Making room for social sciences in global expertise in biodiversity

Marie Roué
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Marie Roué, anthropologist and member of the IPBES. Interview with Aleksandar Rankovic (Iddri) and Isabelle Biagiotti (Regards sur la Terre and Aida)

As an anthropologist, how do you tackle environmental issues, and how did you become a member of the permanent team of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)?

Marie Roué: 47 years ago, working with the reindeer herders of northern Norway, "les Lapons" as we called them at the time in french, or the Sami people as they are now called, – and influenced by anglophone researchers, I became interested in the flexibility of social organization in response to a naturally difficult environment.. Sami are a bilateral society – in which the kinship relationships of both sides count – and a nomadic one – with a group which is bigger in summer than in winter. I’ve also worked on livestock farming, on their clothing and its technical aspects: adapting to customs and to the weather conditions, and also competitive innovation among the women to follow fashion. This work took me to the Museum of Natural History, where I joined Jacques Barrau’s CNRS/MNHN team of ethnoecologists, APSONAT, which was later led by Claudine Friedberg and then by myself. During the 1980s, I began working with the Inuit in Canada, particularly on the hunting of caribou which are of the same species as reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). I then worked on the Cree Indians, strongly influenced by American anthropology, which was already much more environmental and political than its French counterpart: there was already an indigenous issue, followed by the issue of local knowledge, which was rapidly formalized in Canada, long before the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. For example, I took part in the major surveys conducted at the time on the way land is used and the conflicts surrounding it. Thanks to a project initiated with the support of CNRS, I started working on major dam projects and their consequences for the Inuit and the Cree. I then co-directed the Canadian study on the environmental and social impacts of the two James Bay dam sites, Great Whale and Chisasibi, emphasizing not only the expertise of the local populations on environmental degradation, but also their relationship with the territory which they consider they have a responsibility for which was handed down to them by their ancestors. In 1991, I added the Cevennes in the South of France to these different fields – specifically to compare the Swedish Sami sites and those in the Cevennes which belong to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. In all these subjects, there is the same governmental lack of understanding of questions of rights of use, and the complexity of traditional practices. One of our current research projects in Sweden seeks to establish a mapping of the seasonal movement patterns of the Samis, with all their uncertainties, because many of the decisions and journeys depend on weather conditions which are impossible to anticipate, and which they have to adapt to. Other stakeholders deny this complexity and prefer to see the potential for the economic development of an immense territory; a development which threatens the ways in which it is already used. Currently, in the Arctic as in many other places, the indigenous people are being pushed out of potential new zones of economic development. Roads, aeroplanes and global warming are doing away with the last factors which limit the expansion of other methods of exploiting resources: oil, mining, wind turbines, tourism, secondary housing, etc. The notion of cumulative impact is very rarely taken into account.

So I work on a form of anthropology which is environmental and relatively political: addressing contemporary issues and indigenous populations means that we have to understand both the complexity of the exchange of scientific and local knowledge and that of conflict management and the management of regulatory mechanisms. In my opinion, it is impossible to be totally neutral in these lands which are affected by conflict. For the stakeholders, it seems to be impossible to understand and, in these circumstances, we work with one side or the other. I work with and for the indigenous populations with the greatest scientific rigour at the risk of, sometimes, displeasing them when my conclusions are not what they want to hear.

It was actually quite logical for me to take an interest in the IPBES process through the work of the Indigenous and local knowledge taskforce. I made my application on the IPBES site. You have to understand that, unlike in other countries, all valid applications are presented to the IPBES in France. I was then chosen by the MEP (Multidisciplinary Expert Panel) to become a member of the Working Group. I then applied to the MEP itself without actually believing I’d be successful, mainly because France was more directed towards a biological vision of biodiversity. But what happened was that a Maori biologist, chairman of the taskforce on local knowledge – and, as a New Zealander, related to the WEOG group which comprises Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand – was leaving the WEOG to focus on his research work. So that’s how I was recruited, especially for my skills in local knowledge, which was considered to be a major issue for a certain number of countries including Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand.

From the moment it was created, IPBES has been intent on integrating more of the human and social sciences into its work than was previously the case on biodiversity topics, and more generally in the main systems of intergovernmental expertise on the environment. What place do the social sciences currently hold at the IPBES, and does their integration create difficulties?

Marie Roué: There are still only very few representatives of the social sciences in the MEP. And if you rule out economics, there are even fewer of us. The current Chair of the MEP is Marie Stenseke, a Swedish geographer, but we are still in the minority. This trend is found among authors mobilised for evaluations: there are very few social scientists among the authors when we probably need 30%, if not 50%. Without a critical mass of expertise in social sciences, the IPBES is not in a real position of interdisciplinarity, and this is actually one of its first limitations. Furthermore, in the debate between natural sciences and social sciences, we do not take the researchers who have several decades of interdisciplinary practice sufficiently into consideration. If you want to create interdisciplinarity, it takes more than just putting a biologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, an anthropologist and a lawyer in a box. You have to know the work and the literature, and be interested in contemporary practices. It’s not easy for researchers in the biological sciences to understand that there is already a body of interdisciplinary practitioners with decades of practices and fields on the social science side. Many specialists in natural sciences believe they are capable of establishing society’s position by themselves.

