Changing the paradigm: indigenous knowledge in scientific research

COLLABORATIVE WORK. The traditional and scientific western knowledge together can produce more enriching knowledge that allows conserving natural areas and resources.

Collaborative research between the knowledge of indigenous peoples and scientific knowledge has become more relevant, since it allows us to understand and face global problems such as climate change and its effects. However, this exchange of knowledge poses great challenges such as the permanent risk of the loss of this knowledge and the lack of recognition of the holders of the information. New forms of research aim at collaborative work that preserves traditional knowledge, recognizes its authorship, and provides a comprehensive understanding of the problem being analyzed. “Many researchers only put us as informants, when we are the ones who have facilitated knowledge about plants,” question Amazonian indigenous leaders.

In recent years, the Amazon has been one of the territories that has been most investigated throughout the continent. The expeditions in this area go back with greater intensity to the 19th century and did not always have an exclusively scientific purpose. The Peruvian anthropologist Alberto Chirif tells, in his book Después del caucho, that these scientific trips, financed by the governments, arose in order to find, above all, new sources of resources, due to technological growth and industrial development. For example, at the end of the 19th century, “the French government sent Olivier Ordinarie to Peru to acquire cinchona seeds to acclimatize them to Algeria.”

Many of these studies have needed the support of local indigenous leaders and their knowledge of the flora and fauna, in what is considered one of the most biodiverse spaces in the world. However, their names and their contributions have not always been mentioned, exposed or recognized in scientific articles. Or, they have even been recorded as discoveries.

The anthropologist Rodrigo Lazo explains to OjoPúblico that, historically, scientific research has included traditional knowledge in different ways, of which two stand out, mainly.

Western science has published some traditional knowledge as if they were new discoveries, especially when related to botany, pharmacology or properties of medicinal plants. On the other hand, the social sciences, for the most part, have tended to folklorize and romanticize indigenous and local knowledge. “Another way has been to make them untouchable,” he said.

However, neither of the two ways that traditional knowledge is incorporated into scientific articles present local voices or indigenous leaders as authors. This lack of recognition is contradictory if one takes into account that they are the ones who possess this knowledge and have preserved it in their communities for years.

“In all research, the baseline is the knowledge, experiences and practices that the community possesses. No research comes from the researcher’s own knowledge, ”says Tuntiak Katan, a member of the Shuar indigenous people and vice-coordinator of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA).

The leader Teresita Antazú, member of the Yanesha people and leader of the Union of Asháninkas and Ainisha Nationalities (UNAY), speaks of the importance of the knowledge inherited and transmitted by generations. “We are from the Yanesha people, we have our beliefs and a whole tradition that we have been transmitting from our grandparents, our mothers to our children and we to our grandchildren,” he says.

The also former leader of the Asociación Interetnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP) says that, in her community, they have always been open to sharing their knowledge with researchers, despite the fact that many times they do not receive updates on what happened with those researchers. studies. “It has happened that doctors have come to the communities, but they come and go, so we do not know if something has been written about us or not,” he says.

For this reason, for approximately a century, the western scientific academy has tried to work collaboratively with other knowledge production systems such as traditional knowledge.

Manuel Martín, philosopher and director of Research on socio-diversity at the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP), explains to OjoPúblico that it was only in the twentieth century that researchers have shown interest in understanding indigenous knowledge, especially in terms of what is related to the use of plants to treat ailments and to relate to nature. “In foreign universities, above all, the sociocultural vision is already beginning to be incorporated into research related to natural sciences,” he said.

This process has been called the decolonization of research strategies, which basically refers to the restoration of cultural and spiritual knowledge and practices that were taken away by colonization, as explained in an editorial article published in the Science magazine.

This colonization of indigenous knowledge dates back to at least the 18th century, according to Alberto Chirif. In his book After rubber, the author explains that, at that time, the industrialization process and the development of a positivist science placed man as a great researcher and ended the relationship between human beings and nature, which became conceived only as a source to produce resources and profits.

However, decolonization means that the production of knowledge ceases to be exclusively in the hands of the scientific academy. “Decolonization advances and empowers indigenous peoples and stops perpetuating their subjugation and exploitation,” says the editorial.

A clear example of the existing colonization in this area occurs when scientists carry out research on communities without having previously consulted them or when they write about “disappearing cultures” without considering the perception of the members of that culture or without having a representative sample.

