Mapping and protecting biodiversity with Africa’s indigenous peoples. In dialogue with Thomas Smith (UCLA)

In dialogue with Thomas B. Smith (UCLA). Founder and Co-Executive Director Center for Tropical Research and Founding Co-Director, Congo Basin Institute. Distinguished Research Professor, Center for Tropical Research and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

The interview has already been published by The Science of Where Magazine


Your experience with the Baka of the Congo Basin is complex. How would you describe it to our readers?

The Congo Basin is home to the world’s second largest rainforest, sequestering over 60 billion tons of carbon, and harboring tremendous biodiversity and human cultural diversity.  The region faces enormous challenges—food and water security, human health, loss of biodiversity, and climate change.  By the end of the century, four in every ten humans will be African.  This makes it vitally important to leverage research locally and internationally to address the region’s challenges.  Decades of past extractive research—where western scientists would parachute in, collect data and leave— must be replaced with models emphasizing community engagement and capacity building.

I’ve worked collaboratively with Indigenous communities in the Congo Basin for decades.  This includes the Baka, an Indigenous people who were traditionally hunter-gatherers, but have largely been forced off their ancestral lands and marginalized. The concept for Congo Basin Institute (CBI), that I founded and co-direct originated over a decade ago when UCLA formed a partnership with the world-renowned International Institute for Tropical Agriculture to develop solutions to African challenges in partnership with Africans. Advancing UCLA’s mission to better our global society, CBI now draws scholars from the physical, life, and social sciences; law, medicine, dentistry, and public health.

After years of collaboration on ecological and evolutionary research, Baka elders expressed concern that their vast traditional knowledge was not being passed on to younger generations.  In response, CBI worked with the community to develop a comprehensive program to: 1) document Baka knowledge in ways informed by and accessible to the community, 2) create culturally appropriate opportunities for elders to teach youth, and 3) offer the youth research employment and skills-based learning opportunities that reinforce and encourage the use of their community’s traditional knowledge.  CBI secured grant funding, worked with elders to develop a curriculum, organized formal field courses and mentorships, created research assistant opportunities for Baka youth, and assisted in recording Baka traditional knowledge and making it available to the community.  The community elders co-developed the curriculum, mentored the youth, and taught the field courses as “professors of the forest”– their preferred term for their role.  The Baka youth participated in field courses and mentoring, and took the lead in documenting traditional knowledge.  Baka youth are now more engaged with their culture and traditional knowledge, and are contributing directly to the continuity of their cultural legacy.  The project also advances ecological research on the vast, critically important, and understudied Congo Basin rainforest by combining western science with Baka traditional ecological knowledge.  The program has been so successful that the Baka elders recently asked for support to expand the programs to other Baka communities where they have kinship ties.

The mapping of indigenous knowledge is a key element in the awareness of the importance of biodiversity and in preserving it. How can technology with a geographical approach help this activity?

With funding from NASA we are contrasting Baka knowledge with remote sensing data to understand how they correspond. There are many insights on forest structure and dynamics we can learn from Baka that can help us better conserve rainforest. I’m been working on mapping biodiversity process for many decades. Here attached a recent publication that describes a model for preserving biodiversity in under climate change (that can be applied anywhere on the planet).

Finally can the activity you have in Congo be ‘exported’, taking into account the differences, to other contexts?

CBI partners with both local communities and the African scientific community. The concept for CBI was developed more than three decades ago with initial research and community projects. CBI’s establishment was seeded by a $5M, five-year NSF Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) grant.  The project created a framework for conserving biodiversity under climate change in Cameroon and Gabon. The grant involved 40 collaborating scientists from 25 international and African universities and NGOs.  PIRE program promoted education, training, capacity building and community science through multiple professional development workshops and field courses per year with American and African students.  We held four workshops targeting conservation decision makers from government ministries and NGOs to communicate our research results to ensure they would be used to influence policy.

CBI continues to engage African scientists, from undergraduates to senior professors, to provide comprehensive networking, professional development, and technical support as well as capacity building.  CBI has provided scientific training to over 700 African scientists through courses and workshops.  We pair researchers with African students and PIs to collaborate on research projects.  CBI has awarded almost $700,000 in small research grants to promising young African scholars.  All of the over 100 recipients reported that they improved their skills as a result of the grant, and 98% reported it helped advance their careers.

Currently, ten communities in southern Cameroon partner with CBI on The Ebony Project, which protects an iconic vulnerable species, reforests degraded land, addresses local food security issues, and improves rural livelihoods.  The partnership has planted over 17,000 native trees, including locally valuable fruit and medicinal trees that community members select.  Communities help collect source materials, grow, and plant trees, while CBI provides materials and training, and improves growing methods through our targeted research efforts.  At the communities’ request, the project developed a tree-inventory booklet and is transitioning to digital record-keeping using smart phones to assist individual farmers in tracking the trees they plant, and strengthening their land tenure claims.

Moving forward, CBI is focused on financial sustainability, and sustainable engagement at two levels.  First, CBI’s big tent approach is encouraging more researchers to participate.  This generates more research and mitigates risk by ensuring that CBI’s work is supported by many grants from dozens of researchers.  CBI is also working to improve how we communicate our values and approach to potential new partners, and how we use our infrastructure to encourage equitable engagement with communities.  Second, CBI’s projects are expanding organically, with participating communities sparking interest in CBI’s engaged research in neighboring communities.  Financially, CBI has developed a three-pronged business model to ensure longevity, and have just had our most successful fundraising year to date, allowing us to expand the Ebony Project and the School for Indigenous and Local Knowledge.

Currently, CBI is exporting these approaches to other countries in the Congo Basin. In 2015, the year CBI was created worked in Cameroon, today we are working in eight counties, leveraging the lessons learned.

Marco Emanuele
Marco Emanuele è appassionato di cultura della complessità, cultura della tecnologia e relazioni internazionali. Approfondisce il pensiero di Hannah Arendt, Edgar Morin, Raimon Panikkar. Marco ha insegnato Evoluzione della Democrazia e Totalitarismi, è l’editor di The Global Eye e scrive per The Science of Where Magazine. Marco Emanuele is passionate about complexity culture, technology culture and international relations. He delves into the thought of Hannah Arendt, Edgar Morin, Raimon Panikkar. He has taught Evolution of Democracy and Totalitarianisms. Marco is editor of The Global Eye and writes for The Science of Where Magazine.

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