SFU joins $24-million Indigenous-led global research project to protect biodiversity

The Ărramăt research project aims to bring Indigenous knowledge to the fore of conservation efforts.

an Indigenous fern in BC
The project aims to record how Indigenous peoples protect and preserve their land’s biodiversity. PHOTO: Debbie Ballentine / Flickr

By: Luke Faulks, Staff Writer

On January 12, 2022, SFU announced it would be joining Ărramăt, a “six-year, $24-million project” led by Indigenous peoples to protect biodiversity and investing in Indigenous research. The project will collaborate with universities worldwide.   

Dalhousie University assistant professor Sherry Pictou, Mi’kmaw from L’sɨtkuk, is among the principal investigators. “The research builds on the momentum and opportunities created in Treaties, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We want to harness that momentum in ways that can create fundamental change to the status quo around biodiversity and health.”

The Peak reached out to Ărramăt for more details but did not receive a response. The Peak spoke with two Ărramăt project leads from SFU to find out more. 

Health science professor John O’Neil helped write the proposal for Ărramăt. After a successful pitch to the New Frontiers in Research, O’Neil has become one of six principal investigators working alongside international researchers and scholars. The project is based out of the University of Alberta, which is receiving $24 million for the endeavor. New Frontiers in Research is funded by the Government of Canada and is meant to provide funding for interdisciplinary research.  

According to O’Neil, beyond the substantial financial support, what sets the project apart from other efforts to tackle declining biodiversity is where funding is going. “Most of the funding is going directly to Indigenous governments, Indigenous organizations, [and] Indigenous communities to do the research.” The plan is for Indigenous groups to catalog their practices for protecting “biodiversity in their regions in order to protect the health and well-being of their communities.” Unlike other research projects of this scale, O’Neil says a university’s role in Ărramăt entails co-ordinating research efforts and funds, rather than leading the research itself.

With $24 million, O’Neil said the plan is to have nearly 140 “place-based projects.” These are the projects that will be run almost entirely by Indigenous communities. 

“Pretty well every eco-zone on the planet is represented in this project,” said O’Neil.

Health science associate professor Maya Gislason was brought on board as an expert in the relationship between ecological and social systems for the betterment of overall health. She suggests an overwhelming amount of conservation work is being done by an Indigenous minority. “We’ve got 80% of biodiversity stewarded by [5–6]% of the Indigenous population on the planet.”

Gislason explained the project aims to “bring those knowledge holders to the foreground. However, Gislason expects issues of institutional colonization in this project. “The scale and the scope and the Indigenous-led dimension of the project, it’s going to help challenge and surface out some of those systems that are not yet ready to actually do decolonizing work.”

The project, according to O’Neil, aims “to fundamentally change the way Indigenous knowledge is viewed as part of the global efforts to promote biodiversity” and intends to complete by 2027. 

The different pathways include recognizing Indigenous rights, decolonizing education systems, repairing the relationships between humans and nature, exploring Indigenous medicine, and strengthening Indigenous food and water systems. Each pathway is intended to address a specific wrong committed against Indigenous groups and the environment, from “poverty and economic exclusion” to “wild species disease and conflict.”

The project’s next steps involve establishing the research infrastructure to ensure the success of the endeavor. Ărramăt’s first big hurdle is to navigate the distribution of funds to Indigenous partners. The original proposal to the New Frontier in Research cemented the principles that guide the project, like notions of healing through a healthier environment, “but the actual practicalities of doing it need a lot of work,” according to O’Neil. Communication with research partners and hiring to translate the proposal’s principals into actionable research is next on the docket. 

Updates on Ărramăt can be found on the project’s website. Past webinars can be viewed through the site’s Events page, and the Story Map offers visitors a chance to scroll through the group’s mission in detail.