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In their article, Decoloniality and Anti-oppressive Practices for a More Ethical Ecology, Trisos, Auerbach, and Katti highlight the ways in which epistemic exclusions have shaped ecological research, defining what counts as knowledge and who should be recognized as expert knowers (2020). Looking at the number of bird species whose Latin binomial names derive from European surnames, they highlight the extent to which Indigenous knowledge in countries outside of Europe has been all but disappeared by colonial ecological taxonomies. Similarly, Antoinette Burton and Renisa Mawani argue, in their recent edited book Animalia, that imperial authorities used the study and classification of animals to reinforce colonial ideology and the idea that colonization was itself both natural and inevitable (2020). Imperial researchers failed to register the knowledge of Indigenous populations as knowledge. Even in those cases where occupiers turned to local populations for information or took Indigenous words to describe the creatures they encountered, they did not see Indigenous peoples as experts or knowers, to be included in the epistemic community of natural scientists or researchers (Justice 2020).

Trisos, Auerbach, and Katti identify five strategies for transforming academic ecological practice and overcoming long-standing colonial practices. While these strategies seem to be primarily directed at those within the academy, their emphasis is clearly on greater inclusion and participation by those who have been, and continue to be, excluded from these knowledge communities. Practices of epistemic exclusion continue to perpetuate colonial modes of knowledge generation and undermine the agency of those who are still marginalized. As a result, the authors find that decolonization demands engagement, participation, inclusion, and accessibility for marginalized groups as well as the recognition of diverse knowledge systems and sources of expertise.

While inclusion of Indigenous and other marginalized knowers is critical to any meaningful decolonization process, practices of inclusion can also have epistemically unjust consequences (Pohlhaus 2020). Processes aimed at greater participation can perpetuate, rather than address, colonial and neo-colonial knowledge systems. Trisos, Auerbach, and Katti point to some potentially exploitative and unjust modes of inclusion and in the next few paragraphs, I set out to engage with and build on that discussion, examining more closely some epistemically unjust practices of inclusion.[1]

First, all too often, Indigenous peoples experience what the feminist philosopher, Miranda Fricker, terms practices of epistemic objectification (Fricker 2007). Although Indigenous peoples are able to participate and are included in research or assessment processes, they are not treated as full epistemic agents and participants – their contributions are not treated as contributions to knowledge. Rather they are treated as mere sources of information or “states of affairs from which the inquirer may be in a position to glean information” (Fricker 2007, 132). They are not treated as full participants in an epistemic exchange but as mere sources of data or information.

Second, and related to the practice of epistemic objectification, Indigenous peoples find themselves subjected to practices of epistemic extraction (Grosfoguel 2015). Epistemic extraction happens when Indigenous knowledge is taken and introduced into dominant knowledge systems in ways that Indigenous peoples have little or no control over and in ways that decontextualize that knowledge, severing it from the contexts and peoples who produced it (Altmann 2019). As a result of this extraction, the incorporation of Indigenous concepts or ideas into western academia or law may happen in ways that produce distorted interpretations and understandings. Attempts to integrate Indigenous knowledge into dominant knowledge systems and practices might, as a result, change the meaning and significance of the original concept as traditional, Indigenous understandings are displaced by these distorted interpretations (see, for example, Altmann’s discussion of the appropriation of the concept of Buen Vivir in Ecuador).

Third, practices that aim to include overlooked and invisibilized Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge are usually concerned with including that knowledge within an existing epistemic framework, for predetermined ends. In the context of legally mandated consultation with Indigenous peoples for the purposes of policy and law-making decisions, for example, affected communities are invited to participate in a process concerned with answering some predetermined question (such as whether or not a dam should be built on Indigenous land or how a climate adaption program should be carried out). Participation, consultation, and inclusion are all ideas concerned with bringing people into an existing process or conversation. Inclusion in these circumstances is not concerned with ensuring that processes of engagement or epistemic exchange are conceptualized or initiated by Indigenous communities. Within the context of a participation process, Indigenous proposals that radically reframe the question or approach are rarely treated as relevant contributions to the discussion. Even when communities are included early in the decision-making process, they are still being included in someone else’s plan, agenda, or program and it is to this end that their participation and knowledge is sought.

