Traditional Knowledge Matters- Understanding What Types of Knowledge Have the Most Influence in an Environmental Approvals Process

Shared Value Solutions Aboriginal traditional knowledge study field work in northern Manitoba

“Traditional Knowledge Matters” is our series of blog posts on the ways and means of influencing the environmental assessment and permitting process using Aboriginal traditional knowledge. We will be sharing one post/ week over the next 5 weeks on topics including: 

Traditional knowledge becomes especially influential in resource and infrastructure environmental approvals processes- whether an environmental assessment, a mine closure plan, or a water license- when it highlights how changes to the environment can lead to negative effects on Aboriginal peoples, and/or how to avoid such changes, including to:

  • health and socioeconomic conditions
  • physical, archaeological, and cultural heritage
  • traditional land-use

Support for traditional knowledge and traditional land use studies is especially important for building relationships between communities and project proponents where there is a mutual desire to create real and meaningful partnerships.  As new forms of Aboriginal and industry partnerships emerge, it is important for partnerships to start on a footing of protecting the lands, waters and way of life of Aboriginal community members and future generations.  Combining scientific and traditional knowledge is important for designing adaptation strategies so that they are scientifically sound and truly connected to local value systems, needs and priorities.

 

Our working definition of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge

There is no stock definition of Aboriginal traditional knowledge, and there are many alternative definitions and critiques of what those definitions should and should not contain.  We see traditional knowledge as being based on a people’s long-term relationship with a local area or region and its ecosystems, and being fundamental to and reflective of their long-term survival and well-being.  It encompasses elements of understanding and prediction, and is based on ongoing practice, adaptation, and transmission between community members.  Because it is tied to collective memory and community survival, it becomes part of culture and can be shared through different cultural mediums (stories, songs, etc.) and rituals. Because of the tie to ongoing practice, traditional knowledge is inseparable from traditional land-use and rights to conduct such land-use.

In our experience, five specific types of traditional knowledge from Aboriginal communities can be influentially applied to the permitting and approvals process, when we take the time to listen and incorporate aboriginal traditional knowledge in environmental assessments:

  • Knowledge about the relationships between environmental change and species or ecosystems the community depends on for subsistence livelihoods and Aboriginal community wellbeing, and how those relationships are relevant to the project being assessed.
  • Knowledge about past environmental effects of similar projects on the community.
  • Knowledge about the cumulative effects of multiple projects on species or ecosystems the community depends on for subsistence livelihoods and Aboriginal community wellbeing, and the relevance of this for the project being assessed.
  • Knowledge about how the environment- for example, flooding- could affect a project, creating risks of environmental effects on Aboriginal peoples.
  • Knowledge about avoidance or mitigation measures that work to prevent or minimize effects.

The application of these types of knowledge in the permitting and approvals process is perhaps best shown through an example.

Case Study Example

(details removed to protect client confidentiality)

One of our First Nations clients was being consulted by a hydroelectric developer about a proposed small dam and generating station within their traditional territory.  The location of the proposed dam was about 8 km downstream of an existing dam, and within the watershed of the Abitibi River in Ontario- a waterway which has been heavily developed for its hydroelectric potential for the better part of a century. 

Our clients have traditionally and continually fished for lake sturgeon in the river where the dam was proposed and in the Abitibi River.  Sturgeon are notoriously sensitive to waterpower developments because of their large home ranges, specific habitat requirements, and slow rate of reproduction.  Traditional knowledge-holders from our client’s community have observed that adult sturgeon which were allowed passage into the areas of river between nearby dams on the Abitibi - through artificial fishways or similar measures- showed many signs of starvation and ill-health.  They also observed that sturgeon populations downstream of dams with appropriate habitat enhancement measures showed signs of good health.

During the consultation process, our clients therefore petitioned for fish passage not to be provided for sturgeon, and for the hydroelectric company to instead focus on downstream habitat enhancement- against the typical operational policies of the regulatory agencies.  Our clients also asked us to retain a professional fisheries biologist and for that biologist to explore and comment on these observations from a scientific perspective as well.  The biologist’s review of the literature revealed similar findings- sturgeon adults respond poorly to upstream fish passage measures, sturgeon young respond poorly and with high mortality to downstream fish passage measures, generally sturgeon require large areas of high quality river habitat to maintain a healthy population, and sturgeon generally respond well to habitat enhancement within river reaches of a suitable length and with a suitable water level regime downstream of dams.

We feel this is an excellent example for a number of reasons.  During the consultation process, our clients gained influence on an important development within an already heavily impacted area of their traditional territory by sharing four of the 5 kinds of traditional knowledge we have highlighted:

  •  Knowledge about the relationships between environmental change (the effects of dams on the river) and species or ecosystems (sturgeon and their habitat) the community depends on for subsistence livelihoods, and how those relationships are relevant to the project subject to the EA (a new dam).
  •  Knowledge about past environmental effects of similar projects (numerous large dams on the Abitibi  River) on the community.
  •  Knowledge about the cumulative effects of multiple projects (the effects of numerous large dams on the Abitibi River) on species or ecosystems (sturgeon and their habitat) the community depends on for subsistence livelihoods, and the relevance of this for the project subject to the EA (one more dam in the watershed).
  •  Knowledge about avoidance or mitigation measures that work to prevent or minimize effects (in this case- focus on downstream habitat enhancement for sturgeon instead of fish passage).

Our client also understood from past experience that science and traditional ecological knowledge can be compatible, but can also be pitted against each other.  They felt it important to hold the reins in how that comparison was made by retaining their own scientist and asking that scientist to explore and present results from the scientific literature about hypotheses derived from their traditional knowledge.

 

Need Help?

The staff and partners at Shared Value Solutions Ltd. are experienced, qualified researchers who can help you use traditional knowledge to influence the environmental approvals process for industry or infrastructure projects in your territory.  We understand and work extensively with Aboriginal communities.  Contact us for help with anything from training, to study design advice, to full study delivery.  

 

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Shared Value Solutions  has an unshakable commitment to a land where all peoples can reach their full potential, share prosperity, and uphold their rights. We believe all of this begins and ends with healthy lands and waters. We understand the regulatory environment, and will help you shape your project or study to meet both immediate regulatory process needs as well as long-term community planning objectives.


 

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