Building communities of learning: indigenous ways of knowing in contemporary natural resources and environmental management

  • Robson J
  • Miller A
  • Idrobo C
 et al. 
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In this paper, we explore the emergence of what we term 'communities of learning' within the context of natural resources and environmental management (NREM). These communi-ties reflect new forms of interaction and cooperation between NREM decision makers that bring together the unique contributions of indigenous ways of knowing alongside academic and scientific approaches. Here, 'indigenous ways of knowing' refer to how indigenous and local peoples cultivate knowledge in the context of NREM (Berkes 2009 this issue). This is a 'place-based' process that embodies knowledge of species, livelihood practices and cultural beliefs, values and norms. In NREM, as in other fields, indigenous cultures have often been viewed through a binary lens, either as an impediment to socioeconomic progress, or as static packages of knowledge, belief and practice that must therefore be preserved from homogenising pressures, such as globalisation (Marglin 1990; Arce & Long 2000; Sen 2004). Rarely have indigenous ways of knowing been recognised as adaptive, dynamic assets for building diverse development trajectories that reflect local needs and aspirations. Where this has occurred, however, the shift in thinking has enabled researchers to explore knowledge as an adaptive cultural ele-ment, as well as encourage a much more practical engagement between indigenous groups, researchers and policy makers/managers. In doing so, it allows for place-based alternatives for both research and management policies in contemporary cross-cultural settings (Sillitoe 2006; Davidson-Hunt & O'Flaherty 2007). In this instance, indigenous groups are our focus. However, communities of learning may organise around other resource-dependent groups for the construction of 'place-based' knowledge. In a management context, the ability of different actors to meaningfully contribute to creat-ing solutions shifts in relation to the authority they are able to claim against competing world views and fields of action. 'Communities of learning' result from the recognition that each community possesses unique knowledge and resources that can contribute to management decisions. Figure 1 illustrates the potential convergence of these dominant players to form communities of learning. Fig. 1 Communities of learning for natural resources and environ-mental management (NREM) in cross-cultural settings. Situated within the NREM arena, the outer circles represent the three primary communities, each of which possesses its own knowledge, world views and objectives. The smaller circles contained therein represent the actors from those communities with the recognised authority to interact and engage with their counterparts in NREM knowledge generation. These actors can change over time and are not uniform from place to place. If the communities involved structure their world view and understanding around shared values, then these outer circles begin to converge (shown by the arrows; Fig. 1). This convergence represents the building of communities of learning, which are made possible through engaging in a process of trust building, faith keeping, and benefit sharing. It is in this inner circle where new configurations of NREM knowledge are constructed and co-produced. In this process, the influence enjoyed by each community is fluid and subject to change according to the respect that the others are willing (and able) to afford them. Figure 1 is a simplification of real-life management sce-narios. We acknowledge that learning communities are not exclusive to the three mentioned here, and could include a number of other stakeholders (e.g., NGOs, industry, civil society groups) with their own ways of understanding and contributing to NREM. Our research with this community arises as part of their concerted effort to co-produce, with provincial resource managers, a criteria and indicators-based framework for NREM that incorporates community values and objectives (Shearer et al. 2009). Arriving at 'communities of learning', in which all partners contribute knowledge to the decision-making process, is the result of historic events and ongoing efforts in which relation-ships are established and maintained (Moller et al. 2009). Appropriate power-sharing arrange-ments between governments and indigenous groups, and agreements between researchers and indigenous groups are important precursors. There is a distinction, however, between the ability to contribute to a knowledge community and the ability to impact decisions. In most Canadian examples, NREM decision-making power and authority lies with the designated provincial or federal government body, hence indigenous groups need to be wary of the ways in which their knowledge is brought into the decision-making arena. Clarification of Aboriginal rights,

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  • James P Robson

  • Andrew M Miller

  • Carlos Julián Idrobo

  • Catie Burlando

  • Nathan Deutsch

  • John-Erik Kocho-Schellenberg

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