for the Bureau of Land Management Eastern Interior Management Area, Alaska, 2001-2099. University of Alaska Fairbanks Report. Prepared for U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management. 10pp.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 2008. Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment. Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA). Nairobi: Kenya.


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