Worldwide collaboration aims to curb biodiversity decline, improve Indigenous peoples’ health

Worldwide collaboration aims to curb biodiversity decline, improve Indigenous peoples’ health


Worldwide collaboration aims to curb biodiversity decline, improve Indigenous peoples’ health's Profile

A project based out of the University of Alberta aims to follow the wisdom of a Whapmagoostui Cree elder from Quebec — if the land is not healthy, how can we be?

To curb biodiversity decline and improve the health of Indigenous peoples, the Ărramăt Project is a collaboration of more than 150 Indigenous organizations and governments from around the world.

It aims to be Indigenous-led, combining traditional knowledge with Western scientific disciplines. The federal government recently awarded the six-year project $24 million in funding.

Kim Tallbear, a professor in the faculty of Native studies at the University of Alberta, is one of the collaborators in the Ărramăt Project. (Submitted by Kim Tallbear)

“Often you get Indigenous people around the world being looked to as activists or as traditional knowledge holders, you often don’t have them as a core part of the research team,” said Kim Tallbear, a professor in the faculty of Native studies at the University of Alberta and one of the collaborators in the study.

“I think this will appeal more to recruiting Indigenous people into research,” Tallbear said on CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active.

Tallbear organizes summer internships for Indigenous people in genomics — the study of a person’s genes.

With the Ărramăt Project, she hopes to expand her training program into more remote communities for Indigenous students to learn lab science, making science more accessible.

“Indigenous people are place-based and we don’t always want to move around the world.”

Health connected to land

The term Ărramăt describes a state of well-being shared by the environment, animals, and humans.

It comes from Tamasheq, an Indigenous language spoken by the Tuareg people whose ancestral lands include areas of Algeria, Burkina-Faso, Libya, Mali and Niger. 

Tallbear said biodiversity and Indigenous peoples’ health go hand in hand as many cultures depend on the land to survive. 

About one million animals and plant species are threatened with extinction, many of which are expected to vanish within decades, according to a 2019 report used by the United Nations.

While Indigenous peoples make up less than five per cent of the world’s population, approximately 80 per cent of biodiversity on Earth is on traditional Indigenous territories, according to an University of Alberta news release.

9:33Examining the link between the loss of biodiversity and Indigenous health

We talk to researchers from the University of Alberta about a project to better support Indigenous researchers around the globe. 9:33

Restoring regulatory authority and scientific control to Indigenous peoples’ over their traditional land, not only helps ecosystems, said Tallbear, but also restores cultural authority and vibrancy for Indigenous communities. 

“Indigenous health is not only the health of the body that we usually think about, but we’re also talking about emotional health and cultural health,” she said.

Polar bears in the Eeyou Marine Region of James Bay. Researchers use hair snares and camera traps to collect hair samples and photographs to study polar bear genetics, diet, body condition and habitat use. The project was developed with help from the local Cree people. (Alexandra Langwieder)

World-wide collaboration 

Other research on the global project involves work by Peru’s Potato Park, which looks at ancestral knowledge of farmers to identify genetic strains that could help the crop survive intense droughts, floods and frosts. Up to 4,000 varieties of the tuber grow in the country.

Potatoes were domesticated roughly 7,000 years ago by Indigenous people in Peru and Bolivia.

Another project involves collaborating with researchers in Uganda, who work with the Batwa community in efforts to help them reclaim their rights and opportunities to harvest in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, which was created to protect endangered gorillas in the 1990s.

“But by doing so, they effectively excluded or displaced Batwa people, who are among the poorest indigenous peoples globally,” said Brenda Parlee, one of the lead investigators on the Ărramăt Project and an associate professor in environmental sociology at the U of A.

The Ărramăt Project is building Indigenous peoples’ capacity to do science, said Tallbear, while also helping non-Indigenous people’s understand, learn and respect Indigenous culture and traditions. 

“There is very much a kind of two-way learning that’s going to happen here,” she said.

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