Photo by Pat O’Malley / CC BY

“What is done to the land is done to the people, and what is done to the people is done to the land. The Creator gave us all that we need: the forest, the people, the animals; all that grows; and most important the language – so it is imperative that we take care of it”…

About the project

Tracking Change… is a multi-year research initiative funded by the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council of Canada and led by the University of Alberta, the Traditional Knowledge Steering Committee of the Mackenzie River Basin Board, the Government of the Northwest Territories and many other valued partner organizations. Over six years (2015-2022), the project will fund local and traditional knowledge research activities in the Mackenzie River basin and sister projects in the Lower Amazon and Lower Mekong River Basins, with the long term goal of strengthening the voices of subsistence fishers and Indigenous communities in the governance of major fresh water ecosystems. The project developed in recognition that river systems are important social, economic, cultural and ecological places that contribute to the well-being of communities in diverse ways. River peoples, particularly Indigenous peoples who have well developed fishing livelihoods can offer extremely valuable insights about long term (historic and current) patterns of social and ecological change and the interconnections between the health and dynamics of these river systems and that of river communities. Although based on oral traditions, this system of observation or “tracking change” is much like monitoring. Like those who live on Canada’s east and west coasts, the ability of Indigenous communities in the Mackenzie River Basin to maintain fishing as a livelihood practice is of social, economic and cultural importance to all of Canada; if this river system is not healthy, how can we be?

Summary of Proposal

Tracking Change – The Role of Local and Traditional Knowledge in Watershed Governance

Freshwater river systems are the basis of livelihood and well-being around the world but also present some of the greatest governance challenges. Managing the interconnections between social and ecological change both locally and globally are among these challenges. Multi-generational subsistence fishers (including Indigenous communities) in the Mackenzie-Amazon-Mekong River Basins, who have generations of local and traditional knowledge (LTK), can tell us more about these interconnections and how they can be managed to ensure sustainability for current and future generations.


How can the knowledge being generated at local scales be networked so as to provide insight at larger scales? Given LTK is based on oral traditions, relatively little of such knowledge has been documented. In Mackenzie-Mekong-Amazon , sources of documented LTK come from very different kinds of research initiatives. Previous and ongoing research in the Mekong and Amazon can provide valuable insight to communities in the Mackenzie River Basin where the knowledge landscape is patchy and uneven. By working together within and between all three Basins, the research team (e.g., Aboriginal organizations, academics) will advance scholarship around the linked nature of LTK systems and address partner needs for LTK in watershed governance.


What kind of knowledge is being created? Fishing is featured in the livelihoods and well-being of communities in all three river basins. Through community-based research at fish camps in each of the sub-basins of the Mackenzie, and in the Tapajos sub-basin of the Lower Amazon, and Lower Mekong, the project will enable researchers and communities to collaboratively document oral histories, observations and experiences of social-ecological change as well as how-to insights. Specifically, the aim is to understand what indicators and what methods are being used by communities to track change in the subsistence fishery and the implications and meaning of these changes to communities, regions and global partners. Such “tracking of social-ecological change” is a function of watershed governance that is increasingly recognized and needed for dealing with the effects resource development and climate change. Determining the fit between the scale of observation, experience and meaning of such changes on the one hand, and the scale of watershed decision-making on the other, may help address discontinuities in perspectives and emerging social and environmental conflicts.


How will the research be done? The Mackenzie River Basin Board Traditional Knowledge Steering Committee will lead the project with Parlee, (PI), and 1 partner organizations, and an interdisciplinary team of senior/junior scholars organized around sub-basin nodes and theoretical/thematic advisory groups. A range of methods and tools will be used with the intention of building on and sharing best-practices of LTK research in different regions. Respecting intellectual property rights is fundamental to the project; LTK holders will have primary ownership, control, access and possession of research outcomes.


What kinds of outcomes are anticipated? The research team will train more than 40 students/community researchers and create collaborations that will extend beyond the 6 year timeline of the project. Plain language outcomes (e.g., guidebooks), and academic contributions (e.g., theses, journal articles) are planned. Fish camps/river gatherings, basin-wide meetings and global research meetings in Ubon Ratchathani, Santarem, and Yellowknife will facilitate ongoing knowledge mobilization in local, regional and global contexts. The partnership is unique in scope and focus and is poised to make academic and practical contributions of global significance.