The history of Chácobo, an indigenous people of Bolivia, is a clear example. About them, some writings said that they were losing their knowledge; But a study carried out by the ethnobotanical biologist Narel Paniagua, together with local community members, proved otherwise. Between 2013 and 2014 he found that much of the knowledge that was documented by botanist Brian Boom between 1983 and 1984 was still preserved. “This work carried out approximately 30 years after their sedentarization, showed that their knowledge and use of plants still remained among people,” they indicated.

During this study, Bolivian scientist Narel Paniagua and her husband (of the same profession) Rainer Bussmann trained community members from the town of Chácobo to lead their own research. In this way, ten people from the community between men and women interviewed more than 250 people about the plants they use for different purposes such as food, construction, medicine, among others.

This collaborative work resulted in a book in which the more than 300 species of plants that are used in the community were documented with their names in Chácobo and in Spanish. In addition, the material recognized as authors the members of the indigenous people and Narel Paniagua and Rainer Bussmann as editors.

However, the history and work of Narel Paniagua is isolated. There are very few investigations that recognize members of indigenous communities as authors and that return the information collected in a form that is easily understood by all.

Leader Tuntiak Katan, a representative of COICA, tells OjoPublico that normally what researchers do when they approach indigenous communities is talk to a community member, ask them questions, and then leave. “Most researchers go, take the information, get out of there, publish the research and the community never knows what happened to that information.”

Therefore, the co-production of knowledge seeks to bridge these historical gaps between Western communities and scientists. This collaborative work aims to preserve traditional knowledge, recognize its authorship, apply the results obtained to reality and provide a comprehensive understanding (scientific, social and cultural) of the problem being analyzed.

A collaborative investigation begins as soon as the topic to be studied is proposed. Normally, scientific knowledge is characterized by being based on paradigms, that is, focused on experimentation in the laboratory and in the field, explained Manuel Martín, director of Sociodiversity Research at the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) to OjoPúblico.

Scientific studies published in indexed journals are based on the questions posed by the researcher and then verified through the use of a methodology. “We always go and make all the proposals from our perspective, from our context and from our need,” said Narel Paniagua, a scientist recognized for her work with indigenous communities in the conservation of traditional knowledge.

However, if the selection of the topic were carried out within the framework of a collaborative work, it would arise from a conversation with local and indigenous communities about the needs and problems faced in that specific region. The Bolivian researcher points out that the scientists’ work should start by proposing the project to the community, explaining what they want to do and how it will benefit them.

Rodrigo Lazo, an anthropologist who worked with Awajún communities, clarifies that this method of work is known as “community-based research”. The specialist argues that carrying out this methodology is complex, since it implies that researchers go to the community, identify what they need and is relevant to them, and, from there, pose research questions and hypotheses. “It is not that the researcher speaks only with his peers, but that scientific production moves to another place that is not the laboratory,” he points out.

In this way, defining the research work requires more time, because it implies the need to establish a relationship between Western researchers and the leaders of the communities in which they dialogue and conclude how and what problem to tackle.

INVESTIGATION. Narel Paniagua conducting interviews in the forests of the Ese Eja ethnic group in northern Bolivia. Photo: Narel Paniagua-Zambrana and Rainer Bussmann

Along these lines, the editorial article of the journal Science of June 2021, suggests that, before submitting funding requests, non-indigenous academics should build relationships of trust that allow them to understand how the skills offered by them will benefit and complement the skills. and the experience of traditional knowledge holders.

For this reason, research advisors and funders must understand that this type of work requires more time than they usually provide, since researchers must approach each of the indigenous communities and understand their internal dynamics, a process that can take months to years. “It is also important that we as researchers show funders that if we do not have enough time we cannot do quality work,” says Narel Paniagua.

Some organizations that fund scientific research are driving these changes. Gael Almeida, regional director for Latin America of the National Geographic Society, told OjoPúblico that the institution highlights, for example, the importance of giving visibility to both types of knowledge by financing them equally. “Just as people who are doing research with the scientific method and who have followed this academic career are financed, we are also financing projects that are based on traditional knowledge and members of indigenous or local communities,” he indicated.

Amalia Pesrantes, a medical anthropologist who works on public health issues and indigenous communities, explained to this medium that an important aspect to establish this dialogue between the two types of knowledge is that researchers share time and experiences with the communities with which they are going to to work.

