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Indigenous knowledge in environmental assessment

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Stevenson, Marc G.






This paper explicitly advances a process for meaningfully involving aboriginal people and incorporating their knowledge into EIA that will benefit both aboriginal people and industry. Industry need not be incompatible with aboriginal lifestyles, and industrial capitalism does not have to destroy aboriginal economies. Mines have the potential to strengthen aboriginal lifestyles by providing aboriginal people with much-needed cash income and time off to pursue their traditional land-based activities (e.g., a two weeks on/two weeks off shift rotation has been adopted by Echo Bay Mines Ltd. Lupin mine at Contwoyto Lake and has been proposed for BHP's diamond mine at Lac de Gras). In the Northwest Territories today, hunting and other traditional forms of subsistence require large amounts of money for equipment and supplies, and aboriginal people need jobs to maintain these lifestyles. By providing aboriginal people with the money and opportunity to carry on their traditional land-based activities, mines can support the skills required to live off the land and help ensure the transfer of aboriginal knowledge, customs, values, and traditions to future generations. Aboriginal elders recognize that mining can contribute significantly to sustainable development in northern regions: TEK will undoubtedly contribute significantly to an overall understanding of environmental phenomena and ecological relationships in areas of proposed northern development throughout the circumpolar world. However, "full and equal consideration" of both traditional knowledge and indigenous knowledge in EIA is difficult to achieve under current aboriginal-nation state arrangements. This fact is well known to various co-management boards composed of aboriginal people and non-aboriginal managers: inevitably, the latter do most of the managing and the former most of the cooperating (ICC, 1994:17). With few exceptions, researchers and managers with little understanding of aboriginal cultures, realities, or knowledge systems have taken the knowledge of aboriginal people out of context. Forced to communicate their concepts and understandings of the environment and their place in it in the language of the dominant ideology (e.g., wildlife management), aboriginal people are often placed in a subordinate position. Subsequently, it is easy for such information to be reinterpreted or given a meaning different from that which gave value and significance to such knowledge in the first place. Many aboriginal people view this extraction of their knowledge from its original sociocultural context as a form of theft and, understandably, have been reluctant to share the depth and breadth of their knowledge with outsiders. Thus, attempts to document TEK by non-aboriginals have tended to result in either inventories of elements or simple descriptions of natural processes couched in scientific terms. PAR is an important step in empowering aboriginal communities, for it can play a critical role in documenting and applying TEK. However, exclusive control by either party of the traditional knowledge research agenda in the context of EIA serves no one's interests. If the agenda is set by the developer, many of the fears expressed by aboriginal groups about the decontextualization and misuse of their knowledge will undoubtedly come to pass. On the other hand, if the aboriginal community maintains exclusive control over the TEK research agenda, dictating to developers what knowledge they may have, the latter may not be able to meet federal requirements or access that knowledge most useful for EIA. For instance, in the documenting of traditional knowledge, some community voices with much to contribute may be muted; the knowledge of elders may be favoured over that of other aboriginal people who have more direct experience with the possible effects of activities proposed by the developer, or men's knowledge may be favoured over women's. Just as developers cannot demand access to the knowledge they require from aboriginal people, the latter should not dictate exclusively to developers the research agenda. Thus, as long as the requirement of traditional knowledge remains in federal guidelines, an uneasy relationship and power struggle will prevail between those who have the knowledge and those who need it.

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