In many parts of the world, it’s becoming clear that development projects in fields like mining, oil & gas, and transportation can achieve better outcomes if they incorporate the wisdom of people with intimate knowledge of the area – its Indigenous People. Indigenous Knowledge (IK), also known as Traditional Knowledge, can help projects avoid potential problem areas, helping them stay within budgets and timelines.
Because of the unique perspectives and knowledge Indigenous Peoples have about the local environment based on their long-term relationship with the land and water, there is growing recognition of the valuable contribution of IK in environmental and regulatory processes of development projects.
It's also increasingly required. In Canada, for example, legislation passed in 2019 – Bills C-68 and C-69 – requires consideration of IK in proposed project reviews and regulatory decisions for federal impact assessments.
This legislation facilitates Indigenous engagement and partnership, and is closely tied to the recognition of rights of Indigenous Peoples and Canada’s commitment to achieving reconciliation. Used to promote transparency in decision-making, the new Impact Assessment Act also requires that impact, strategic, and regional assessment reports describe how any provided IK is considered.
What is Indigenous Knowledge?
Indigenous Knowledge is a body of knowledge, practices, and beliefs that is built up over time by a group of people through generations of living in close contact with the environment and their historic experiences. It is cumulative, dynamic and adapts to change. IK is also part of a larger body of knowledge that encompasses information about cultural, environmental, economic, political and spiritual inter-relationships and how these communities view the world. Because of the long-term and close relationship Indigenous communities have with the land, they have a wealth of knowledge to share about the environment which can complement scientific information.
The Benefit of Integrating IK Early in The Process
Working collaboratively with Indigenous communities using participatory approaches and integrating IK early in the regulatory process can support client decision-making and strengthen the credibility and fairness of made decisions. Early engagement can also facilitate long-term relationships and build social and community sustainability.
Indigenous Knowledge can be integrated throughout the impact assessment and regulatory process. In the project planning stage, IK can help identify key environmental or cultural issues; support the awareness and avoidance of culturally important or ecologically sensitive areas; and early engagement and feedback can help influence project design. The identification of key issues or concerns early on can also inform the selection of valued ecosystem or socio-economic components.
Indigenous Knowledge can help to focus and prioritize baseline data collection through the establishment of local study areas, the identification of cultural or heritage resources, areas used by wildlife or people, or specific sites where baseline data collection should focus, such as wildlife travel routes. It can also inform baseline characterization of past or existing conditions, including the current health status of wildlife, vegetation or the aquatic environment, and changes in environmental conditions or trends over time.
During the assessment stage, IK can assist in the identification of cause-and-effect relationships and linkages between ecological and socio-economic components, establishing assessment thresholds or refining effect predictions. This knowledge enhances the understanding of potential impacts and strengthens mitigation measures and contributes to more effective long-term monitoring of projects.
Early engagement and feedback from the community can bring awareness about the potential impacts a project may have on a community’s way of life and allow steps to be taken to prevent adverse effects or disruption to the existing environment. Ultimately, early engagement and the meaningful integration of IK can help to identify potential social and environmental risks related to a project, obtain local “buy-in”, and potentially reduce regulatory delays or unexpected costs down the road.