“I believe that if someone wants to do research in which they seek to give value to indigenous knowledge, it is important that they share time so that they can understand how knowledge is connected with different stages of life or with people in the community,” he said. .

Tuntiak Katan, an indigenous person from the Ecuadorian Amazon and coordinator of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, adds that any researcher should, first, know the organizational structure that this community has in order to start doing their research, and then they should make a clear presentation. what you are going to do so that the person who is going to be interviewed is aware of the information that is going to be delivered.

This approach and the experiences shared during that time are not only important to understand the structure and needs of indigenous communities, but also for scientists to understand the cultural and social value of elements that are usually objects of study such as water. or food.

The medical anthropologist Amalia Pesrantes gives as an example the research carried out in the field of nutrition. In the case of studies that try to know the amount of carbohydrates or vitamins that a food has, he mentions, professionals who work collaboratively on this issue must also understand that this food has a social and gathering value.

A review, published in the journal Earth Surface Dynamics of the European Geosciences Union, also highlights the need for Western researchers to understand or at least respect the worldview and priorities of indigenous communities.

“It is necessary to anticipate that rock formations and rivers can be ancestors; that when communities speak of fish, they are speaking of brothers and sisters; and when communities speak of the soil, they are describing their mother Earth,” said the lead author. Clare Wilkinson.

Teresita Antazú, a member of the Yanesha community, reaffirmed the importance of understanding this worldview in order to protect natural resources. She said that, for the Yaneshas, ​​the earth is the mother; the forests are his brothers; the sun and the moon, their cousins, and, in general, everything that surrounds them is their family.

However, this aspect has been historically ignored by Western science, which limited itself to studying the object around its qualities and characteristics, but not understanding the relationship between it and its environment.

TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE. Chácobo woman teaching how to weave palm fibers in Bolivia. Photo: Narel Paniagua-Zambrana & Rainer Bussmann

Therefore, the indigenous leader stressed that ignorance of this knowledge puts resources at risk. “The outsiders, who are unaware of the entire worldview of the indigenous peoples, come to knock down all the wood [because] they don’t care and they don’t know that they are part of us. they don’t mean anything, ”he emphasized.

The researcher from the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP) mentioned that indigenous peoples dialogue with their environment and relate to it in a totally different way than those in Western society today.

“The problem is that when we speak of traditional knowledge, we speak of knowledge that is very comprehensive and today science has become so specialized that it is very difficult to find it in Western knowledge,” he said.

In this way, scientific knowledge excludes forms of knowledge production typical of indigenous communities that involve different aspects such as experience, the inclusion of spirituality or the use of plants that have psychoactive components to relate to their environment.

For this reason, it is important that the communities possessing traditional knowledge not only participate in the collection of the information, but also have a fundamental role in its analysis and the preparation of the results.

An article published in Nature highlights that members of indigenous communities also have something to say “not only in defining the research questions and how the research will be important to the communities, but also in the analysis and interpretation of the data. ”.

Narel Paniagua explained to OjoPúblico that, sometimes, analyzing the data without knowing the context means that their interpretation does not adjust or adapt to the local reality. “If we talk and dialogue with them [the community members], perhaps we could have a broader vision and perspective of why we have these results and also more solid recommendations,” he said.

In turn, Clare Wilkinson, author of the research published in Bioscience on the connection between Western science and indigenous and local knowledge, highlights that in this collaborative work there must be an exchange of knowledge by both parties.

However, the difficulties to develop the co-production of knowledge not only appear during the development of the research, but also when the results are published. At the end of the projects, researchers such as Narel Paniagua find themselves with limitations to be able to place the members of the community who participated as authors.

When she finished her research with indigenous communities in Peru and Bolivia in which members of these participated collecting and providing information on the knowledge of their peoples, many scientific journals asked her about the level of education of the research participants as a requirement to place them. as co-authors.

“It is very complex because you can put the community as a co-author, but many journals, even many reviewers and editors have the criterion that the person who writes must have some training,” he added. Narel Paniagua indicated that, apart from asking them if they had a doctorate, they asked them if they knew how to read and write.

However, the recognition of the communities granted by Narel in the publications of his books is important to recognize the holders of this traditional knowledge, who were repeatedly made invisible.

Tutiak Katan, vice-coordinator of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), emphasized that, many times, scientists cite indigenous knowledge in their research that they have collected in their work with the communities; however, they do not mention who provided this information. “Many researchers do not even list those who gave the information as informants or even put them only as informants is like minimizing or not respecting the knowledge of these people,” he said.

