What if the university would empower indigenous communities?

Blog: Climate University Express

Torsten Krause in the Colombian Amazon

Indigenous communities are critical for climate adaptation and ecosystem protection. While the value of indigenous knowledge and culture is increasingly recognized, indigenous territories are under serious threat of climate change, deforestation and armed conflicts. How could the university move from recognizing, to revitalizing indigenous knowledge and culture? Torsten Krause, senior lecturer at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, shows us the way.

Blog by Lisette van Beek

While Indigenous Peoples account only for six percent of the global population, their lands and territories protect more than a third of worlds’ most critical biodiversity regions [1]. In the Amazon rainforest, carbon-rich areas in the region closely overlap with Indigenous territories, a recent map by NASA shows. Torsten Krause works with several of these communities in the Colombian Amazon to understand how local cultural norms and livelihoods are related to the forests, in particular how people use and hunt wildlife. Although Torsten has worked with the hunting community for several years, their incredible knowledge about the rainforest still fascinates him: "Hunters are living libraries". Indigenous cosmology and traditional cultural norms, in which trees and animals have spirits, are also crucial to protect the forest. A myth of a man-eating snake, for example, still keeps hunters and fishermen away from areas that are otherwise vulnerable to overuse. As Torsten explains, "Rather than ‘not touching’, for people in the Amazon it is about sustaining the interaction between the forest and Indigenous culture”.

Photo: Torsten Krause

Disappearing knowledge, culture and territories

But indigenous knowledges and cultural practices in the Amazon, as elsewhere in the world, are quickly disappearing. Modernity and market capitalism is making fast in-ways into even the remotest corners of the world, changing how people see their relationship to nature. Indigenous hunting and wild meat is also increasingly stigmatized by many conservation NGOs and the government, and losing popularity among the younger generation, Torsten explains. In addition, increasing droughts and resulting wildfires in the Amazon are destroying the ecosystems on which indigenous livelihoods depend. And climate change is just one of many threats. Illegal logging and mining, often carried out by criminal groups, are increasing deforestation and violence against Indigenous communities. For Torsten, such armed conflicts suddenly became very real during his first research trips to the Colombian Amazon in 2017. His trip came to a sudden halt, due to an unexpected security risk. Former guerilla fighters and armed groups battle over scarce resources and important smuggling routes [2].

Growing recognition, but is it enough?

But there is good news too. In recent years, the recognition of indigenous knowledge, culture and land rights has been rising globally. Indigenous Peoples increasingly turn to the courts to reclaim their territories and demand stronger climate action, with growing success. Last year, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of restoring Indigenous people’s access land rights [3]. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) actively engages Indigenous Peoples and local communities in their global assessments. Academic literature on indigenous knowledge for climate adaptation and biodiversity is rapidly expanding, praising their local knowledge and alternative values of nature. While these developments are hopeful, it is just a first step. Scientists often just talk to indigenous communities to gather insights, Torsten observes, leaving them with the same problems as they found them with.

How research can revitalize indigenous knowledge and culture

Empowering indigenous communities requires an entirely different approach: "We must move away from this ‘extractive’ science and build long-term collaborations and knowledge co-production", says Torsten. “If you are doing interviews, they will only tell you want you want to hear. Only after a long time you begin to understand the real problem.” It also requires researchers to be humble, aware of their positionality and open to alternative realities and ways of knowing. While the community calls Torsten ‘profe’, short for professor, he keeps reassuring them that "when it comes to the forest, you are the professor and I am the student." Torsten, together with his PhD student Carlos Hernandez Velez and local research colleagues, facilitate community dialogues, participatory mapping and collective archiving. This way they help to document local knowledges of species and revitalize traditional hunting practices that are sustainable. “Sure, I also write papers”, he notes. But this is clearly not what drives him to frequently return to the Colombian Amazon.

Photo: Torsten Krause

The Climate University Express is a blog series in which postdoctoral researcher Lisette van Beek writes about inspiring examples of transformative research and education that she encounters on her train journey visiting European universities. The ecological crisis, growing climate anxiety and continued social injustices requires the university to rethink its role. Each month, Lisette explores a 'what if' question, an inspiring story of how the university could be otherwise. The blog series is part of the project The University in a Changing Climate and is funded by Pathways to Sustainability.