The second difficulty stems from its status as an intergovernmental platform: the governments make the decisions – with a wide range of national positions; a complex process aimed at selecting an equal number of men and women in each geographical and disciplinary group… It’s difficult to put into practice. It’s clear that there is more research carried out in WEOG than in other places – so there are plenty of potential candidates – while in other regions it’s sometimes difficult to find candidates. Respecting balance, finding available people, mobilising focal points in the countries to relay the proposals – the difficulties are many and it takes time to overcome them.

And lastly, as it’s difficult to co-opt people who are different from yourself when you are a group made up mostly of ecologists, many of my social science colleagues still don’t see what role they could play in an institution dedicated to biodiversity. They don’t feel comfortable there, and there’s also the time it takes to participate, or the barrier of English which makes it difficult to understand the subtleties of the debate. The researchers who approach environmental questions in a completely multidisciplinary way are not necessarily recognized in a programme centred on biodiversity – they themselves talk of the management of natural resources by populations, for example. I try and get them to understand that they are more than qualified and particularly with the IPBES focus on ecosystem services since Antalya in December 2013. This focus favours a more multidisciplinary approach defended by certain African, Asian and Latin American countries – such as Bolivia, which recognizes local knowledge in its legislation. But as most of the social sciences, and especially the most social, have been highly critical of the notion of ecosystem services, researchers in these disciplines are still reluctant to work in this domain.

In this context, where does local knowledge relative to biodiversity fit in with the work of the IPBES? What does it contribute?

Marie Roué: The IPBES is responding to the timetable set by politicians and is trying to make very rapid headway, especially on the regional summaries, on the degradation and restoration of lands and on invasive species. All at the same time. It’s all moving at an incredible speed which sometimes has a tendency to crush the participants. The first report on the state of pollinators was published for the meeting in Kuala Lumpur in March 20161. The Task Force on Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems did its best to keep up, but there again, the pervading systems favour the participation of highly specialized experts to the detriment of pluridisciplinary approaches: specialists in pollination itself rather than the traditional bee management practices of an African tribe. The labelling of work therefore directs the choice of candidatures, and it’s actually difficult to reverse the trend. The predominance of ecologists means that the contributors in the social sciences often find themselves not named as chapter authors, whatever their experience, and only listed as contributors.

1 See Phil Lyver et al. (ed.) 2015, Indigenous and Local Knowledge about Pollination and Pollinators associated with Food Production: Outcomes from the IPBES Global Dialogue Workshop.   

Strategically, the local knowledge group has decided to concentrate on two zones for the regional reports – Europe-Central Asia and Africa – for this first year [2016] and to catch up with the other reports next year – on Asia/Pacific and the Americas. The question of local knowledge is in fact well represented in the last two regional groups. Whatever the case, these are huge regions, and there will only be one report for each of them. To be able to consider the importance of biodiversity means considering lifestyles, and what protects natural resources and creates the foundations of a possibly sustainable development – or at least one that is less destructive than an extractive operating method which immediately produces material wealth – and that means taking local knowledge into consideration.

The procedure followed by our taskforce has been budgeted and adopted by the assembly. We are launching a call for tender to find experts in local knowledge or who are actually from the indigenous peoples – which poses a whole lot of practical questions: how do we motivate these people and get them to participate? How do we publicize the work of the IPBES – notably through translation? A list of experts will then be drawn up, and the members of the taskforce will vote for between ten and fifteen of them – this number takes the financing of their trips into account. We try to pair people up: a local knowledge holder and a researcher. For Europe, for example, we have a young small farmer who has joined the Farmers' Seed Network, with a scientist who works on the same topic. Everyone is invited to a dialogue workshop attended by one of the chairs of the report and, at least one coordinating author or someone interested in the issue of local knowledge in their chapter. The goal is as much to instruct future authors about local practices as to counter the ban on conducting new research: thanks to the on-line report, the contributions of these local indigenous experts that previously existed only in the field and were transmitted orally can now be mentioned. They are becoming published sources. For the pollination report for example, we were able to bring together NGOs, institutions, several indigenous people, and even a young Ogiek man from Kenya, John SAMORAI LENGOISA,, who is a member of an association of honey producers and who had never before left his country. After this, we will be financing some of these people so they can tell people in their country about the work of the IPBES and complete their data, with the Ancients for example. A written report is finally drafted by each “pair”. And all of this in an appallingly reduced time-frame. Obviously, we can only persuade those who are already somewhat convinced, and sceptics can tax us as spreading ourselves too thinly. But with the limited money and time at our disposal, what more can we do? Is it possible to believe that there will one day be one way, like the metadata of biological science, of immediately producing, with a small number of people, databases of all the local knowledge of a whole region which document all the peoples, and all the various lifestyles that may never have been written down, but which we must nevertheless know?

So it is these almost epistemological differences which separate the social sciences from other approaches within the IPBES?

