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About Sentinel VIPs

"On the basis of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established in 2015 by the United Nations, it is possible to invent a new research framework that would bring together experts from different scientific disciplines and create collective knowledge [...] In order to address the issue [of the future evolution of our planet], it is urgent to strengthen the joint construction of our knowledge systems by better integrating all scientific expertise, in close collaboration with political decision makers and civil society."

Excerpt of "Et si on cherchait autrement ? Plaidoyer pour une science de la durabilité" [What if we did research differently? Advocacy for sustainability science], The Conversation, 30 May 2020 (our translation)
In this recent media article, Valérie Verdier, the new IRD Chairwoman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, and her co-authors clearly map the road ahead for IRD towards a strong commitment into what is now commonly referred to as 'sustainability science'. Such commitment relies on the consensual realization that contemporary research remains indeed too fragmented, too disciplinary focused and singularly lacking in articulation between the results it proposes, the impact they have, and the scale of the problems to be solved.

Sustainability science seeks to examine the interactions between human, environmental, and engineered systems to understand and contribute to solutions for complex challenges that threaten the integrity of the life support systems. By complex challenges, we refer to climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and land and water degradation... to name a few. Most importantly ― and this is a tremendous shift ―, sustainability science is primarily defined by the problems it addresses, much less by the disciplines it employs.

Researchers need to think differently about what they do in a world in major crisis, how they relate to Indigenous peoples exposed to change and carrying multiple expectations, and more effective ways to impact global and local policies. In that respect, there is an urgent need to elaborate new federative research frameworks and platforms that bring together experts, not only from different scientific disciplines, but also from different areas and cultures as a means to create collective knowledge, in close collaboration with political decision-makers and civil society. This requires promoting trans-disciplinary and trans-cultural knowledge, co-constructed between scientists and various actors in society. These latter should include Indigenous peoples, the mobilization of whom should be channeled through continuously improved participatory approaches and tools. This is precisely the major task that the proposed GDRI-South Sentinel VIPs wishes to address.

Bearing in mind that a research organization like IRD is intended to provide scientific evidence-based solutions to tackle global challenge and to improve the life conditions of the poorest citizens in lesser economically developed countries, the suggested shift in research paradigm no longer considers Indigenous peoples as just the final beneficiaries of research advances, but also assumes that they have a critical role to play in the process of conducting research.

Sentinel VIPs aims to investigate new ways of engaging in sustainability science by attuning academic science and Indigenous peoples' sciences through the co-construction of research. Sentinel VIPs' core principle is to consider holders of indigenous knowledge as research partners.

Although mindful about not giving in to an ideological populism that indiscriminately praises indigenous practices on their environment, Sentinel VIPs recognizes that the stewardship of natural ecosystems is generally better ensured in landscapes that are managed by Indigenous peoples and that lands owned by Indigenous communities are particularly reliable for conservation. Concomitantly, Sentinel VIPs acknowledges the connectedness of indigenous food and knowledge systems to nature, place and community based learnings, evolving cultures and rituals.

Today more than ever, academic science and local sciences need to recognize their respective caveats, limits and imperfections, and would reciprocally gain in joining their efforts to gather data and provide scientifically-based evidence that should influence policies. This requires mainstream indigenous perspectives and knowledge that are often overlooked or still perceived as just scientific subjects in conventional research, and this should incorporate all facets of culture, rituals, visions and conceptions of the world, intra and intercultural relationships, and local knowledge systems that contribute to local wellbeing. Research approach must be an appreciative enquiry, more respectful, culturally appropriate, ethical and reciprocal than it has ever been. It must be consistent with the main principles enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). In compliance with the sustainability science approach, co-created research must move beyond multi-disciplinarity and engage into a multicultural dimension, requiring Indigenous communities and organizations to play a meaningful role in the processes of research designing and results production.

Sentinel VIPs plans to pay special ― though not exclusive ― attention to those Indigenous peoples who are the most dependent on natural resources for their daily subsistence ― in particular hunter-gatherer peoples ― and who are therefore the most vulnerable and the less resilient vis-a-vis the changes that are drastically affecting their ecosystems and well-being. Without any intention of exclusivity, Sentinel VIPs will also closely reflect on difficulties to work with Indigenous minorities who are stigmatized or ostracized by dominant cultural groups, and who are struggling to gain recognition of their rights and expertise with respect to their environment. Co-constructing research activities should help better diagnose the state of biodiversity and ecosystems under various changes and formulate evidence-based solutions that would engage Indigenous peoples in the attempt to mitigate the impact of these changes. This will implicitly lead the task force to look at the evolution of indigenous food systems. Nevertheless, non-food resources will not be excluded: The continuum between food and health will also allow us to embed resources purposed to medicinal uses, thus mobilizing knowledge and perceptions related in particular to the exegesis of diseases and which are, for many Indigenous peoples, inseparable from the food system.

Sentinel VIPs will notably explore optimal ways to co-create research with Indigenous experts ― of all gender and age categories ― on cultural keystone biophysical resources that are highly valued by their communities, and which are known to reveal ongoing transformations affecting their ecosystems. Cultural keystone resources contribute to the development of a more holistic perspective of ecosystems and provide us with one more avenue through which to emphasize the importance of species and habitats to particular peoples. When these resources are further recognized as bio‐indicators ― in the sense that their status within a given ecosystem informs us about the ecosystem's health ― by researchers, they provide fertile ground for closer collaboration between academic and local experts because they consider exactly the same object, yet through distinct cultural prisms.