Exploring Indigenous environmental science through short-term study | Ontario Agricultural College

Exploring Indigenous environmental science through short-term study

Posted on Thursday, December 15th, 2022

Giulia Mattalia is a postdoctoral fellow with the Biocultural Diversity Lab at Ca'Foscari University of Venice. She recently completed a short-term exchange to learn from Prof. Susan Chiblow in the School of Environmental Sciences and further explore Indigenous environmental science and practice. After completing her 3 weeks at U of G, we caught up with Giulia to hear more about her research and capture her reflections post-experience.

How does Indigenous environmental science connect with your research in Italy?

For the last ten years, I have worked on the relationship between people and plants in different European contexts. In Europe, there is only one recognized Indigenous group (the Sami), but there are hundreds of local communities that have been coevolving with the landscapes of specific areas (especially in mountain regions) for several centuries. Among the many European local communities, there are the Hutsuls, an ethnolinguistic group of pastoralists who have inhabited the (Ukrainian) Carpathian Mountains for centuries developing local ways of animal breeding, meadow, and forest management.

For the last four years, thanks to the DiGe project, a European-funded project led by Prof. Renata Sõukand and based at the Ca' Foscari University of Venice, I had the opportunity to explore how the local ecological knowledge of Hutsuls has been affected by the centralization policies imposed by the Soviet Union in the period (the 1940s to 1991). Not all the Hutsul territories were occupied by the Soviet Union, and the southernmost ones remained under the Kingdom of Romania. Thus, we have the Hutsuls - a culturally and ecologically "homogenous" group - which has been affected by different political contexts (the Soviet Union until 1991 on the one side and the Kingdom of Romania and later the Socialist Republic of Romania until 1989).

We took advantage of cross-border ethnobotany to answer the main question of the DiGe project: how the centralization policies imposed by the Soviet Union affected the local ecological knowledge related to wild food and medicinal and veterinary plants. The same question brought me here to the School of Environmental Sciences. Considering the history of colonization in Canada, I came to Guelph to get a better understanding of the impacts of the centralization on local ecological knowledge by reflecting on the colonization suffered by Canadian Indigenous peoples.

Why did you want to come to Canada to work with and learn from Susan?

I was looking for an opportunity to expand my understanding of the concepts of Indigenous peoples and local communities in the context of the environmental sciences, especially in the direction of weaving scientific and Indigenous knowledge systems. It is increasingly evident that multiple evidence-based approaches are needed to face the current environmental challenges. I believe that we all, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, scholars and non-scholars need to co-operate. Susan and her colleagues in the Indigenous Environmental Science and Practice program represent a bright example of braided knowledges to face the burning environmental issues. 

What is the biggest takeaway from your time spent here?

The biggest takeaway comes from the opportunity to discuss Susan's experience as an Indigenous scholar. Susan has shared with me several materials about Indigenous intelligence. This reading was enlightening, and I felt like several chaotic thoughts I had in my mind for years became clear and made abrupt sense.

How will this experience influence your research going forward?

This experience has enriched my understanding of how I would like to proceed in my career in environmental sciences. More and more, I would like to be a bridge between Indigenous peoples and local communities and scientific research. I would like to propose and develop community-based research, answering relevant local questions in a culturally appropriate way. I have also realized the importance of disseminating the results of my research to the Indigenous and local peoples who shared their holistic ways of knowing, being, seeing, and relating with us, and to policymakers to promote the transformations we advocate. 

Why do you feel short-term international study opportunities like this are valuable?

If well-prepared and organized, short-term international exchanges allow to seed new/novel insights and build alliances for future projects, while minimizing the "disruptions" to the main activities in the home university. For instance, this exchange allowed me to conceptualize a new article about the impacts of colonization and centralization on local ecological knowledge held by Indigenous peoples and local communities, considering the case of Hutsuls and Indigenous peoples in Canada. 

News Archive