Fourth, Indigenous peoples face practices of epistemic exploitation (Tuvel 2015). Participation can be extremely labor, time, and resource-intensive, requiring communities to spend hours engaged in meetings and devoting time to reading and understanding complex and technical documents, preparing comments, collating opinions, and researching their own histories. Because participation is seen to be in the interests of the affected groups, their time, energy, and expertise are rarely compensated. Sometimes Indigenous peoples can simply opt out of participating but often a refusal to participate will have far-reaching and devastating implications. A failure to participate in impact assessments, for example, may mean that decisions are made about their territories that fail to take into account their expert insights about possible social and environmental impacts. Policies and law-making processes often draw on academic research, so even refusing to participate in seemingly policy-neutral academic research may have significant consequences.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of practices of epistemic exclusion, exploitation, and extraction that Indigenous peoples face when they are included in processes of knowledge generation and decision-making. This does not even begin to account for the ways in which Indigenous peoples are silenced in these processes, nor of their experiences of being misunderstood, not believed, or forced to engage with ignorant or prejudiced audiences (for more on this, see Townsend & Townsend 2020, 2021).

Decolonization, then, not only requires greater inclusion of marginalized knowers, but it also requires that systems are put in place that enable and fund Indigenous-led and conceptualized research and policy-making processes. Indigenous peoples should not be obliged to give over their knowledge and expertise to outsiders to serve external agendas, but rather should be facilitated and recognized in their horizontal engagements and knowledge sharing with other Indigenous peoples and marginalized groups. Building Indigenous ecological knowledge, within Indigenous contexts to serve Indigenous ends should be at the heart of decolonization efforts.

Read the entire Decolonizing Science series:

1. Introduction: Decolonizing Science and a World Turned Upside Down by Madhusudan Katti and Jess Auerbach

2. Towards a New Understanding of the Relationship Between Humans and Nature by Shubhobroto Ghosh

3. What Will It Take to Decolonize Ecology? by Adriana Romero-Olivares and Prakash Kashwan

4. If Colonialism in Africa is Dead, Would That Make Forest Conservation its Ghost? by Emmanuel Nuesiri

5. What Does Decolonization Mean for Conservation? by Subhashini Krishnan and Sutirtha Lahiri

6. Decolonizing Science Means Taking Indigenous Knowledge Seriously by Dina Lupin

7. On Decolonizing the Law: Views from a South African Legal Scholar by Caiphas Brews Soyapi

References:

[1] These conclusions draw on my research work as well as my practice as an attorney working with Indigenous and rural communities threatened by extractive industries. It also draws on the work of feminist speech act theorists and feminist epistemology including (Hornsby 1995; Langton 1993; Fricker 2007; Medina 2013; Pohlhaus Jr 2020; Dotson 2011; Berenstain 2016; Davis 2016)

Altmann, Phillip. 2020. The Commons as Colonisation – The Well-Intentioned Appropriation of Buen Vivir. Bull Lat Am Res, 39.

Berenstain, Nora. 2016. “Epistemic Exploitation.” Ergo, an Open Access Journal of Philosophy 3.

Burton, Antoinette and Renisa Mawani, eds. Animalia: An Anti-imperial Bestiary for Our Times. Duke University Press, 2020.

Davis, Emmalon. 2016. “Typecasts, tokens, and spokespersons: A case for credibility excess as testimonial injustice.” Hypatia 31 (3).

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grosfoguel, Ramón. 2015. “Epistemic Racism/Sexism, Westernized Universities and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long Sixteenth Century”. In: Araújo M., Maeso S.R. (eds) Eurocentrism, Racism and Knowledge. Palgrave Macmillan

Hornsby, Jennifer. 1995. “Disempowered speech.” Philosophical Topics 23 (2).

Justice, Daniel Heath. “R is for Raccoon.” Animalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times, eds. Antoinette Burton and Renisa Mawani, Duke University Press, 2020.

Langton, Rae. 1993. “Speech acts and unspeakable acts.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 22 (4).

Medina, José. The Epistemology of Resistance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012

Pohlhaus Jr, Gaile. (2020) Epistemic Agency Under Oppression, Philosophical Papers, 49 (2).

Townsend, Leo & Dina Townsend. 2020. “Consultation, consent and the silencing of Indigenous Communities.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 37.

Trisos, Christopher, Jess Auerbach & Madhusudan Katti. (2021) Decoloniality and anti-oppressive practices for a more ethical ecology, Nat Ecol Evol 5.

Tuvel, Rebecca. (2015). “Sourcing Women’s Ecological Knowledge: The Worry of Epistemic Objectification.” Hypatia 30(2).

Published On: May 3, 2022

Dina Lupin

Dina Lupin

Dina Lupin is a legal theorist working in feminist, queer, and decolonial philosophy. In her current research, she examines the ways in which Indigenous communities are subjected to practices of silencing and epistemic injustice in consultation processes, and in the ways in which these communities resist and subvert oppressive practices. Dina is a researcher in the Philosophy Department at the University of Vienna and she is the Director of the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment (gnhre.org).

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