This week I’ve spent a couple of days in Scotland with James Leach, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen working on ideas for recording and sharing Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in the field through hybrid technologies and tools. We are taking part in a symposium at the University of Goroka, Papua New Guinea (PNG) in late October, before travelling to Reite village on the Rai Coast (Madang Province) where James has done field work since the early 1990s.
James and I have been building on conversations we’ve had over the past 4/5 years, and on top of some earlier work together as part of the British Museum’s Melanesia project. A case study explores how we used Diffusion eNotebooks to record the experiences of two Reite villagers – Porer Nombo & Pinbin Sisau – when shown hundreds of objects in the BM ethnographic collection from their area. Bookleteer and the eBook formats proved highly adaptable and useful in this process, allowing us to record interactions on the fly – both in writing and in capturing photographs of the social interactions of the project. We used digital cameras and printed out small photos using a Polaroid PoGo printer to stick directly into the eNotebooks which, once complete, were scanned in and posted online. Some months later we also used bookleteer to print up a short run edition of the 4 eNotebooks which were used in conferences and taken back to the village.
Our conversations this week have focused around themes of process, notation and sharing. Papua New Guinea is perceived as very poor in western economic terms, yet abundant with culture and the natural world. There is a great deal of sensitivity about how indigenous knowledge – of plants, places, wildlife and culture – is both presented and shared. Who benefits? To what, if any, degree does sharing more knowledge help preserve the delicate environment from exploitation and extraction? Why and how local people might wish to record and share their own knowledge to be communicated to outsiders in ways that protect their culture and environment is at the core of this issue. What value, if any, might come to local people from annotations of their knowledge by outside ‘experts’, such as botanists and naturalists in identifying species? Might this lead to just further exploitation and depredations of natural resources?
James and Porer have already published a unique collaboration – Reite Plants – which mixes local knowledge of the flora around Reite village with social and cultural knowledge. It is also written in both English and Tok Pisin, the local creole language. This is seen as a model for working together to share knowledge that situates the plants within the lived culture of Porer’s village and at the same time fulfilling western demands for scientific classification, but without delving into complicated and thorny issues such as para-taxonomy or bio-prospecting.
James and I have been discussing how hybrids – such as bookleteer and the eNotebooks – can be used as part of a co-creative and co-designed process that enables people to use simple tools and technologies, especially ones that are readily available in PNG, to record and document what they know. Starting from the simplicity of the eNotebook format, we’ve been thinking about what kinds of process and social engagement with local people could be explored that would allow material to be created and collected in ways that allow further reflection and addition. We have been thinking of accretive processes that build up and layer the complexly interwoven customs, practices and traditions in ways that reflect the whole culture, not just individual elements that can quickly be consumed, Indigenous Public Authoring for Traditional Ecological Knowledge (IPATEK). Perhaps this itself might be another form of ritual, of patterning knowledge and experience through overlapping notations?
What excites me is the opportunity I have been offered to explore these ideas both in the context of the symposium and in Reite village itself. No doubt the ideas we have cooked up in Scotland will be transformed again and again as they evolve in our conversations and collaborations in PNG with both other thinkers and academics and local people who live within their own indigenous ‘knowledge’ and for whom its enactment is always immersed within the practice of their everyday lives.