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How the legacy of colonialism impacts science in the Caribbean

With the retreat of European empires after the Second World War, one would think that the colonial mindset of taking from smaller countries to support the larger imperial core would likewise be relegated to history.

However, a new study published in The American Naturalist by an international team of researchers shows how the legacy of colonialism remains deeply entrenched within scientific practice across the Caribbean archipelago.

The authors note that a colonial mentality in science, which does not account for the ways humans have interacted with and altered the Caribbean environment for centuries, skews our understanding of these systems. Additionally, the lack of local involvement in research and the extraction of natural history specimens has come at the expense of former colonies and occupied lands.

“I hope our study encourages more people to think about the impacts of their research and research practices, and to be more involved in the communities they are doing research in,” Melissa Kemp, assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas-Austin and one of the study’s senior authors, saidin a press release.

One of the concerns highlighted by the study is that scientists have been inclined to view the Caribbean islands as a natural laboratory to test hypotheses in ecology and evolutionary biology – a pristine region largely unaltered by humans – even though indigenous communities inhabited the islands for thousands of years before colonialism arrived.

A second concern is that field research in the Caribbean has traditionally excluded native researchers or collaborators, making it challenging for local scientists to advance their careers. It also means that research questions important to local communities are likely to be neglected, thereby diminishing the ability of science to solve local problems.

The solution the authors say is to involve locals in all phases of research.

“There is this term we use called ‘helicopter science’, where you have people come in, get what they need and go out, and there’s no local involvement,” Kemp said. “We can do better. We can involve the community in the work we’re doing so that they’re aware of the process, why we’re doing it and what’s important about it. We can ask what’s important to them and what questions they hope our research can answer.”

“We wanted to provide a solutions-based approach,” said lead author Ryan Mohammed, a Trinidadian biologist and postdoctoral research associate at Massachusetts’ Williams College. “We want to encourage foreign scientists to incorporate local people and knowledge into their research and try to provide avenues for local scientists to springboard their scientific careers.”

Another concern for Caribbean researchers trying to piece together the natural history of the archipelago’s 7,000-plus islands is a lack of access to specimens.

To demonstrate the problem, the study’s authors conducted a global analysis of digitised natural history collections from Trinidad and Tobago, which showed the vast majority of specimens are stored in North American and European institutions.

A similar pattern is true for other Caribbean islands too.

“Many Bahamian collections are in museums throughout the world, which requires local scientists to travel outside their country to incorporate those specimens into their research,” said co-author Kelly Fowler, a Bahamian anthropologist with the National Museum of The Bahamas.

The transfer of natural history specimens also has more pernicious effects that influence everything from identity to conservation.

Mohammed mentioned a fossil from an extinct group of giant armadillos found in Tobago, which indicates that Tobago was once part of a continuous landmass with Trinidad and current-day Venezuela based on similar fossils found in both countries.

“If we didn’t know of this fossil’s existence, we wouldn’t know about that connection. The problem is, that fossil doesn’t reside in Trinidad and Tobago; it’s currently elsewhere.”

To highlight a better approach, the authors describe instances of institutions working with local and foreign researchers to ensure any specimens leaving their country of origin in the Caribbean only do as a temporary loan.

One of the study’s authors, Michelle LeFebvre, contends that an exchange of ideas among people from multiple backgrounds and disciplines is required for an accurate understanding of past ecosystems, highlighting that it is paramount in regions like the Caribbean that are still reeling from the effects of colonialism.

“It can be tempting to think that science is an apolitical endeavor. This was the assumption throughout colonial history, and it’s still an undercurrent in scientific practice,” said LeFebvre, who is an assistant curator of South Florida archaeology and ethnography at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“But museum collections and natural-history specimens are not apolitical or neutral. We need to continue finding ways to conduct science in a more socially and culturally responsible way.”

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