Marie Roué: Yes, some of the conceptual advances of the last thirty years are still not sufficiently considered in the IPBES debates. Certain studies on the definitions of nature, for example: is nature only natural? If we forget that what we call nature is also a social construction, we are not actually seeing that the lifestyles and customs, even in places like the Amazon, have had a marked effect on the environment that we want to protect. We cannot understand the socio-biological dynamics if we do not understand their complexity and neither can we protect if we exclude local populations from their traditional role as managers. We see numerous failures in conservation initiatives which have left out these points. The fierce debates on management by fire are a particularly blatant example of this: this is a type of management which used to exist almost everywhere on the planet, and which has now been banned nearly everywhere, often with adverse consequences for the management of protected sites. This has been proved by scientific studies in the cases of California, North America and Australia for example. These territories were managed by fire for thousands of years by the American Indians and the Australian Aborigines who had created sites which were considered by the settlers landing there as being natural ones. If the emblematic national park of Yellowstone burned in 1988, it was because at the time we had banned all fires whether anthropogenic or natural. To understand the role of these fires, we have to accept the social construction of nature and recognize local knowledge of wind, fire-breaks, the reaction of the biotope according to the seasons, etc. Among the populations which practise management by fire this knowledge is extremely accurate, and this has resulted in shaping of the so-called “natural” environment. This knowledge is complex, intellectual and structured; we have to stop thinking that local knowledge is only “practical knowledge”. The nomenclature, the taxonomies, and the local analyses are very similar to scientific approaches. If we don’t know all of this – or if we don’t recognize its significance, collective work between disciplines becomes difficult.

Many regions of the world are more convinced of the importance of this knowledge than Europe, where it is still difficult to tackle the issue. Even in France, local knowledge is not totally valued other than in traditional themes, such as terroirs and designations of origin for cheese and wine. And France’s multi-layered administrative system means that when we look for a local knowledge holder, we’re often going to have to speak to the Prefect or the park manager before meeting a livestock farmer, a fisherman or a beekeeper. In addition to this, the French argument is still that in order to guarantee equality for all, we cannot recognize the existence of indigenous peoples in France and its overseas communities. This can create difficulties as we have both Indian populations and different communities in Guyana. On an international level, even understanding the words is still a source of debate and incomprehension. In Africa for example, the indigenous debate boils down to knowing which peoples were the first to occupy a land, whereas for us it is about their lifestyle.

The conceptual framework adopted at Antalya in 2013 was highly influenced by Bolivia. If local knowledge in the world is not just about Pacha Mama, it is clear that this vision of a relationship between man and the environment is sufficiently powerful and politically effective because it echoes a romantic Western sentiment. On the other hand, the anthropologists and the indigenous people who are closer to the land than the ecologists working on local knowledge or the taxonomies concerning plants and animals are paradoxically less acceptable than when they work on sacred sites. Even in our countries, it is surprisingly more acceptable to talk about rituals than to promote local knowledge in its more ecological dimensions. It may be for those reasons – because we find it easier to accept something that we admit we do not know than something which we know in a different way – that negotiation favoured the spiritual aspect at Antalya. This text is valuable in setting a framework, and in moving past a purely economist outlook on ecosystem services.

What can we reasonably expect from the work of the IPBES?

Marie Roué: The aim of the IPBES, because we know that biodiversity is under threat, is to organize a dialogue between science and policy. We need to do science so that politicians can put it into action. When we have finished writing a report, we’re asked to write ‘key messages’ and, for the report on pollination, the report’s authors were given training on how to produce key messages which can actually be understood by politicians – because that’s not what we were trained for; we’re not really very good at it, whichever science we work in. We also need to understand each other; everyone is going to think that their message is more important than the others. We realize that it’s a crucial issue, but we’re just at the beginning of our work – our first report. We’re starting to talk about communication a lot: how we are going to disseminate the results. This has actually helped me to understand the limits of our own communication at the Museum, especially for the community I belong to - anthropologists and ethno-ecologists – publishing in Sami or in Javanese, in inaccessible journals and on global topics doesn’t help ecologists to understand what we know about biodiversity and its management2. It’s not only local peoples whose knowledge is oral and unpublished – it’s also the case with social scientists specializing in biodiversity.

2See article written by a collective of colleagues to remedy this situation: Marie Roué, Vincent Battesti, Nicolas Césard and Romain Simenel, "Ethnoecology of pollination and pollinators", Revue d’ethnoécologie [On line], 7  

In my view, the absence of major public debates on biodiversity, as opposed to climate, reinforces the difficulty in achieving a collective grasp of these issues of definition. My own current studies, notably in Sweden with the Samis, address climate changes and local knowledge in the management of natural resources and their relationship with science. I notice that the issues of climate change are better understood. And that’s where we realize that we need to be patient because, as you know, programmes like the IPCC have taken a long time to get under way, and a long time to move beyond the reality of climate change and convince governments. With biodiversity, it seems to me that no-one is denying that it’s being eroded, but the connection between biodiversity and sustainable development is even more complex than with climate: what exactly is sustainable development? Whenever the question is asked, there are those of my colleagues who remind us that we are doing science, not politics…