Research project aims to curb decline of biodiversity and improve health of Indigenous peoples worldwide

When Danika Littlechild was growing up in Maskwacis, Alta., her uncle would pick her up after school and walk her home through the bush to her kôhkom’s (grandmother’s) house. He would show her different plants and fungi along the way, teaching her their names and telling stories about when to harvest and how to use them for medicine.

“Now when I go walking along that same path there’s really nothing but crabgrass left,” Littlechild said. “I can’t take my son on the same path to talk about that fungus because it’s not there.”

That is why Littlechild and dozens of other researchers — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, academic and community-based — are teaming up on a six-year project to curb the decline of biodiversity and improve the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples across Canada and around the world. 

“We know Indigenous people’s health and well-being is poor in many parts of the country and internationally, and we also know that biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate. These two trends are interconnected,” said lead co-principal investigator Brenda Parlee, a non-Indigenous scholar and professor in U of A’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.

“We are working towards Indigenous-led conservation in the spirit and practice of reconciliation in Canada, and that can also be a contribution to humanity as a whole,” said co-principal investigator Littlechild, who is Cree from Ermineskin Cree Nation, assistant professor of law at Carleton University and the first Indigenous woman appointed as vice-president of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

The Ărramăt Project brings together more than 150 Indigenous organizations and governments from around the world with researchers at 19 Canadian universities and two Canadian colleges, and 14 international universities. It includes 12 academics from the University of Alberta alone.

They will carry out 140 Indigenous-led, place-based research projects to examine the links between the loss of biodiversity and the decline in Indigenous health. Working in more than 24 countries and speaking more than 30 languages, the team will develop policy roadmaps for practical solutions in 10 areas including strengthening Indigenous food systems and re-establishing healthy relationships to wild species.

In an announcement today, the Ărramăt Project was awarded $24 million from the federal government’s New Frontiers in Research Fund, set up to support large-scale, Canadian-led interdisciplinary research projects that address major global challenges.

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