Robert Walker and Joel Correia among team to receive four-year NSF grant

NSF awards nearly $1 million for grant to study Indigenous socioenvironmental systems

Robert Walker and Joel Correia among team to receive four-year NSF grant

July 15, 2021

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant of nearly $1 million to a multi-disciplinary team of researchers led by Dr. Robert Walker and including Dr. Joel Correia, both core faculty members of the Center for Latin American Studies. Other team members, all affiliated with the Center, include Dr. Miguel Acevedo, Dr. Michael Esbach, and Dr. Cynthia Simmons. The four-year project will study the sustainable practices of socio-environmental systems in Indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Collecting data through ecological assays, scientific surveys, and informant interviews, the team of investigators seek insight into Indigenous practices that maintain a balanced relationship between humans and their surrounding ecosystems.

“There are so many questions about sustainability and environmental resilience that Indigenous practices can offer answers to,” says Walker, the principal investigator on the grant. “It’s crucial that we learn from them and with them.”

The project’s data will be used to develop models of resource management that can be implemented elsewhere in the Amazon basin, where ecosystems are under increasing threat of climate change, deforestation, and large-scale infrastructure projects. In the absence of a sustainable pathway, Walker predicts the Amazon rainforest will be replaced by fire-adapted grasses and shrubs some time between 2060 and 2070.

The project possesses significant potential for global impact. Because Indigenous peoples steward 40% of the world’s protected areas, implementing Indigenous-sourced sustainability models across their territories could yield substantial conservation gains around the world. Such conservation potential, in turn, provides a powerful argument for the defense of Indigenous rights. “A key aspect of this project is to create knowledge in partnership with Indigenous peoples that can inform other Indigenous people and communities who need it,” Walker emphasizes. “Not only in the interest of the environment but also to support human and territorial rights of Indigenous peoples.”

Between October 2021 and September 2025, team members will conduct the project’s research activities, which will involve a variety of stakeholders from different backgrounds and communities. In addition to a post-doctoral researcher, the grant supports training for eight Indigenous research technicians, as well as three graduate students from historically under-represented populations. The project site will host undergraduate students for summer fieldwork courses, as well as virtual exchange with classrooms abroad.

“As the effects of climate change escalate, so does the necessity of implementing diverse strategies for environmental resilience,” Walker says. “Our goal is to share results that will shape contemporary conservation strategies for years to come, and that will support the rightful claims of Indigenous peoples, both in Amazonia and globally.”

To learn more about this grant project, read more in-depth coverage by Dr. Robert Walker here.