Ecological research and practice are crucial to understanding and guiding more positive relationships between people and ecosystems. However, ecology as a discipline and the diversity of those who call themselves ecologists have also been shaped and held back by often exclusionary Western approaches to knowing and doing ecology. To overcome these historical constraints and to make ecology inclusive of the diverse peoples inhabiting Earth’s varied ecosystems, ecologists must expand their knowledge, both in theory and practice, to incorporate varied perspectives, approaches and interpretations from, with and within the natural environment and across global systems. We outline five shifts that could help to transform academic ecological practice: decolonize your mind; know your histories; decolonize access; decolonize expertise; and practise ethical ecology in inclusive teams. We challenge the discipline to become more inclusive, creative and ethical at a moment when the perils of entrenched thinking have never been clearer.
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The growth of ecological science as an academic discipline is embedded within colonialism1. European ecologists benefited from colonial access to land for expeditions and establishment of field stations that helped, and continue to help, form foundational theories in ecology and evolution2,3. For example, use of the terms Neotropics or Neotropical in ecology journals continues to increase rapidly (Supplementary Fig. 1). But whose tropical New World is this, and to whom are these megadiverse regions really so new? The answer is embedded in the concept of scientific discovery that described the world from the perspective of post-enlightenment Europe4,5 (Fig. 1). Moreover, insights from what would become Western scientific ecology were used to justify social and environmental control, including dispossessing colonized peoples of their land and ways of life and discounting existing knowledge systems. This benefitted colonial industries such as rubber, sugar and forestry that were critical to the emergence of the modern world order and ongoing violence of a global economic system largely based on extraction6,7.
Map showing the minimum estimate for each country of the number of bird species for which the Latin binomial name is based on a European person. Hundreds of bird species have been named after European surnames, with most of these species occurring outside Europe in formerly colonized countries. Taxonomy is used to organize the world into recognizable units, and taxonomists frequently name species after colleagues or wealthy patrons from the Global North. However, these names often carry little ecological information compared with pre-existing Indigenous names related to species habits and uses. More researchers are now using local languages spoken where a species is found when assigning binomial names, as well as examining taxonomic protocols in order to reinstate Indigenous names73,104. This practice encourages science storytelling in native languages and increases inclusion and participation in ecological research and knowledge. Bird species names and expert-verified geographic ranges were downloaded from the International Union for Conservation of thedesigningfairy.com website (https://www.iucnredlist.org/). To estimate the number of bird species named after Europeans, we downloaded the names and affiliated countries of ornithologists and mammologists recorded on Wikipedia, as well as a list of the most common surnames in Europe (see ‘Data availability’). These names were then compared with both the genus name and species epithet for each species to identify matches. All matches were checked individually and common surnames leading to multiple matches where the species may not have been named after a specific person were removed, including Gallo, Galli, Collis and Marin. The number of species named after European last names was then mapped at the country level.
Recognizing the diversity of members who make up the ecology research community today, more ecologists need to reflect on the consequences of this colonial legacy for the discipline moving forward. Many ecologists still rationalize that organisms and ecosystems can be understood when stripped of their human-related histories of unequal social, economic and ontological relations5. Yet, these unequal histories have shaped, and continue to shape, the Earth system. For instance, the large-scale death of around 90% of the Americas’ Indigenous peoples as a result of European colonization is estimated to have resulted in successional vegetation growth on around 55 Mha of disused land and a 3.5 ppm drop in atmospheric CO2 before the Industrial Revolution8. An approach that continues to centre Western-trained scientists in understanding the world restricts research and limits ecology’s ability to address environmental crises, because it fails to recognize a diversity of people, knowledge systems and solutions. Adverse reactions to the dominance of Global North voices regarding the potential for mass tree planting campaigns to mitigate climate change are one recent example9,10,11.
