Thursday, January 16, 2014

A case for Indigenous Knowledge in Environmental Management

Benji Gyampoh during a research on IK in climate change Adaptation
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a report (January 2014) titled “A Decade of Tribal Environmental Research: Results and Impacts from EPA’s Extramural Grants and Fellowships Programs”. This report caught my attention as soon as I heard of it. It highlights the accomplishments and impacts of more than a decade of supporting Tribal Environmental Research. The report is available for download at

The findings of this report, once again, confirms the importance of Indigenous Knowledge (IK) in Environmental Management. I have constantly advocated the need for more research into IK in climate change adaptation and I am happy that this report also makes a very strong case for IK in environmental management.

Dr James H. Johnson, Jr., Director of the National Center for Environmental Research, Office of Research and Development of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency observes that “American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities have been tied inextricable to their environments for millennia. Because of their reliance on natural resources to maintain traditional diets, life ways, customs and languages, there is a unique need for tribal-focused research to identify the impacts of pollution, dietary exposures, cumulative risks and climate change, as well as to inform decisions to reduce health risks in these areas.”

The US EPA established the Tribal Environmental Health Research Program in 2000 through the Science To Achieve Results (STAR) grants and fellowships programs. This is the kind of primary research that is very commendable and many countries must take a cue from this. A people can only truly develop scientifically when they master the knowledge already around them. Since its inception, the Tribal Environmental Health Research Program has funded 10 STAR grants for tribal environmental health research, many of which are conducted on tribal lands by researchers from tribal colleges and universities. 

EPA’s STAR tribal research can be categorized by five themes:
  1.         Cultural practices, language and traditional ecological knowledge.
  2.         Subsistence foods and water resources.
  3.         Community-based participatory research (CBPR) and community outreach and education.
  4.         Risk assessment and incorporating sensitive populations.
  5.         Impacts on regulations and management plans.

This highly commendable programme by the US EPA has yielded key data, tools, products, methods and knowledge. The use of such knowledge discovered can help to better define and reduce the health risks faced by tribal populations, protect natural resources essential to cultural and spiritual practices, and supports ecological knowledge and tribal practices for protecting and preserving the earth for future generations.

One important lesson to take from this report, “A Decade of Tribal Environmental Research: Results and Impacts from EPA’s Extramural Grants and Fellowships Programs” teaches is the importance of using research data in making informed decisions. It is not just enough to put money in research because there is a cry for investment in research and development. It is crucial that the knowledge discovered or produced from such research is used for the benefit of the society. According to the EPA report, “results from STAR grants and fellowships have influenced State and tribal regulations and management plans. For example, the states of Washington and Oregon have used STAR data to reexamine and revise their state water quality standards. These revisions offer greater protection of tribal populations whose cultural practices and traditional lifeways could result in higher exposures to water contaminants. The Cherokee Nation used results from research by a STAR fellow to design its Tribal Integrated Resource Management Plan for natural resource planning and management on Cherokee lands.

This is a way to go!

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