Bridging Indigenous Law in Language and Western Science with Jonaki Bhattacharyya

Jonaki working on cultural burning with Yunesit'in, April 2023.

In the next installments of our Indigenous law in language blog series, we wanted to talk with some scientists to see how we can begin to bridge the languages of western and Indigenous science together. Dr. Jonaki Bhattacharyya is an ethnoecologist working in British Columbia, who currently sits on West Coast Environmental Law’s Board of Directors. We sat down with Dr. Bhattacharyya to discuss some of the terms often used when discussing biodiversity and ecosystem health from a scientific perspective.

Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about the work you do.

My name is Jonaki Bhattacharyya. I was born on the west coast after my parents immigrated here from West Bengal (India) and England. They settled in W̱SÁNEĆ and Songhees territory (Saanich and Victoria) and I grew up knowing the south Island as home, with our extended family overseas in India. 

I work as an ethnoecologist, doing contract work for Indigenous communities and governments, plus some academic researchers and non-profit organizations. My role varies a lot – I love the field-based wildlife and habitat stewardship work best! It’s really important to me to work in areas where I can develop deep relationships and understanding of the land over the course of years, by spending time out walking, watching, and listening, learning from Indigenous knowledge holders whose territories I’m in. 

Maybe it stems from my own mixed ethnicity, but most of my work involves bridging and reaching across cultures, knowledge systems, and practices. It’s always about breaking down siloes and polarized or reductionist approaches, and finding ways to support Indigenous communities’ relationships with their places.

Why is it important that we talk about the language we use?

Language shapes how we view the world. Indigenous languages are deeply embedded in places, and they hold so much of the relationships between people and other parts of the ecosystems in those places. Yet when we’re all speaking English, it is clumsy, even when meaning is nuanced. I think that, when we can all have a conversation using the English language, we sometimes overlook how different we are, when we’re engaging with other cultures. 

It’s really obvious when you have to climb out of an airplane, and you go somewhere like Portugal or Spain, and everything feels really different, and people are speaking in a different language. Then you feel vulnerable; you know that you can’t make assumptions, and you know that you’re probably going to have trouble understanding each other and that you might use a word wrong. Or you might use a word that you think is the right one, but it might actually mean something totally different. You intuitively realize that you are going to have to work hard to be understood and to understand. 

When we enter Indigenous communities, I think we forget that. Because communities have different languages that are of those places and convey deep meaning, yet chances are we’re conversing in English. We forget that we have to do the work, that we probably have very different understandings. That’s why I think it’s important to talk about language in this kind of work – because even when we think we’re speaking the same language and we’re in what we think of as familiar country, we forget what it really means to be humble entering a different culture.

Can you explain what ecosystem health means and why it’s important?

Ecosystem health is a concept that, to the best of my knowledge, came about using the analogy of human health. Usually, most people can agree that an ecological system is healthy if it’s stable yet flexible, sustainable, and resilient to stress. It’s a concept people use to try to get at the idea of “Is this ecosystem functioning in a way that it can continue to function and thrive over time?”

Ecosystem health is a very malleable concept. Some scientists don't like the term because it's imprecise and can lead to misunderstanding. But overall, it’s looking at how a system functions and how it can continue to do so. When we’re talking about language, we need to look for words that can start creating a shared approach. The idea of health is something that everybody can very viscerally relate to. 

In my background, working for Indigenous communities and nations that are planning Indigenous-led stewardship and protected areas, one of the strongest influences was that people really wanted to focus on health and healing of the land and of people, and that those two things were inseparable. And in very pragmatic terms, in terms of, if your water is dirty, you're not well, you know; if the air is dirty, you are not well; if your animals are contaminated, you're sick. But it was also very spiritual. It was, you know, the health of people, their sense of identity and well-being is also linked to how well are those ecosystems that are their home territory. 

So I think that the term ecosystem health is having a little bit of a renaissance, but in a new way. It’s become less of a sort of functional scientific definition and more of a relatable idea that can help with bridging between science and what people who live in ecosystems experience.

The ecosystem is all the animals, the plants, the water flows, and the soils they are all a part of and are interacting [with], including the things we can’t see, like the nutrient values. When I think of ecosystem health, that’s what I think of. I think of walking through those landscapes that I work in, with the communities I work for, and that felt sense of “is this place well, together with the communities who live there?”

Can you explain the concept of ecological integrity?

With this term, you move towards how a particular ecosystem has been defined scientifically. What are the component parts? And again, in my understanding, it’s a very functional term.

Integrity, it’s very related to health. Those two terms [ecosystem health and ecological integrity] are used almost interchangeably quite a bit. It’s that idea of component parts functioning; it’s a bit mechanistic. Are all the pieces present and accounted for, interacting the way they’re expected to, and able to keep doing that from a scientific perspective? That’s my understanding of ecosystem integrity.

However, the idea of wholeness is really conveyed by the term integrity. When the scientific community might interact with other people from other walks of life, the concept of integrity is immediately evocative of wholeness, movement, functionality and process. And I think that's helpful.

What do we mean by biodiversity?

The concept of biodiversity is focused around the diversity of biological features and organisms in any given system. How many kinds and diversity of plants, animals, living organisms, and insects are present in a defined system or place?