Recognizing that colonialism led to Euro-American centricity, dispossession, racism and ongoing power imbalances in how ecological research is produced and used is an important first step12. The next step is committing to decoloniality (meaning actively undoing those systems and ways of thinking), as opposed to post-coloniality (which is our historical reality and does not require taking responsibility for ongoing extractive, inequitable systems). Decolonization is not new. The work of scholars and activists from impacted places within the Global South (and North) towards undoing historical and ongoing systems of oppression over many generations must be acknowledged and amplified13,14,15.
The research, teaching and policy relevance of decolonizing ecology is profound. For example, the rise of social–ecological systems thinking has emphasized human–environment feedbacks16, but if differences in cultural values or worldviews are ignored, social–ecological system approaches can actually damage people’s perceptions of well-being by emphasizing vulnerability and directing blame towards local communities17,18. Moreover, from climate and environmental justice19 to conservation movements20 and global environmental assessments21,22, it is increasingly recognized that inclusion of a diversity of worldviews on human–environment relations is necessary for a just transition to a more sustainable world.
Here, we outline five positive interventions to help build a more anti-oppressive and decolonial ecology (Fig. 2). In doing this, we recognize that the work of decoloniality and promoting inclusive excellence cuts across multiple dimensions of power and privilege, including (among others): race; gender; sexuality; nationality; institutional and socioeconomic status; neurodiversity; and passport positionality (that is, the countries one can visit without a visa and the strength of the associated currency). Through exploring these actions, we aim to promote ways of practising ecology that are more creative, reflective, equitable, inclusive and effective. We note that these actions are not offered as a checklist capable of undoing unjust systems worldwide, nor to overshadow long histories of place-based anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle, but as connection points to action for practising ecologists.
These shifts are not exhaustive or a checklist, but are presented as positive interventions to promote ways of knowing and practising ecology that are more creative, reflective, equitable, inclusive and effective in aiding a just transition to a more sustainable world: ‘decolonize your mind’ to include multiple ways of knowing and communicating science; ‘know your histories’ to acknowledge our discipline’s role in enabling colonial and ongoing violence against peoples and thedesigningfairy.com, and begin processes of restorative justice; ‘decolonize access’ by going beyond open access journals and data repositories to address issues of data sovereignty and the power dynamics of research ownership; ‘decolonize expertise’, by amplifying diverse expertise in ecologies and giving due credit and weight to that knowledge; and ‘practice ethical ecology in inclusive teams’, by establishing diverse and inclusive research teams that actively deconstruct biases so all team members are empowered participants in developing new knowledge. These actions support reformulating research questions and processes for a decolonizing ecology. Credit: Keren Cooper (illustrations).
There are multiple ways of knowing. By not engaging diverse knowledge systems, ecological researchers limit their own knowledge and limit the potential impact of their work. Scholars from colonized backgrounds have often had to become ontologically conversant across multiple knowledge systems in order simply to be heard in ecology23. The same effort has not been required of largely white, Western establishment ecologists. The labour of this work must be rebalanced.
First, language shapes how we think about and understand the world24, and modern English emerged in the context of empire25. Although it was not always the case, since the twentieth century, English has been the dominant form of knowledge communication in science26,27, which can lead to publication bias against non-native English-speaking scientists28. When one reads, writes and thinks in English, it is easy to forget that for the majority of people ecological knowledge is produced and tested in other tongues5. For instance, the separation of rational self (culture) and wild thedesigningfairy.com in English language thinking is a result of post-Enlightenment rationality as an historical process, and is sociological and cultural, not empirical29. In contrast, thedesigningfairy.com is relational in many other languages. For example, the isiXhosa root word for the environment is difficult to translate into English. Indalo means both creation and thedesigningfairy.com. Kwezendalo means of or in the environment. Umdali is the creator. The implication is that people (abantu) are located within the environment. Recent Western ecological concepts such as social–ecological or coupled human–natural systems are therefore already the de facto way of thinking in many non-European languages30,31.
