Knowing What We Don’t Know: Accepting a diversity of knowledge for a sustainable future

This blog post first appeared on the National Geographic Explorer’s Blog on December 19th, 2017. See the original here

If you ever wish to contemplate modern human inadequacy, I challenge you to spend time trundling through the remaining fragments of the Mata Atlântica Rainforest of Brazil. Don’t get me wrong; the dense canopy of green within a rainforest more ancient than the Amazon is stunning even in its heavily modified form. In the remaining parcels of the forest, gowns of green cascade from the dense overgrowth, while capuchin monkeys watch bipedal passersby with charismatic sneers. The montane terrain, dense and ever-wet, is steep, and the forest constantly fighting to reclaim human-made trails.

BIOLOGISTS AND LOCAL GUIDES MAKE THEIR WAY THROUGH THE UNDERSTORY OF THE MATA ATLÂNTICA FOREST IN SEARCH OF NORTHERN MURIQUI MONKEYS. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

A budding ecologist stumbling through this rainforest in search of one species of Critically Endangered monkey may, faced with kilometers of steep hikes, pouring sweat, and fruitless searches, begin to question the utility of ecological inquiry. But this story is neither about this grand, montane rainforest of Brazil, which has suffered more deforestation than any other tropical rainforest on Earth  – nor does it truly begin there.

A MOUNTAIN-TOP VIEW OF THE FOREST, COVERED IN EARLY MORNING FOG. BY MID-DAY, THE LOW-LYING CLOUDS ARE REPLACED BY SCORCHING HEAT AT THIS ELEVATION. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

This story is about knowledge. Particularly, it’s about my slow realization that, in a world of rapidly expanding human pressure, we must mobilize and recognize many types of knowledge, should we seek to understand, and thus conserve, what matters most.

We must mobilize and recognize many types of knowledge, should we seek to understand, and thus conserve, what matters most. Tweet this

I found myself in the Mata Atlântica rainforest during the summer of 2013. I was an overly keen research technician pursuing a career in conservation ecology. My interests and lifelong love of wild places and species had afforded me field experiences across North America – studying kit fox (Vulpes macrotis) demographics in the deserts of Colorado, deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) in northern forests of Michigan and Wisconsin, and whatever other wonders I could find in my backyard in the U.S. Midwest.


THOUGH HEAVILY IMPACTED BY DEFORESTATION AND HUMAN-SETTLEMENT, THIS REGION OF THE MATA ATLÂNTICA STILL REMAINS DISTANT FROM MOST SOURCES OF LIGHT POLLUTION. THE MILKY WAY DAZZLES THROUGH AN OPENING IN THE CANOPY. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

In the rainforest, I was newly interned with a team of Brazilian scientists studying northern Muriqui monkeys (Brachyteles hypoxanthus). The primates are Americas’ largest New World monkeys. They are captivating as well as Critically Endangered; their social structure is egalitarian and, notably, they frequently utilize (admittedly adorable) hugs as communication and stress-relief tactics. Our team was tasked with continuing a Muriqui demography study – we were to track and photograph individuals, and contribute to understanding the behavioral patterns of the monkeys to benefit local conservation goals.

But many days into my time in the rainforest, we hadn’t caught sight of the monkeys. It’s hard to keep your spirits up during long hikes after many days of futility, and even harder to study a population of Endangered monkeys you can’t find. This sort of challenge isn’t inconsistent with the realities of ecology field work – but at the time it was certainly new to me.

It’s hard to keep your spirits up during long hikes after many days of futility, and even harder to study a population of Endangered monkeys you can’t find.Tweet this

UNLIKE ITS HUMAN COUNTERPARTS, THIS BLACK CAPUCHIN (SAPAJUS NIGRITUS) MONKEY NAVIGATES THE DENSE RAINFOREST WITH EASE. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

One typical we-probably-won’t-find-the-monkeys-today morning, gearing up for our hike to a lookout above the trees, I was greeted by a cheerful new friend and local station employee, São Pedro (name changed for the purposes of this article.) He arrived with a fresh bag of home-grown coffee beans, and a burly confidence that he could assist us in finding the Muriquis. Although both the coffee and finding the monkeys were sorely needed, I was skeptical that we would be successful with the latter.

TWO AVOCADOS SIT PRECARIOUSLY BY A PAIR OF WORN WORK BOOTS; A SNAP SHOT OF HUMAN HABITAT IN THE MATA ATLÂNTICA. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

Pedro’s ecological training was radically different from my own – he had grown up in the rapidly changing fragments of the Mata Atlântica, and his wealth of knowledge stemmed not from rigorous scientific proficiencies nor university degrees, but prolonged and continuous experiences in one geographic location. My training in academia – a time when I was largely dismissive of non-academic knowledge forms – left me ignorantly wary of such knowledge, as I bounded to keep up with Pedro’s quick steps through the forest. Within mere hours of trekking through dense underbrush, over countless streams, and up tortuous hill after tortuous hill, we sighted the elusive Muriquis. Pedro had a hardy, knowing chuckle at my simultaneous elation and disbelief.