An article published in Advancing Earth and Space Science (AGU), shows that this problem is repeated in different indigenous communities around the world. David Chavez, a researcher who analyzed studies on ecological indicators of seasonal change or agricultural practices, mentioned that in these investigations “it was difficult to identify who in the community was contributing that knowledge, how those findings were returned to that community, or what questions and concerns the community had. indigenous community in terms of research ”.

To this, it is added that the invisibility of the holders of traditional knowledge generates mistrust within the communities. In the Yanesha community, Teresita Antazú recounted, there was great acceptance for researchers to learn about the medicinal plants they use.

However, due to the lack of knowledge about what scientists were doing with that information, the perception was born that they only came to take their knowledge and sell it. “It creates a bit of uncertainty and people get a little hard to tell things, even among ourselves. It’s very difficult, “he said.

For this reason, Tutiak Katan highlighted the importance of recognizing indigenous communities in research. The vice-coordinator of COICA stated that those who are named as informants should be considered as co-authors, since they are the ones who have the information about what the external scientist is going to do with their research and the respective publication.

RETURN OF KNOWLEDGE. Mother and daughter of the Lamas indigenous group reading the books that were produced as a result of collaborative research done with Narel Paniagua. Photo: Narel Paniagua-Zambrana & Rainer Bussmann

The scientist Narel Paniagua talks about the importance of giving them recognition as co-authors. “It is not that they are informants as they have always been called, they are participants and that is a term that is being very difficult to recognize,” he said.

In this regard, Gael Almeida affirms that there has been a change over time regarding the recognition of indigenous collaborators within the investigations. The regional director for Latin America of the National Geographic Society said that before, local collaborators were not seen as part of the team but rather as someone helping the scientist to get to the place or to get to know certain plants, for example. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, they have identified a change and, now, integration is promoted among all participants. “From the design of a project you can see if the intention to incorporate this local knowledge is genuine or if you are just putting it there, but you are not really doing it,” he said. For example, he added, this is perceived when the form only assumes that the local person will be the field guide, but it does not detail how they will be incorporated into the research.

After the publication of the jointly analyzed results, it is important to ensure that the information returns to the communities so that this collaboratively produced knowledge can be applied to reality. Tuntiak Katan, a member of the Shuar indigenous people, mentioned that, as part of the research, scientists should return the collected knowledge in a language that is understandable by the community, since many times they are given a copy of the publication made in a scientific journal.

In turn, Narel Paniagua pointed out that this type of delivery is not very useful for the community because of the language in which it is written and the format in which it is printed, since the sheets of paper do not usually last long in the Amazon for the humidity of the environment. For this reason, his work has focused on ensuring that the knowledge that he returns to the community is accessible to them.

“We have worked a lot with communities where we have tried to document traditional knowledge and give back to the communities in the format they choose. In such a way, that this information returns to the communities and their traditional knowledge can be used as a tool in conservation, ”he told OjoPúblico.

“There are really many limitations from our side as scientists more than from their side, because if we explained them better, if we took the time, I think we could have a quite enriching answer,” said Narel Paniagua. Certainly, there are certain reasons that explain the difficulty in carrying out collaborative research between both knowledge systems.

In principle, historically, there has been an assessment of scientific research as superior and, in many cases, it has been conceived as the only valid way to produce knowledge. However, this should not be the case. “They are different kinds of knowledge, but they are just as important and valuable,” emphasizes Gael Almeida.

In turn, Manuel Martin criticizes the fact that indigenous knowledge was always observed from a vertical perspective, in which Western knowledge always had a hegemony over traditional knowledge. The study, published in the journal Bioscience, also confirms that scientific knowledge generally has a dominant position over different knowledge systems, including indigenous ones.

However, in order to carry out the co-production of knowledge from the collaborative work between both systems, it is necessary to abandon that vertical position. The medical anthropologist Amalia Pesrantes advised that when approaching indigenous peoples, they should seek to create a relationship of trust and Western researchers should have a position of humility, recognize that what they know has many shortcomings and that there are other ways of learning.

In turn, the ethnobiologist Narel Paniagua pointed out that the research carried out by Latin American scientists also has these lags of superiority – despite the fact that it began approximately 30 years ago, since it was previously carried out by foreigners, she adds – but is also marked by the racism.

