Scientists from a variety of fields and organizations have been struggling with Western science’s brutal colonial legacies. Efforts to name and untangle those legacies have grown in areas ranging from archaeology to public health to natural history, particularly in the aftermath of last year’s racial justice demonstrations.
A new paper published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution suggests some steps ecologists can take to unravel the colonial systems and perspectives that pervade academia.
According to coauthor Jess Auerbach, an anthropologist at North-West University in South Africa, “ecology, like other scientific disciplines that exist today, grows out of the history of colleges that were formed in colonization.” “As a type of global scientific community, our entire knowledge framework is predicated on these practices of uneven power and violence,” says the author.
Extractive colonial legacies can now be seen in things like “parachute” science, which involves researchers from wealthy countries researching in the Global South without investing in or collaborating with local communities, or the “discovery” of “new” species that are simply new to Western science, according to the paper’s authors. Another example is wildfires, which have been exacerbated by climate change and fire exclusion and suppression regulations that have prohibited (and frequently continue to restrict) tribal nations from performing managed burns as they did in the past.
“Coming from a former colony, I see the legacy and repercussions of the British leaving in 1947,” says Madhusudan Katti, an environmentalist at North Carolina State University.
Katti highlighted the example of Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan, India, an essential habitat for migratory and breeding aquatic birds. “The national park concept, which has been followed across the world, is based on the US model,” where “wilderness” was frequently created by forcibly removing Native peoples. “So they displaced individuals who were living in this park, and they decided to construct a wall around it to keep people out,” referring to people gathering firewood and grazing livestock. However, ecologists discovered years later that the cattle supported bird populations by eating aquatic vegetation and keeping open water areas, according to him.
“And that was because, once again, you were oblivious to the function of individuals in the system. You’re motivated by the national park model, the notion that humans don’t belong in nature, which is a very Western, European concept.”
One method ecologists may begin to “build a more anti-oppressive and decolonial ecology” is to learn and acknowledge scientific histories of resource extraction, racial violence, and land theft, as well as to place more focus on the history and philosophy of science, according to the researchers. Other practices include fostering multilingualism among researchers, given that science is now constrained by a preference for written English, and acknowledging Indigenous colleagues’ data ownership. The authors also advise ecologists to broaden the definition of who qualifies as an “expert” and adopt anti-racist techniques offered by Black ecologists. They suggest that researchers should not only strive to form diverse, inclusive research teams but also move toward incentivizing communal knowledge-building, such as eliminating lead authorship.
The authors emphasize that this is not a simple checklist that may instantly decolonize an ecologists’ job. “They’re also not designed to obscure lengthy histories of anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle,” adds coauthor Christopher Trisos, an ecologist and head of the University of Cape Town’s Climate Risk Lab. Rather, they argue that these are concrete steps that ecologists can take to improve the way they perform and teach science.
Andrea Reid, a Nisga’a Nation member and assistant professor of Indigenous fisheries at the University of British Columbia, who was not engaged in the study, says, “I believe it’s a significant message and one that ecologists need to hear.”
“While we are only now beginning to engage with these notions in ecology fully,” she continues, “Indigenous scholars have been asking for these kinds of changes for decades. “I would encourage both writers and readers to critically consider what we can do to alter our colonial institutions truly, and to think about the coexistence of knowledge systems in our study of the so-called natural world, rather than just ‘incorporating’ different ways of knowing into Western science.”
Kyle Whyte, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan who was not engaged in the study, notes that many Indigenous peoples fight for the return of their land and self-determination, as well as the financial means to establish their research institutes.
“Indigenous peoples should be allowed to restart the development and building of their own scientific and educational institutions, supporting research and teaching systems that are trustworthy, dependable, and powerful for Indigenous peoples throughout generations, safeguarding relationships and responsibilities, that matter to Indigenous peoples” Whyte stated in an email to Popular Science.
The authors hope that this study will serve as a springboard for future discussions and change. “We have to focus on examining the power that enables diverse forms of science to be carried out if we are to realize the promise of science as something that can provide good things to all of society,” Katti adds.