Indigenous peoples must benefit from science

20 October 2015

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Nature – The sun has been pale for months here in Sumatra and the skies are grey all day — choked with pollution from the massive fires that rage across the Indonesian island. Since the late 1990s, the haze caused by these annual fires has posed a significant threat to the health of Sumatra’s rural communities. This year’s haze is especially bad and has affected major cities, both here and abroad; consequently, the fires have again made headlines around the world.

Many of these news stories blame the big palm-oil companies for the fires. Slash-and-burn techniques remain the cheapest way to clear forest for new plantations. But scientific evidence suggests that this simple narrative is not absolutely true. A number of surveys have found that the bulk of these fires are started outside the official oil-palm concessions. Small-scale farmers seem to be more to blame.

The haze in Indonesia is not just an environmental issue; it is a complex socio-economic problem that is driven partly by conflict over land ownership between palm-oil companies and rural communities — a struggle that the companies usually win.

Besides holding financial and legal power, these companies also have science on their side. High-quality research at state-funded centres has found ways to increase the production of palm oil, such as the manipulation of the gene SHELL and ways to weed out oil-palm clones with reduced yields. These technologies have been developed by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, and the big companies in the region can pay to license and use them. But such technologies are out of the reach of smallholders and the rural population. Yet smallholders produce a large proportion of the crops, mainly through conventional farming practices.

Some 80% of Indonesian rubber, for example, is made by small-scale farmers who do not have access to the research products and whose welfare has not improved. What has science done to empower these people?

The problems of Indonesian farmers might seem low on the list of global priorities. But as the nations of the world prepare to discuss a treaty on climate change in Paris next month, the fires that fuel the Sumatran haze offer a perfect example of how the relationship between science and industry must shift if we value sustainable development.

Scientists need the private sector to provide funding and a ‘tunnel’ for commercialization; the private sector needs scientists to develop products. This alliance, together with support from the government, is called the triple helix — a concept that has driven the world’s economy since the Industrial Revolution. But is this concept still relevant?

Although some parts of the world have achieved a stable economy driven by scientific advancement, around half of the world’s population still lives in poverty. The people of these regions also face environmental threats, such as deforestation and its extended impact, on a daily basis. Those who are most vulnerable benefit from science the least.

“Mitigation must be the responsibility of everyone on the planet, not just scientists, businessmen and policymakers.”

There are scientists who want to transfer their knowledge to these people, but this has proved difficult. The failure of an experiment in the Solomon Islands to help indigenous people to exploit their local environment as ‘ecosystem services’ was attributed to a culture gap between scientists and local people. This claimed divide is often presented as a barrier to the transfer of science and technology.

Scientists must try harder to bridge this gap. Science is a fuel for economic development, but its influence must extend beyond the triple helix. That model simply uses science to exploit natural resources for economic gain. Given the need to mitigate the harmful environmental effects of this conversion, the model is no longer enough.

Mitigation must be the responsibility of everyone on the planet, not just scientists, businessmen and policymakers. Indigenous and local people should also be involved, especially those who call carbon sinks, such as tropical forests, home.

There are already examples of science reaching out. The residents of the Wanang Conservation Area in Papua New Guinea, for instance, have offered 1,000 hectares of their 10,000-hectare protected forest for research conducted by institutions such as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Center for Tropical Forest Science. In this zone, scientists and indigenous people collaborate to investigate the response of trees to climate change. Local people are trained then employed as field research assistants and have received compensation for the lease of their forest.

Meanwhile, a project supported by the US Agency for International Development is training local people in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, to be plant parataxonomists. The project was initiated by Campbell Webb, a plant evolutionary biologist and bioinformaticist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University who is based in West Kalimantan. It is teaching local people to collect plant data in Gunung Palung National Park, an area of high biodiversity that faces the threat of deforestation.

The Paris talks should discuss the need for such initiatives to be copied and scaled up. For decades, the relationship between science, industry and government has been celebrated by all involved as a good thing. But not everybody benefits. Science might be able to pin the blame for the southeast Asia haze on Indonesian smallholders, but it has not yet given them — or others in their position — a way to help prevent it.

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