The big question
In conservation, and the wider ecological sciences, there is increasing emphasis on disseminating knowledge - with good reason! Public engagement is key if we are to begin to tackle the current climate crisis. Equally there has been much talk about including local and indigenous knowledge in conservation science to bolster both our ecological understanding as well as local support and collaboration. But what is indigenous knowledge? How does it differ from scientific knowledge? Who produces these different forms of knowledge, and how? Who has access to it? How is it valued - scientifically, culturally, and economically? Understanding the way we value ecological knowledge can help us to better maximise the effectiveness of its production, dissemination, and consumption.
My field site Cockpit Country is home to indigenous Maroons as well as many animals and plants that are found nowhere else in the world. Two such species are the Yellow-billed and Black-billed parrots, protected under national law, categorised as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and hunted by Maroons using centuries-old traditional techniques. I try to understand how scientific and indigenous knowledge does and could interact by analysing conservation around these two parrots. I consider the effect of conservation on the indigenous community by asking questions such as how does it affect their livelihoods, resource use, their trust and engagement in conservation efforts, and the maintenance of the customary practices that act as vessels for centuries of traditional, intimate, contextual understanding of their ecosystem, I also ask how the interaction of knowledge forms affect our scientific understanding and its ability to facilitate better governance. Above all, I ask how can the integration of different types of understanding make conservation science more robust and effective.
Findings so far
My research has found that the incorporation of indigenous knowledge is particularly important in areas that are geographically, politically, and culturally isolated areas such as those inhabited by Maroons -the very same isolation is what afforded Maroons freedom from enslavement. Statistical analysis on the 71 threatened neotropical (Latin American/MesoAmerican/Caribbean) parrots indicate that the IUCN Red List assessments of parrots that inhabit Caribbean islands are statistically more likely to have data contributed by only one author. Jamaica is one such island. This is problematic; it is unlikely that a single western-trained contributor will have enough geographical or political access or forest knowledge to navigate the dense forest and plan effective and accurate monitoring surveys. My findings also show that single contributors are statistically more likely to occur in parrot assessments where their habitats are listed as forests (rather than shrublands or grasslands etc). It suggests that in the type of habitat where collaboration is most needed, it is not happening.
Why is it important for conservation to include a number of collaborations? Well, without it, particularly in regions of weak governance, stakeholder conflict, and the absence of large, highly-detectable animals, population estimates are prone to significant error. It can also obstruct our ability to understand changes over time: the Maroons, for example, discuss with me the changes they see in species number as a result of climate change, that has shortened their rainy season considerable over the past 5 years. It can also have a detrimental effect on our ability to protect species. Often in conservation, there is a "better sae than sorry" approach: overestimating threat, and making sweeping conclusions to support more protection seems to be the most pragmatic solution right now. It is not. Take for example the leaf mimic frog - endemic to Jamaica. Having been categorised as Critically Engandered for the last decade, the most recent Red List assessment (2016) has concluded that there just isn't enough evidence to justify this decision - it has since been downgraded to data-deficient. I know in these desperate times, a slapdash, best guess approach is tempting but what we need is a deeper more contemplative understanding of our natural world. I am currently involved in a number of community-based conservation projects with the Maroons where we attempt to do just this: develop long-term studies guided by indigenous knowledge that can help us carefully catalogue the species within and the environmental changes to Cockpit Country. Click "Learn More" to go to my dedicated project website (www.countermappingcockpit.com)