Bringing Indigenous and local knowledge to climate change research

16 December 2022
Bringing Indigenous and local knowledge to climate change research

"Local Indicators of Climate Change Impacts: the contribution of local knowledge to climate change research” is an ERC - funded project aiming to bring Indigenous and local knowledge to climate change research. Through cutting-edge science, Victoria Reyes-García and her team at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona strive to deepen our understandings of perceived climate change impacts, endeavour to bring Indigenous and local knowledge into policy-making processes, and influence international climate change negotiations.

Citizen science was not designed to be the main tool for data collection on the LICCI project.  Rather, the project aimed to experiment with a citizen science platform as a complementary source of data collection.  Data collection in the LICCI project mostly relied on a network of about 50 partners who collected field data among Indigenous Peoples and local communities in areas without or with very poor connection. Partners used a standardized protocol using interviews, focus groups, and surveys. They did not use a citizen science approach.

However, as the aim of the project was to create a global understanding of how climate change impacts were perceived by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, the project had originally envisioned the design of a citizen science platform. The intention was for other Indigenous groups and local communities – beyond our original 50 cases but also lay citizens – could report their perceptions of climate change impacts.  With this aim, we developed the OpenTEK platform. We tested the platform with local schools in our area and created an explanatory video to help spread the platform through social networks.

Proofing concepts in citizen science

However, the development of the platform was challenging. We found it was very difficult to create a tool that was, at the same time, easy to use by people not living in Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) contexts and that did not distort their worldview and knowledge systems by encapsulating them in a scientific classification.

So, we applied for and won an additional grant (ERC Proof of Concept), to enable us to discuss our approach to citizen science with some Indigenous people. This new project, LICCI Observation Network (LICCION), resulted in the creation of federated and context-specific surveys that we custom-made with three Indigenous community organizations which we partnered with.

We regularly assessed progress in the LICCION project against the Collective Benefit, Authority to Control, Responsibility, Ethics (CARE) principles of Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS) and discussed with communities, scholars, Non-Government Organisations. We also forged a partnership with the Global Indigenous Data Alliance.

That led to the realisation that Indigenous peoples and local communities face increased risks of bio-piracy, bio-surveillance or appropriation of culture or knowledge, due to careless posting of information as open data and to the hyper digitization trends in research projects. To address this challenge, we applied for another ERC Proof of Concept (POC) grant.

Our second PoC funded project, RIDAGOP, tries to improve how environmental research projects and their data management plans are designed and implemented. One part of the project is currently looking at how ERC-funded projects working with Indigenous peoples have historically dealt with these issues, by assessing their institutional data management plans and comparing these with Indigenous research guidelines, or knowledge-sharing protocols, to see what ethical gaps might exist.

We are also developing a toolkit which aims to bridge the gap between scientific data-repositories which emphasize open and Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable (FAIR) data and those that use more human centred data-management. The aim is to build a versatile and extensible web-tool that allows the definition of data sovereignty processes. In parallel, the tool aims to allow developers of data repositories to facilitate these processes on their repositories. This would be achieved without making changes to the repository implementation, but using components which are already in place.

Deeper reflection on Indigenous data

To sum up, the development of a citizen science platform that allows the collection of indicators of climate change reported by Indigenous peoples and local communities has led to a deeper reflexion on the challenges of openly disseminating Indigenous data. While the process might not result in the collection of the expected data, it will ideally provide valuable processes in the context of Indigenous Data Sovereignty, including allowing the addition of Traditional Knowledge Labels and Notices to a dataset. It could also encompass creating a data access application process, which requires the applicant for data access to fill out a request form, and the data owners or managers to set the request in form of an email, and being able to respond to request from there, instead of needing to login into a specific platform. Ultimately, we aim to contribute to data management practices that are both FAIR and CARE.

