When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in the late 15th century, he and his crew had spent months sleeping on a hard and dirty deck—most likely infested with vermin. It is no surprise that the islands seemed like paradise. Not only did the sailors finally feel the land beneath their feet again, but the indigenous people slept comfortably in nets between the trees, rather than on the hard floor. It was a big difference from the sleepless months of hardship the sailors had just endured. On his trip back to Spain, Columbus took these indigenous nets with him, and before long sailors were relying on hammocks to stay comfortable on overnight voyages.
Hammocks are not the only invention that we have thanks to indigenous nations and communities. Over half of the crops now in cultivation across the globe were domesticated by indigenous peoples in the Americas, including corn, which alone provides nearly a quarter of human nutrition worldwide. In the medical field, a wide range of medications exist partially thanks to traditional medicine from around the world, including several pain relievers, drugs for dieting and antioxidant and antibacterial products.
More importantly, traditional ecological knowledge has been gaining ground in recent years as a crucial aspect of natural resource management and our understanding of climate change. Traditional ecological knowledge refers to indigenous and other forms of traditional knowledge regarding the sustainability of local resources. It is often used to sustain local populations and maintain resources necessary for survival.
Despite the benefits of indigenous knowledge, today the relationship between what some call “Western” science and traditional knowledge is difficult at best. Today, Western science plays a role in every aspect of our lives, from the phones and computers we use every day to the very food on our plates. But the most important question today is how we can use that science to transform our society—to a new, sustainable one rooted in healthy environments. A healthy collaboration between Western science and indigenous knowledge systems could help us to accomplish that, but to do so, the two must first gain a better understanding of each other.
This World Science Day for Peace and Development, celebrated annually on 10 November, is themed “Open science, leaving no one behind”. Open science is the movement to make scientific research and dissemination accessible to all levels of society, amateur or professional. One way that open science could lead to a sustainable future is by helping to capture the experience of indigenous peoples in future assessments of climate change and to reflect indigenous knowledge on a global scale. In doing so, it could help to do away with the old rivalry between Western science and indigenous knowledge systems.
“A global shift to open science would support countries in the environmentally sound management of chemicals and waste,” said Jacqueline Alvarez, Senior Programme Management Officer for the Chemicals and Health Branch of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “Research on the growing impact of emerging issues on human health and the environment is crucial for building effective development plans. Likewise, assessments of risks and monitoring of environmental trends can play a decisive role. Making that research available to a wider audience allows us to act sooner on the most urgent issues, and in doing so to bridge science to policy and policy to science.”
The divide between science and traditional knowledge is largely driven by the inability of experts on both sides to fully understand each other’s concepts. Academic texts on indigenous knowledge systems have almost exclusively been written by Western scientific researchers. This not only acts as a funnel for traditional knowledge, but it is also a one-way street. Without a good understanding of science by traditional knowledge holders, there is no way for these two knowledge systems to work together effectively and sustainably.
Open science could help to alleviate this issue by opening science up so that a more diverse group of people have access to it, including traditional knowledge holders. This could drive understanding and encourage collaboration between scientific researchers and traditional knowledge holders. Not only will this help to improve our chances of a sustainable future, but also to dismantle colonial structures that persist in the societies, politics and economies of the modern world.
Aside from the benefits for a global society and a sustainable future, indigenous communities could benefit from this relationship as well. Many indigenous communities around the world are unable to access clean drinking water, have elevated levels of toxins in the water and soil, or are surrounded by chemical production and processing facilities.
Advancing and scaling new technologies that minimize hazardous chemicals and waste, make recycling and recovering these wastes easier, and create value from products in their end-of-life stage could radically alter the chemicals and waste conversation, especially for the most affected minorities. However, the success of new and innovative technologies and other adaptive measures depends on their use and application. Open science can help to increase public understanding of these innovations, making cooperation by governments, communities, businesses and organizations more likely.
The idea of open science fits well into most indigenous knowledge systems. For example, indigenous thinkers generally don’t consider knowledge something that can be ‘owned’, especially not by a single individual. Of course, customary laws do regulate the use of traditional knowledge to make sure that people recognize and respect the sacred history and connotations that such knowledge might hold. For these reasons, indigenous peoples have expressed the need for an innovative means of protection of their knowledge that promotes and strengthens their intellectual and cultural context.
Open minds are the simple precursor to open science, and they have the power to change the world. Therefore, this World Science Day for Peace and Development should be approached with an open mind. By acknowledging that there is much to be learned from each other, global society could benefit not just from hammocks in the future, but from solutions to our most pressing sustainability issues.