Linguistics has clearly demonstrated that multilingualism expands what it is possible to imagine32 and languages provide rich insight into underlying processes that drive patterns of biodiversity33. Knowledge holders often need to speak their own language to accurately describe ecological concepts and classifications: using multiple languages can yield richer biological descriptions34,35. Moreover, ignoring non-English language studies can bias meta-analyses, and many local decision-makers do not speak English36,37. Ecological scholarship must develop methods to include multiple languages in evidence synthesis (for example, the translatE project; https://translatesciences.com/research/), and ecology, like many social sciences, could require that scholars gain fluency in relevant languages as an essential entry point for understanding rich bodies of local knowledge on ecosystems and cultivating a more inclusive epistemology. It is ironic that in many ecology departments, knowing Latin names of species is met with admiration, whereas speaking living languages of sites of data origination is a ‘nice-to-have’ skill.
Second, there are multiple ways of sharing information but peer-reviewed journals are typically limited to knowledge that can be written or graphed. The same is true of major environmental assessments for policymakers. As such, ecological knowledge systems embodied in artefacts, oral traditions and what anthropologists refer to as skill are left out38. For instance, Polynesian navigators crossed vast oceans using models made from shells and curved sticks that describe how ocean swells interact with land39. Much of Africa’s long intellectual history has only recently begun to be recorded through text40. Thus, ecologists exposed only to written sources risk limiting their knowledge to the institutions of colonization and post-coloniality.
Inclusion of more diverse forms of knowledge in ecological research, teaching and applied work is already being done and should be expanded further. The use of art helps to increase communication on interlinked biological and cultural diversity (for example, illustrations of caribou intraspecific variation and traditional hunting techniques provided insight into unique ecologies and sustainable management practices41). Similarly, storytelling can help to facilitate knowledge exchange and support dialogue for conservation practices42. Going beyond text in this way enables more inclusive, detailed and careful attention to diverse representations of knowledge. This also applies to ecologists themselves, who experience the world through their bodies—gendered, raced and often nationalized. Doing this helps to ensure that the interests knowledge serves are expanded to include those who might not otherwise participate in scientific discourse (Box 1).
There are a growing number of positive examples where Indigenous communities have used the tools of Western science to document and advance their own understanding of local ecologies and apply that knowledge to redress harms from past colonization and to improve the management of natural resources105,106. For example, the Amazon Conservation Team works with Indigenous communities in several South American countries in participatory projects to promote self-governance and biodiversity conservation. They have developed a methodology of collaborative cultural mapping107 by providing technology such as mobile phones and apps to Indigenous communities. The Kogi people, among the last surviving civilizations from the pre-Columbian period started using a mobile phone app to create geo-referenced maps of their land within the framework of their own cultural knowledge, resulting in a richer dataset than a parachuting Western ecologist or conservationist might be able to gather. In Kenya, the Ogiek community (Indigenous people from Chepkitale National Reserve) are using participatory three-dimensional modelling to integrate local spatial and natural resource knowledge with geographic information systems and physical modelling108. Their goal is to use the resulting maps and models to force the Kenyan government to formally recognize their customary land tenure, and to apply their traditional knowledge and practices to improve the management of the reserve. A recent study found that Indigenous managed lands in Australia, Brazil and Canada support more threatened vertebrate species and slightly higher vertebrate species richness than protected areas109, leading to the conclusion that partnerships with Indigenous communities have the potential to improve conservation outcomes globally110.
Research partnerships that use Indigenous-led technologies for data collection111 and embed Indigenous principles into research questions, analysis and management outcomes often result in more detailed ecological understanding, improve biodiversity and ensure sovereign human rights112,113,114—all providing strong arguments for this decolonial praxis in ecology.
Collaborations between artists and scientists and between Indigenous people and colonizers can result in even more creative ways to exchange and mutually enrich knowledge and understanding through innovative art–science projects such as Becoming Sensor in Sentient Worlds115, a kinaesthetic and visual exploration of the ungrid-able ecology of oak savannahs of Toronto’s High Park. Science–art collaborations can help to bridge cultural gaps and improve understanding of Indigenous knowledge by harnessing the power of sound, visuals and storytelling116,117, and to communicate the urgency of climate change118,119.
