Twenty five years ago a group of Indigenous Peoples and researchers calling themselves ‘ethnobiologists’ got together in the capital of the Brazilian state of Pará to draw a line in the sand:
“Mechanisms [must] be established by which indigenous specialists are recognized as proper Authorities and are consulted in all programs affecting them, their resources and their environment”.
This was one of eight proclamations in the uncompromising Declaration of Belém, the document that confronted the rampant intellectual and ecological exploitation of Indigenous Peoples and their lands by businesses, governments, scientists and their colonialist counterparts. It was 1988, the year that an American anthropologist and biologist at the University of Oxford named Darrell Posey founded the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE), erecting a significant span in a bridge between scientific and Indigenous knowledge systems.
Fast forward to May, 2014 when Benki Piyãko, an Indigenous Ashaninka man from the Brazilian Amazon, traveled to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to attend the 14th Congress of the ISE as a winner of the Darrell Posey Fellowship for ethnoecology and traditional resource rights.
“For me the fellowship award was a surprise but also a boost for the recognition of the fight of our Ashaninka people,” said Benki. “It’s important not only for our people but for the future of planet Earth.”
Central to the success of this year’s Congress was the host, The Ugyen Wangchuk Institute of Conservation and Environment (UWICE), set on a hillside above Chamkar Town, Bhumthang. UWICE proved that major international scientific and academic events can (and should) take place more outside of ‘developed’ countries.
The late Darrell Posey would have relished the sight of over 400 people from 56 countries attending the ISE Congress this year in Bhutan, including many young Indigenous academics who are using innovative research techniques and data management tools to explain themselves to the dominant cultures in and around their homelands, as well as to each other. Since its founding in Belém the ISE has become one of the best venues globally for respectful interaction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, advancing together the field of ethnobiology based on a seminal Code of Ethics that has evolved over the decades. The Code, which now informs many other institutions, states in the preamble:
“It is acknowledged that much research has been undertaken in the past without the sanction or prior informed consent of Indigenous peoples, traditional societies and local communities and that such research has caused harm and adversely impacted their rights and responsibilities related to biocultural heritage.”
ISE members strive to go beyond merely not doing harm, trying to ensure that their work actually serves the needs of local communities and biocultural systems. Having Indigenous minds at the table with their non-Indigenous counterparts helps to make this a reality, and as part of our backing of the ISE, The Christensen Fund has provided support over the years for dozens of scholars and practitioners to attend the Congress and to share knowledge and inspiration with their peers.
“Our decade plus of investment in the exchange of biocultural knowledge via the ISE and other global meetings has spawned significant collaborations between scientists and traditional knowledge holders,” said Dr. Ken Wilson, Executive Director of The Christensen Fund. “We are beginning to see a world where the knowledge systems of Indigenous Peoples are valued and respected. This gives us great hope because humanity needs all this wisdom if we are to develop the strategies necessary to cope with the multiple and intersecting crises facing our planet.”
While the ISE has helped to show Indigenous peoples as vibrant communities with their own voices and knowledge systems, and has worked to prevent the tools of scholarship from being used to belittle Indigenous communities, the institution has consciously avoided being a forum solely for academic exchange. Every congress includes both speakers and participants who have never had access to universities but who engage on an equal basis in the process of identifying issues and sharing strategies.
“I’ve learned a lot about reforestation on different tribal lands,” said Glen Kila, a Native Hawaiian who is not an academic but who has long been involved in the struggle for the repatriation of his Native lands. “We are trying to reforest some land in Hawaii, now I can show the government some of these studies and they’ll have no more excuses.”
One of the significant outcomes from Bhutan was the formation of a network of Indigenous mountain communities for the exchange of seeds and knowledge to cope with climate change and to advocate for Indigenous rights. Just prior to the ISE Congress at a ‘walking workshop’, an approach in which knowledge is shared across a landscape rather than in a lecture room, 100 representatives from 25 Indigenous communities shared challenges and ideas and developed the Bhutan Declaration on Climate Change and Mountain Indigenous Peoples. This type of collaboration, part of ISE’s Mountain Communities Initiative, is a departure from the typical climate policy gatherings where the fate of Indigenous lands and resources are deliberated by outsiders.
“The global occurrence of seed exchanges now, including long and short-distance exchanges, is the manifestation of a cultural response to attacks to Indigenous food sovereignty by corporations,” said Quechuan agronomist Alejandro Argumedo, director of Asociación ANDES and Co-Coordinator of the Bhutan exchange. “I think the main message from the Indigenous peoples that met and created the Bhutan Declaration is that peoples living in key biocultural regions such as mountains have world views and values which are critical for climate change adaptation and mitigation, and contribute greatly to the global understanding of climate change impacts on crops and the ecosystem services that are critical for the food security and life of the planet.”
The ISE is currently engaged in a demanding exercise to develop a diversified funding model while sustaining the momentum of its increasingly engaged membership. (You can help here!) The Congress is held every two years in a different location, and past hosts include France, Vancouver Island, Mexico, Kenya, China, Peru and Thailand. In attendance this year in Bhutan was Ssekimpi Mahmoud Ssemambo, a senior leader from the Kingdom of Buganda, an Indigenous monarchy within the nation state of Uganda, where the ISE is scheduled to hold its 2016 congress.
“I’ve been transformed,” said Mahmoud. “When you come and you hear stories from America, Papua New Guinea, Bhutan, and many others and you find the same stories from your own country, that is a powerful message. It’s one world, one us.”