When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in the late 15th century, he and his crew had spent months sleeping on a hard and dirty deck—most likely infested with vermin. It is no surprise that the islands seemed like paradise. Not only did the sailors finally feel the land beneath their feet again, but the indigenous people slept comfortably in nets between the trees, rather than on the hard floor. It was a big difference from the sleepless months of hardship the sailors had just endured. On his trip back to Spain, Columbus took these indigenous nets with him, and before long sailors were relying on hammocks to stay comfortable on overnight voyages.
Hammocks are not the only invention that we have thanks to indigenous nations and communities. Over half of the crops now in cultivation across the globe were domesticated by indigenous peoples in the Americas, including corn, which alone provides nearly a quarter of human nutrition worldwide. In the medical field, a wide range of medications exist partially thanks to traditional medicine from around the world, including several pain relievers, drugs for dieting and antioxidant and antibacterial products.
More importantly, traditional ecological knowledge has been gaining ground in recent years as a crucial aspect of natural resource management and our understanding of climate change. Traditional ecological knowledge refers to indigenous and other forms of traditional knowledge regarding the sustainability of local resources. It is often used to sustain local populations and maintain resources necessary for survival.
Despite the benefits of indigenous knowledge, today the relationship between what some call “Western” science and traditional knowledge is difficult at best. Today, Western science plays a role in every aspect of our lives, from the phones and computers we use every day to the very food on our plates. But the most important question today is how we can use that science to transform our society—to a new, sustainable one rooted in healthy environments. A healthy collaboration between Western science and indigenous knowledge systems could help us to accomplish that, but to do so, the two must first gain a better understanding of each other.
This World Science Day for Peace and Development, celebrated annually on 10 November, is themed “Open science, leaving no one behind”. Open science is the movement to make scientific research and dissemination accessible to all levels of society, amateur or professional. One way that open science could lead to a sustainable future is by helping to capture the experience of indigenous peoples in future assessments of climate change and to reflect indigenous knowledge on a global scale. In doing so, it could help to do away with the old rivalry between Western science and indigenous knowledge systems.
Open minds are the simple precursor to open science, and they have the power to change the world. Therefore, this World Science Day for Peace and Development should be approached with an open mind. By acknowledging that there is much to be learned from each other, global society could benefit not just from hammocks in the future, but from solutions to our most pressing sustainability issues.
Compiled by Roshna K.