For most of the world, colonialism was an enormously violent process tied to environmental degradation. South Africa’s Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu often quips: “When the colonists arrived, we had the land and they had the bible. Now we have the bible and they have the land!”. Usually, when Tutu says this he is laughing, and audiences around the world have laughed with him. But his point has a powerful edge. Many modern ecologists may feel that time or desk-based research isolate them from this legacy. Yet, systems of colonial and ongoing trauma continue to shape the experience of many ecologists today, such as higher death rates from COVID-19 among Black and Indigenous people and people of colour in Anglo-settler societies43 or racism experienced during fieldwork44 and spending time outdoors45.
It is vital to recognize that systemic inequalities (of race, access and opportunity) have defined the fields we know today, but that this is not an historic inevitability and can be changed. Western ecological knowledge has been used to displace people from their homes for settler-colonial conservation projects46 or otherwise restrict or demean their traditional practices such as the gathering of foods and medicine47. This legacy also persists in the militarization of anti-poaching operations48, and in climate change mitigation proposals from the Global North for extensive tree planting campaigns in grassy biomes in Africa that are viewed as deforested or degraded, despite these ancient landscapes supporting herds of megafauna and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people10,11. When undergraduates in South Africa called for the decolonizing of the sciences (popularly, #RhodesMustFall), they were not saying that science is wrong, but rather drawing attention to power structures within the sciences that have, in many moments of history, been disempowering for some bodies more than others49.
A practice more ecologists can immediately embrace is to offer a Territorial or Land Acknowledgement, which is a formal statement paying respect to the pre-colonial inhabitants of the land where a gathering or research work is taking place50,51. Ecologists can start talks or conferences this way, as some are already doing, but also go further by including this acknowledgement in publications, where the land itself might be a co-author, to more accurately reflect Indigenous modes of acknowledgement52,53. Land acknowledgements demonstrate respect for colonized peoples, and also push ecologists (and others) to consider histories of ongoing influence in ecosystems forcefully depopulated by colonialism that are too often studied as wilderness, such as national parks54. For instance, ecologists have worked with archaeologists and anthropologists to recognize the central role of pre-Columbian plant domestication in shaping modern Amazonian forest composition55. Land acknowledgements help to set a precedent for powerful institutions of Western science to reckon with their own abusive histories, and begin processes of restorative justice within the practice of the sciences.
Another important way to acknowledge history is to ensure that deep listening to colleagues, students and community representatives takes place56,57. Deep listening entails listening respectfully and responsibly in ways that build community and reciprocity. It involves taking time to build trust and incorporates multiple ways of knowing in order to ensure that whatever research is done is grounded in scientific curiosities, understandings of local contexts and needs, and awareness of ongoing extractive systems that may shape decisions (Box 1).
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Deeper engagements with the history and philosophy of science, as well as the biographic histories of those practising ecology, are also needed as part of fundamental disciplinary training. This is necessary to allow ecologists to position themselves as situated parts of the systems they describe, rather than neutral actors—a view that has been robustly critiqued5. One concrete step is to identify the gaze (who we imagine we write for) and the pose (the standpoint from which we write) that we adopt in our work58. For example, self-reflection on whether a paper on biodiversity protection is being written by a foreign or local researcher and for a foreign or local audience can help the author and readers better place the paper’s purpose. These choices are often made unconsciously and not declared, but they should be—a practice that is increasingly used in global health research58. Foreignness in this context can be defined by ethnicity, wealth, caste, geography, gender, spirituality and socioeconomic status, among others. Another way ecologists can critically reflect on their background and training (whatever the degree of privilege), and how these influence the questions they ask, the way they interpret data and who benefits, is by including a positionality statement in their publications. This practice has been suggested for field ecology and biogeography3,59. We have included one at the end of this article.