Revitalising nature, knowledge and traditional culture in Paraguay

A collaborative online atlas of bird and nature knowledge has united academics, conservationists and Indigenous people in conserving and honouring both local ecosystems and traditional culture.

The story begins with the Ethno-Ornithology World Atlas (EWA), a collection of online resources including a web-based map which allows users to click on pins around the world and explore stories about birds shared by people in those locations. EWA gives local communities, academics and conservationists a space to share their knowledge, language traditions and understandings of local birds and nature.

EWA was conceived by Professor Andrew Gosler (Anthropology and Biology, University of Oxford) and Dr John Fanshawe of NGO BirdLife International. It was founded by them along with ethnoecologist Dr Felice Wyndham and linguist Dr Karen Park (research affiliates of the School of Anthropology), among others, in 2013.

Now funding from Oxford has enabled Dr Wyndham and Dr Alberto Yanosky, a renowned biologist and influential conservationist, to further develop their long-term collaborations with Indigenous communities in Paraguay using EWA’s digital platform.

Dr Yanosky has held two HEIF-funded Social Science Engagement Fellowships at Oxford to support this work.

Starting up the conversation

Through the work of Dr Yanosky, Dr Wyndham, and Paraguayan organisation FAPI (Federación por la Autodeterminación de los Pueblos Indígenas), EWA has been in conversation from its inception with key influential Indigenous activists and intellectual leaders in Paraguay. These include Andrés Ozuna (Ishir), Hipólito Acevei (Guaraní Occidental), Margarita Mbwangi (Aché), Bruno Barras (Ishir), Taobi Juminé (Ayoreo) and Antolina González (Mbyá Guaranī).

These teachers and research partners took part in a series of interviews, hosted by FAPI, which were held online due to the pandemic. They discussed their relationship with animals, nature, plants and their surrounding landscapes. These videos were later processed and uploaded to EWA, with local knowledge-holders facilitating the recording, sharing and access control.

Specific areas that could contribute to public policy and other Paraguayan sustainability commitments were analysed, discussed and published in local print media.

Dr Yanosky has since published editorials in key Paraguayan newspapers to disseminate key outcomes of the team’s work.

Ara chloropterus (Red-and-green Macaw)

Ara chloropterus (Red-and-green Macaw). Created by Imesi Dosapé. Courtesy of the Ethno-ornithology World Atlas.

“The issue of knowledge rights and ownership is huge”

It was vital that any subsequent sharing of knowledge was on each group’s own terms. Dr Wyndham says: “It’s important to do the research and share the research in ways that are controlled by and benefit local people. So much of our technology, medicines and food are rooted in Indigenous knowledge, but these communities are not benefiting; in fact they’re suffering enormously.”

EWA’s functionality allows a number of different sharing levels, including use of the Creative Commons model, and conventional copyrights, using an innovative platform called Mukurtu, which was designed by and for Indigenous archivists. Some knowledge holders have elected to keep all their archived information private to their own communities for now.

Prof. Gosler explains that this functionality is vital for rebuilding trust: “The issue of knowledge rights and ownership is huge. The fact that two of the communities engaging are using EWA to restrict access shows we were right to build that in. They wouldn’t engage with EWA if that facility wasn’t there.”

Next, the group plans to focus on “re-homing” knowledge through application in curricula, led by local teachers in schools and colleges.

Dr Wyndham comments: “It was hard doing everything virtually, so it was really great for me, at the end of that first round of interviews, for so many of the people, particularly the leaders, to say, ‘this was valuable and we want to do a next phase’.” Prof. Gosler agrees: “That the motivation for the second phase came from the people was a proud moment for all of us.”

“We want to preserve biodiversity, but also culture and traditions.”

As a result of a dynamic two-day conference held in June 2022 in Asuncion, Paraguay, the attendees formed a working group to further their collective aims. The RECEPl (Red para la Revitalización de Conocimientos Ecológicos de los Pueblos Indígenas) declaration on the status and future of Indigenous ecological knowledge in Paraguay was signed by project participants and leaders from the six Indigenous groups, then presented to the Paraguayan government.

Dr Yanosky reflects: “You can imagine what a meeting that was. Community leaders, who don’t even speak the same language, exchanging information and messaging about nature. As a conservationist, when you work with people who are defending and representing Indigenous rights, sometimes there are conflicts. I’m very proud to say these two projects are great examples of what can be achieved when you work in a common intersection of two different interests. We want to preserve biodiversity, but also culture and traditions.”

Learning from each other

The significance of this information shared in interviews has led to discussions with authorities in Paraguay and representatives from the United Nations Development Programme.

Significantly, structural relations are beginning to change as local ecological expertise enters the public sphere in a way that honours both the contributions of science and cultural understanding.

That the project has been so successful is, undoubtedly, down to thoughtful engagement – connecting people with knowledge, and with each other.

Prof. Gosler says: “Humility is everything. You need to respect each others’ knowledge, because every one of us is on a steep learning curve. Whether it’s working with academic colleagues or local communities, we are all learning from each other.”