Artwork: “Endosymbiosis” by Shosananah Dubiner (2012)

Jumping into the unknown and the unpredictable, where the safety of the ground or the earth has yet to be felt. This characterises the somewhat emergent process of putting together a proposal in a pandemic. It has also, however, made me want to make a home in uncertainty and understand how this might not just be a useful approach to survive a pandemic but can also be a tool to navigate the nature of experimental, transdisciplinary research. My research moves us from the stability and certainty of terrestrial landscapes towards infinitely uncertain ocean horizons and submerges our imaginations to contemplate the ontological possibilities of starting from the sea.

The research starts from an assertion that modernist science, as an ontological framework, has not only had benign, progressive, and beneficial impacts on humanity. Rather, as an integral arm of colonialism, it has also displaced multiple knowledge systems and ways of knowing in different places around the world. Using processes of marine biodiscovery on the east coast of South Africa as a case study, the research will explore the possibilities of knowledge co-production with Indigenous people and local communities and natural scientists in order to decolonise discovery; a practice that for too long has been based on the hegemony of science and upon the exclusion and/or appropriation of locally held knowledge. In other words, I attempt to untangle this heroic narrative of discovery and exclusion by using the ocean and its fluid, transparent, cyclical, and mythic qualities to create spaces of co-production for different knowledge systems to meet and exchange interpretations of the Indian Ocean.

While the value and role of Indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) is increasingly recognised in both the natural and social sciences, this is often done through a frame of utility and comparison to scientific knowledge. In addition, the value of ILK resounds much more strongly on terrestrial landscapes than in ocean spaces. While in South Africa this type of knowledge is recognised in fisheries management (Green 2015, Nthane et al 2020), community conservation (Armitage et al 2020), and marine spatial planning (Sowman & Sunde 2018), there remains a need to explore the extent, role and value of this knowledge beyond the coasts and below the sea. Further still, comparatively few studies are geared towards the practicalities of working with science and Indigenous knowledge systems and developing a truly collaborative, adaptive, and resilient infrastructure that is embracive of modern science and ILK in marine environments (Berkes 2009; Thornton & Sheer 2012). This highlights some of the gaps that this research looks to fill.

Here, I’ll speak briefly to the problems that have arisen within me regarding what I call ‘Indigenous’ and what I refer to as ‘science’. Obviously these terms carry a lot of baggage and are mobilised in multiple settings to achieve multiple objectives, so thoroughly thinking through these is critical to untangling these ontological complexities. The use of the term ‘Indigenous’ is both explicit and murky. On one hand, much has been achieved through mobilisation of the term on the international stage, yet on the other, it can easily homogenise unique qualities and complexities found in different locales around the world. And the concept of ‘indigeneity’ itself arises in opposition to a colonial or settler identity. The term ‘Science’ is also disputable as it invites a similar homogenisation upon practices and practitioners that are multiple and diverse. In addition to considering what reality I am centring by using certain terms, delving deeper into these terms destabilises the dualisms that are so inherent in how I perceive reality; modern/traditional, knower/believer, land/sea, natural science/social science – the lines between them become ever blurrier. But sitting in this uncertainty – or as Donna Haraway (2016) might put it – staying with the trouble, I endeavour to find a way to present these concepts in a manner that forges new relationships between knowledge systems and contribute to realising this transformative potential. Key to this will therefore be to remain cognisant of both the limitations and utilities of these terms and to refrain from further essentialisation.

Linking to these discussions is the theoretical lens that will frame the research. Firstly, I will use the Epistemologies of the South framework, a theoretical and political project put forward by De Sousa Santos (2007, 2014) that draws attention to the epistemological transformations and erasures that emerged with modernisation and colonisation (Quijano 2007; Mignolo 2011; Escobar 2016). Secondly, powerful feminist critiques of modern science offer a situated approach to scientific knowledge production – rooting it deeply in relation with the social and economic conditions, language and cultural values from which it stems (Keller & Collins [1990] 1991; Barad 1998; Rouse 2004; Harding 2006). Supporting these efforts, Indigenous and local knowledge frameworks provide some tools to think and do discovery differently by offering more relational worldviews and multi-sensory knowledge production. Tying together Indigenous and local knowledge paradigms with the sensory world of the ocean will provide new conceptualisations of the deep sea, a vast expanse already being carved up and portioned out. Ultimately, this research will explore how triangulation of these frameworks can help to shed light on local and Indigenous knowledge that is held of the deep sea, see more clearly the role of Indigenous and local communities in discovery processes and potentially – reconsider the context of ‘discovery’ itself.

In practice, these discussions will be brought to life through a ‘Living Laboratories’ case study that will take place on the east coast of South Africa where both a marine biodiscovery vessel and the Durban Muthi Market will act as living laboratories and sites of knowledge exchange and co-production. Indigenous and local knowledge holders who have multiple and diverse connections to the Indian Ocean will be involved with two marine biodiscovery research cruises that include pre and post cruise activities, in order to expand and exchange knowledge of the meaning, values, and uses of marine biodiversity in the deep sea. Further engagements between the teams will be organised at the second living laboratory – the Durban Muthi Market, where community members  will act as knowledge guides, facilitating knowledge exchange and co-production with the marine team. By investigating the use of ‘storytelling’ as a method for the co-production of relational ocean knowledge for marine biodiscovery, I hope to  understand the practical and epistemological dimensions of working with Science and Indigenous Knowledge Systems in an ocean context and explore how this process can be facilitated in a way that doesn’t perpetuate unequal power relations that have long characterised scientific discovery.


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