More biodiversity is assumed to be good, but there are often other underlying assumptions that go along with it scientifically, which can lead to debate. For example, invasive species: if you have non-native species in a particular area they may increase the biodiversity, but that’s often not seen as a good thing.

Biodiversity is important to talk about. But I think it’s important to define it, and to have conversations about the underlying assumptions when bridging work [between science and Indigenous knowledge systems] is happening, because the concept doesn’t always correlate with Indigenous ways of knowing. We can set management goals around increasing biodiversity, but those don’t always correspond with the actual desired ecosystem qualities, relationships, or landscapes that people want or need.

I think this one [biodiversity] is important to discuss because it opens up conversations about the desired landscapes and ecosystems we want.

Can you explain the concept of resilience?

Ecologically, resilience is a value-neutral term that talks about the ability of a system to absorb disturbance or be subject to disturbance and return to or remain in its desired state. The idea is that ecosystems are not like the volume dials on a stereo. It’s not a linear progression; it’s not a straight line. So, beyond a point, you can’t just dial down your impacts a certain number of notches, and hope the ecosystem goes back to the way it was. Resilience tells us that ecosystem change is more complex than that. 

Scientifically, an ecosystem can be resilient in a degraded state as much as it can be resilient in a desired state. If you imagine an empty lot in an urban landscape that had the building demolished, there are a lot of weeds growing, and the soil sucks. It will be a pretty resilient system. It will take some effort to put a natural ecosystem back into place, right? And similarly, an old-growth forest can be incredibly resilient in its thriving, healthy biodiverse state.

Resilience is a useful concept. It does deal with how we respond and how systems respond to uncertainty, to change, to disturbance. It takes us out of this mechanistic approach to ecological science. 

Ecosystem health and ecosystem integrity, as much as the words are holistic, the way they’re applied tends to mean we’re looking at the nodes in the network. Resilience is looking at the connectors, the relationships between parts of the system and how they interact. It’s looking at the energy flows; it’s looking at “how is the whole system impacted if one part of it takes a hit?” In all those ways, it bridges very nicely across knowledge systems.

In a lot of traditional Indigenous systems of management, the human interventions were enhancing the resilience of the systems, right? People would create habitat, they were actually increasing the success and the abundance of the resource rather than depleting it. 

When the lens is: How are human actions impacting ecosystems, the resilience of the whole socio-ecological system, seeing it as whole? Are our practices making these systems more brittle? Or are they making them more flexibly resilient? This is very useful. 

Thresholds as well – that’s a big part of it [resilience], is that idea of how far can things be pushed before you cross the threshold and they can't recover? Because that is really key to on-the-ground management and to the way communities and people experience resilience and ecosystems.

What do we mean when we say community and systems ecology?

When we’re talking about natural science, “community” doesn’t mean human communities in the social or political sense. Community ecology means all the plants and animals, and insects that are part of an ecosystem. Technically that can include people as one of many animals impacting the system, but scientists also sometimes use the term “community ecology” without including people. 

Think of a meadow: What are the plants that grow there? What are the ungulates that come in, the other species? What insects are there? Any aquatic species if there’s water? How do they all interact with each other in that ecosystem?

Systems ecology, similarly, is looking at those interactions and how they affect each other and rely on each other. Is there competition? Or are there symbiotic relationships between different parts of that system? Those terms tend to be used most often without necessarily being inclusive of people.

It [systems ecology] is another one of those relational concepts, and the science itself is particularly concerned with relations. We now have science that sort of documents how one species being altered impacts the entire ecosystem in profound ways. That’s community ecology; that’s systems ecology.

Can you explain the terms kincentric ecology and natural systems?

I initially arrived at my understanding of kincentric ecology by learning from Indigenous knowledge holders. I had never come across it in the academic literature, at the time. I was listening to interviews as a grad student and realized that knowledge holders were talking about animals as though they were family members or neighbours. Then I started looking at research and realized that in academia, there was this term that had been coined by an Indigenous scholar [Enrique Salmón]: kincentric ecology.

Kincentric ecology refers to a way of thinking or a way of knowing that often comes from cultures and societies with animist traditions, where the parts of an ecosystem include biotic and abiotic, living and nonliving. From a kincentric perspective, we are all related as kin, as extended family, or as neighbours. 

It’s a term that focuses on relationships. For example, where there’s a mountain, that’s a person, maybe somebody’s ancestor, or from a particular family. It’s as foundational in practice as that idea that maybe you’re giving thanks to a berry bush, or an animal when harvesting or being nourished by it – yet it is much larger and more profound than that, too. It takes people out of a hierarchical relationship with the world around us. All those relationships are humans relating to other parts of the ecosystem as their kin.

Jonaki Bhattacharyya in conversation with Jessica Clogg and Whitney Lafreniere Vicente, West Coast Environmental Law. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Top photo: Josh Neufeld

Indigenous Law in Language Series

Dr. Jonaki Bhattacharyya, Stewardship and Planning, Dasiqox Nexwagwez7an
Jessica Clogg, Executive Director & Senior Counsel
Whitney Lafreniere Vicente, Staff Lawyer