Sustaining citizen participation over time

Unfortunately, we never reached a point in which we can talk about “sustained citizen participation”. As mentioned above, during the testing of the platform, we received strong feedback on the concerns that the OpenTEK platform might not be sufficiently designed by and for the Indigenous communities for which it was intended.  Subsequently, in our efforts to discuss the approach with local communities, in order to create a tool that it could meet their needs and priorities, we realized that what local communities aimed for were context-specific surveys, not a global approach.

Some examples of changes that different groups requested include (i) centering questions around livelihoods and socio-economic systems instead of natural and biophysical systems, (ii) creating individualised surveys with access restricted to the community organization or users for better privacy, and (iii) ensuring that local terminology regarding flora, fauna, phenomena or cultural aspects were integrated in each individualized survey. 

Attracting the participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities in citizen sciences is a real challenge because, in our experience, this will require deeper, long-term work with individual communities to co-design a platform that 1) reflects their worldview, 2) addresses their needs, and 3) respects their sovereignty over data.  This, of course, will require a commitment in time and effort that goes beyond the standard duration of a research project. It requires a different approach to working with knowledge from different knowledge systems (i.e., Indigenous knowledge).  

Limits to citizen science?

In our work, and in collaboration with other projects working in non-WEIRD contexts, we found important barriers to engaging Indigenous peoples and local communities. We discuss these challenges more extensively in an article that will be published soon. In short, these challenges include data management (e.g., data privacy or sensitivity, ownership and accessibility issues), technological (e.g., technology’s usability and appropriateness or the lack of resources and skills to maintain technologies), and participation challenges (e.g., participants’ low technical literacy and low levels of participant engagement and motivation). But also, depending on the context, barriers can also be political (e.g., lack of governmental support, political instability, and participant’s safety), or derive from the lack of trust between participants and project developers and the issue of conflicting epistemologies between western and non-western ways of thinking and doing. 

Recommendations on how to improve or level citizen science projects with Indigenous peoples and local communities

  • Dedicating time and resources to strengthening local and global networks that can use gathered data in human rights advocacy work to enforce policies that protect participants.
  • Re-centering the initiatives around communities’ ways of knowing and participants’ needs by establishing open contact and co-creating the project in terms of design, implementation, dissemination, and evaluation.
  • Enforcing codes of conduct, protocols and data management practices that avoid reproducing colonial practices.
  • Using adaptive and low-tech methods and tools that fit the local context and coordinating with local organizations and intermediary/proxy participants that serve as local coordinators and can decentralize project management.
  • Paying for participation and finding flexible funding sources that allow for this type of expenditures and that value the diversity of non-scientific outputs of a project.


What’s in it for citizens?

Our initial aim was to create a platform that allowed citizens, and in particular Indigenous Peoples and local communities, to document and can make visible the many ways in which climate change impacts is affecting the environment where they live and their livelihoods, so authorities could potentially take these impacts into account when discussing adaptation or mitigation measures. The idea was also to provide a tool that allowed the communication between people being impacted in similar ways, so they could share experiences. We found, however, that by designing the platform without the real participation of people, we were not able to create a tool that really addressed what they consider are their needs.

When we tried a more bottom-up approach (with LICCION), we experienced that there were concrete benefits for the specific communities with whom we worked, including empowering them to adapt a tool originally designed by scientists to create their own questionnaires/surveys to make visible the problems of their community.  However, this approach and would require major investments to be able to be scaled up. 

In a way, the major benefit for the communities might be the growing realization that Indigenous peoples and local communities experience a myriad of situations and Indigenous knowledge systems are hugely diverse, for which global projects with standardized approaches might not really fit their needs. In other words, the real benefit is the recognition of the singularity of different knowledge systems and the challenges of openly disseminating Indigenous data. We reflected further on this challenge in this publication in BioScience.


Victoria Reyes-García (Ph.D. in Anthropology, 2001, University of Florida) is ICREA Research Professor at the Institut of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA), Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), and Principal Investigator of the LICCI project. Her research addresses the benefits generated by local ecological knowledge and the effects of the integration to the market economy on this type of knowledge. Reyes-García lived among the Tsimane’, an indigenous population in the Bolivian Amazon, from 1999 until 2004.