Our first vista of the Muriquis was of them atop a particularly steep hill. In that first of many exposures to the monkeys, I watched them bound through the treetops and shouted my astonishment at every particularly daring leap between branches. I learned a central lesson during that first sighting. It had been slowly emerging, interweaving and condensing consistently as I explored new ecosystems, continents, and species as a research technician and budding ecologist.

A NORTHERN MURIQUI MONKEY TAKES A BREAK FROM SUN-BATHING TO WATCH A GROUP OF HUMAN PASSERS-BY. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

My realization was this: scientific data are often limited in scope; some of the most diverse systems (tropical rainforests, for example) lack historical scientific data and are a challenge to study for even the most experienced scientists. Local and Indigenous peoples, however, are ancient keepers of complex knowledge systems, in which consistent, long-term observations and oral history create, maintain, and transmit a profound understanding of scientifically “data-poor” ecosystems.

Local and Indigenous peoples are ancient keepers of complex knowledge systems, in which consistent, long-term observations and oral history create, maintain, and transmit a profound understanding of scientifically “data-poor” ecosystems. Tweet this.

This realization is a simplified revelation of complex theory in the world of “socio-ecological systems” — in which Indigenous knowledge and the exercise of traditional rights are key. My continued recognition and increased understanding of local and Indigenous knowledge marked a fundamental shift in my career path and, eventually, in the way I think and talk about ecosystems and conservation.

Science isn’t a panacea. It is a critical tool used by humans to understand our world and our ever-changing role in it. Western science is a culturally embedded, systematic undertaking that rests on the haunches of objectivity, rigor, and repeatability. A scientific pillar is a crucial structural component when answering questions in the conservation sciences. But my experiences in ecological field work in Brazil (and beyond) showed me that scientific knowledge should not function as a stand-alone pillar in the framework of conservation sciences and conservation action.

Indigenous and local ecological knowledge are increasingly accepted and invoked not only as valid and complementary to scientific data, but as additional and equally important components of ecosystem understanding. While scientific knowledge can provide us with accurate snapshots of data in a limited window of time, local knowledge is accumulated over decades, and Indigenous knowledge often over millennia. Local and Indigenous knowledge is often held by individuals, communities or nations, who rely on local ecosystems for physical and cultural sustenance; thus, continual observations of ecosystem changes result in complex stewardship and management strategies with valuable lessons for scientists and ecosystem managers.

AN OOLICHAN POLE STANDS PICTURESQUELY AT THE BANKS OF THE BELLA COOLA RIVER IN BELLA COOLA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — HOME OF THE NUXALK FIRST NATION. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

My experiences in Brazil, and the revelations that followed, catapulted me to work in a much more temperate rainforest with many new lessons in store. Now, I spend my field days in The Great Bear Rainforest of Western Canada. With its stunning ocean vistas, red-cedar forests crashing into rugged coastlines, and ghostly white “Spirit Bears,” this partially protected temperate rainforest has been heralded by National Geographic as “The Wildest Place in North America.”

But to Coastal First Nations (as many Indigenous peoples of Canada are called), who have inhabited their traditional territories and actively stewarded local ecosystems in this rugged rainforest for millennia, the place is anything but wild – it is home. While these Nations’ ancient and continuing stories are not mine to relate, they deserve wider scientific and global recognition.

A YOUNG KERMODE BEAR (URSUS AMERICANUS KERMODEI) WADES THROUGH A SALMON-BEARING STREAM NEAR KLEMTU, BRITISH COLUMBIA. ALSO KNOWN AS THE SPIRIT BEAR, THE SPECIES IS WIDELY APPRECIATED AND AT THE HEART OF THE KITASOO/XAI’XAIS FIRST NATION’S ECOTOURISM VENTURES, AS WELL AS EMBEDDED IN FIRST NATION CULTURES. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT.

Through partnering with the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, and Nuxalk Nations in the region, I continue to learn critical lessons. I’ve learned just how powerful Indigenous fishers’ knowledge can be to shed light on historical changes to a long-lived and at-risk fish species. I’ve learned about the power of story and human observation to encode complex stewardship responsibilities that allow humans, and ecosystems they rely on, to flourish for millennia. I’ve also learned that Indigenous knowledge isn’t simply “complementary” or “useful” to scientific knowledge. Rather, Indigenous knowledge represents a continuously adapting body of knowledge that culturally encoded successful environmental management practices long before western science conceived of the need for conservation or ecosystem management. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve been humbled by all that I don’t know: about Indigenous knowledge and the reassertion of Indigenous rights, about complex ecosystems, and about true environmental stewardship.

I LEARN ABOUT CHANGES TO LOCAL ROCKFISH POPULATIONS WITH WUIKINUXV NATION FISHER AND ELDER TED WALKUS. PHOTO BY NATALIE BAN.

This story is not about the Mata Atlântica rainforest, nor, I guess, is it really about my journey to accepting new and diverse knowledge types. This story is, perhaps more accurately, an attempt to scrape the surface of human understanding about our complex natural world; a modern natural world so multifaceted, that it invokes many forms of human knowledge to properly understand and steward.

THE HEILTSUK NATION GUARDIAN WATCHMEN BOAT RESTS IN SCENIC WATERS DURING A ROUTINE SURVEY NEAR BELLA BELLA, BRITISH COLUMBIA. PHOTO BY LAUREN ECKERT

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