RENO, Nev. – To better understand how climate change, the global push for clean energy and related global demand is impacting biodiversity within the Amazon basin, a multi-disciplinary group of researchers, including four professors from the Hitchcock Center for Chemical Ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno, are collaborating with Indigenous Kichwa and Waorani families and scientists in Ecuador on a new research project.
Funded by a $3 million National Science Foundation Rules of Life grant, the collaboration will incorporate traditional knowledge of the local forest in the group’s approach to examining tropical species interaction. The Indigenous Communities’ extensive Traditional Knowledge of the plant and animal life in the Amazon basin will serve as a foundation for the group’s research, informing the data gleaned from the most recent scientific methods in chemistry, biology, mathematics, anthropology and the humanities. Several members of the research team are members of the Amazonian Kichwa or Waorani nations.
“Indigenous traditional knowledge of the local forests in the Amazon has allowed diverse Indigenous Peoples to utilize ecosystem resources in a way that has maintained ecosystem health and diversity over millennia,” Assistant Professor of Biology in the University's Department of Biology and the project’s principal investigator Lora Richards said. “In the past, conservation science has largely left this valuable perspective out.”
The team believes the collaboration could yield profoundly accurate and surprising understandings of species interactions and how to protect biodiversity in the Amazon. They also hope the research will serve as a model for collaboration between Amazonian Indigenous communities and academic researchers that respects and values Traditional Indigenous Knowledge, acknowledges Indigenous contributions to research and provides sustaining benefits to these communities.
Climate change is having a significant impact on biodiversity loss around the world, and while the global push to reduce carbon emissions has been successful in increasing the use of clean energy generation such as solar, wind and geothermal energy, an unintended consequence is sometimes more biodiversity loss.
In Ecuador, one of many recent threats to the rainforest ecosystem comes from the large-scale harvesting of wild balsa, a common light-weight tropical tree used in the construction of wind turbines. The growing demand for wind power lead by the world’s two largest economies – the U.S. and China – made 2020 the best year yet for the industry..
“There was an uncontrollable rush to extract balsa,” Co-PI and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University Tod Swanson said. Swanson grew up in the Ecuadorian Amazon and is a member of his wife and daughter’s Santu Urku Kichwa community. “It’s an example of boom cycles of extraction in the Amazon. We never know what the next one is going to be.”
With the end of China’s key wind power subsidies in 2021 and the early impacts of the pandemic on trade dissipating, balsa extraction has slowed almost as quickly as it started. As the forest ecosystem attempts to recover from this most recent rush for resources, the researchers have a unique opportunity to witness the rainforest’s complex biological network rebuild itself.
Of particular interest to Richards and the other members of the Hitchcock Center for Chemical Ecology is the role chemical makeup and diversity plays in species coevolution. They will focus on a plant genus from the black pepper family, Piper.
“Loss of biodiversity is one of the most profound global changes that currently affects all ecosystems and Indigenous Peoples,” Richards said. “Factors such as chemical diversity are far less understood yet are likely a ubiquitous component of environmental degradation.”
Parallel to the audit of Piper’s chemical and genetic information, the group will collect recorded interviews with members of Waorani and Kichwa communities as they describe their knowledge of different tropical species and how they identify and make use of native plants.
These interviews will take place at the Iyarina Research Station founded by Swanson and located in the Santu Urku Kichwa community as well as two extension sites run by Waorani families. These communities include elders in their 50s and 60s with deep Traditional Knowledge who are primarily monolingual – speaking either Wao Tededo, the Waorani language, or Kichwa – as well as younger members who are bi or trilingual in their native language and Spanish and/or English and have experience working with nonprofit organizations, scientists and advanced research technology.
Elizabeth Swanson Andi, president of Iyarina Research Station and communications director for Inti Anka Taripay, will assist her father, Swanson, in the interview and transcription process.
“It has always been a dream of mine to see traditional ecological knowledge valued as western science has been valued,” Swanson Andi said. “Throughout my experience in education, it has been difficult at times to witness others belittle Indigenous Knowledge and categorize it as just myths and legend rather than real lived experiences and valuable knowledge. I am motivated by the opportunity to amplify the voices of Indigenous Peoples in the world of western science. I believe the future lies at the intersection of both ways of living and thinking."
The non-Indigenous academic researchers hope their experience collaborating across scientific disciplines has prepared them to work effectively with their Indigenous counterparts.
“Our team has a really strong history of collaborating across disciplines and one thing that we know is that you don’t force any field into one field’s format of success,” Richards said. “We are not going to try and force Traditional Knowledge into our box of science or force our science on the way we explore Traditional Knowledge. We’re going to let the research go where it takes us.”
The funding for this research will provide an alternative, sustainable source of employment for these communities. The three field stations where the research will take place are Indigenous-run, in collaboration with Swanson, with Indigenous employees and administration. This project will help to provide periodic jobs sustained for over five years and the researchers hope the collaboration will set the foundation for more projects and continued employment at these sites.
Diana Chavez Vargas, an enrolled member of the Comuna San Jacinto Amazonian Kichwa Community will coordinate logistics with the Indigenous communities for the project and integrate long-term goals for continued collaborations in Ecuador’s Indigenous territories. Chavez Vargas received her Bachelor’s in business administration from Universidad San Francisco de Quito and recently obtained a Master's in Indigenous planning from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
The NSF Rules of Life grant was awarded in January of 2022 and will provide five years of funding. The group of scientific researchers, Amazonian Indigenous leaders, anthropologists and students across a range of disciplines hope the resulting findings will be reflective of the unique and diverse perspectives of their team.
“It’s not just this group’s high academic capabilities, but their human qualities of openness and adventure and their interest in the future of the Amazon that will make this project successful,” Swanson said. “This is going to be revolutionary and eye-opening in a number of areas if we can really pause and think about the surprises.”