Can indigenous peoples be relied on to gather reliable environmental data?
Stanford University release, 13 October 2011

CALIFORNIA, USA: No one is in a better position to monitor environmental conditions in remote areas of the natural world than the people living there. But many scientists believe the cultural and educational gulf between trained scientists and indigenous cultures is simply too great to bridge – that native peoples cannot be relied on to collect reliable data. But now, researchers led by Stanford ecologist Jose Fragoso have completed a five-year environmental study of a 48,000-square-kilometer piece of the AmazonBasinthat demonstrates otherwise. The study Large-Scale Environmental Monitoring by Indigenous Peoples set out to determine the state of the vertebrate animal populations in the region and how they are affected by human activities. But Fragoso and his colleagues knew they couldn’t gather the data over such a huge area by themselves. Fragoso and his colleagues worked in the Rupununi region inGuyana, a forest-savanna ecosystem occupied by the Makushi and Wapishana peoples. The researchers recruited 28 villages and trained more than 340 villagers in methods of collecting field data in a consistent, systematic way. The villagers were shown how to walk a transect through an area, recording sightings and signs of animals, noting the presence of plants that animals feed on and marking their observations on a map.

The training was not without its challenges. Many of the older villagers were expert bushmen, but could not read, write or do arithmetic. Many of the younger villagers, who had received some formal education, were literate but lacked knowledge of the animals and plants in the wilds around their communities. So researchers paired younger and older villagers to go into the field together. All the villagers were paid for the work they did. The most consistently accurate data was recorded by technicians in communities that had strong leadership and that were part of a larger indigenous organization, such as an association of villages. After all the data verification was done, the researchers found that on average, the indigenous technicians were every bit as able to systematically record accurate data as trained scientists. They were also probably better than scientists at detecting animals and their signs. Read the press release … Read the abstract of the study Large-Scale Environmental Monitoring by Indigenous Peoples, by J. B. Luzar, K. M. Silvius, H. Overman, S. T. Giery, J. M. Read and J. M. V. Fragoso, published in BioScience 61(10), 2011 …