This predominance of Western scientific knowledge and the fact of prioritizing that education be oriented in that direction, has also endangered the survival of traditional knowledge.

Such is the case of Medardo, an elder of the Urarina indigenous people, who died in 2021 and a year ago commented to the researcher Manuel Martín his concern about the lack of interest of young people in the values ​​of relationship with natural environments and knowledge that he had about the ingestion of some plants with psychoactive components that allowed him to dialogue with those environments. “That man has died recently and with him have gone a lot of knowledge and practices that would have been extremely useful for the national society as well,” added the specialist.

Like the case of Mr. Medardo, there are hundreds of other cases. Covid-19 has taken many indigenous elders and this represents a risk for the conservation of traditional knowledge. Tutiak Katan, general coordinator of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, assured that, in general terms, there is a trend of loss of knowledge because only the elderly possess it. “It is a challenge for each community,” he said.

This has also caused a great lack of knowledge in the scientific community and in the general public about what traditional knowledge is. Scientist Narel Paniagua highlighted the importance of the urban public understanding why indigenous communities use resources in the ways they use them.

“For example, now with the pandemic, medicinal plants are the bomb and everyone thinks they can use them because local people use them. But, people do not understand why and how the use of these plants has evolved, “she pointed out. For this reason, the social scientist Manuel Martín specified that the ignorance of these practices and these indigenous knowledge systems makes it very difficult for them to be integrated and used.

Finally, as Narel Paniagua mentioned, in the community there are intrinsic difficulties in recognizing the members of indigenous communities as producers of this knowledge. This is because the scientific academy usually requires that those who appear as authors of research have a “high level” educational training, but access to this training is difficult for Latin American professionals and, even more so, for indigenous communities.

In general, the training of scientists in Latin American countries is usually scarce. Only in Peru there are approximately 125 researchers per million inhabitants, according to information from the National Council for Science, Technology and Technological Innovation (Concytec). That is, a little more than 4,000 scientists nationwide. Colombia, for its part, stands out for having more than 15,000 scientists recognized by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, equivalent to 334 researchers per million inhabitants.

Ecuador has a similar figure, which has more than 11,000 researchers, representing approximately 650 scientists per million inhabitants. However, in comparison with the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -such as Canada, the United States, Germany, France, among others- these figures are minimal, since the average is 4,000 scientists per million inhabitants.

Therefore, the training of professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is still lower for the countries of the Latin American region. This, in turn, means that the chances for a member of an indigenous community to become a scientist are even smaller.

This is also evidenced by the III Census of Native Communities 2017 carried out in Peru, which showed that in those indigenous communities that have educational institutions, only 23.5% have access to secondary education and 0.1% to technical education higher. Although the granting of places in public universities to indigenous members was an important step on the part of the Peruvian state, even they have fewer possibilities of accessing this training.

These possibilities are reduced due to the deficient level of secondary education, the little information on the opportunities to pursue higher studies and the scarce coverage of careers of the scholarships offered to indigenous students, as reported by an investigation, carried out in Peru and published by the Consortium of Economic and Social Research (CIES), on the aspects that influence and condition the access, training and graduation of indigenous women in two universities in Iquitos.

“It is important to recognize the indigenous members as authors in the investigations, because when the information returns to the community, they are empowered and generate a vision of value that they did not perceive in their traditional knowledge,” said Narel Paniagua.

This return of knowledge helps as a resource to transmit this knowledge through the generations. Yanesha leader Teresita Antazú explained that the maps and stories recorded by the anthropologist Richard Chase Smith in 1980, now serve for the youngest to learn about the customs of the community.

The work of Richard Smith and Narel Paniagua are examples of the collaboration that can be achieved between both knowledge systems. In Narel’s case, in addition to publishing books with the co-authorship of the communities, she and her husband Rainer Bussmann developed a project in which they trained local people to do the work that they do.

In other words, the members of the indigenous communities with whom they worked (the Lamas and the Chácobos, for example) learned to design a questionnaire, to conduct the interviews, to record the interviews, to empty that information into databases, and to participate in the elaboration of the final book that they have returned to the communities.

“If you give them the tools, you give them the inputs so that they can do the research, we could collaborate in an impressive way. If you can’t go, they can record the information, they can send it to you and we can analyze it together, ”Narel Paniagua concluded.

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