High on a ridge above the Crocker Range, as the sky blackened with rain, Donny: a villager from Kampung Komburaon plucked a small white berry from a branch. ‘When you eat these your water will taste sweet’ he said.
We’d spent the afternoon, like the two Alpha groups before us, following, listening and recording the vast botanical knowledge of Donny and his friends as they gestured enthusiastically towards various shrubs, trees and roots. Donny is a scientist. He doesn’t wear a white coat or have a have a piece of paper confirming it, but he is one, and we were his students.
Lots of us are lucky to know many interesting and important things about the natural world. We might know for instance that trees sequester excess carbon from the atmosphere and mitigate against climate change. We might also know about the value and importance of eco-systems to the over-all health of the earth. What we didn’t know; before visiting Sabah and meeting Donny, Raymond and the rest of the community is that for the few years preceding our visit their water supply had run dangerously low during dry periods. We didn’t know that natural resources like bamboo can be used for rainwater collection or that the local indigenous language of Dusun has multiple variations for the word ‘dragonfly’. Most importantly, many of us probably didn’t know the wealth of knowledge that we had to gain from the community about the natural world that we inhabit.
Citizen science aims to make natures values visible. It argues that anyone can be a scientist and empowers people to monitor their natural resources, share their knowledge and collaborate in generating solutions to challenges, because the more we can understand the earth and the changes that it is undergoing the more we can do to defend it.
“The truth is: the natural world is changing. And we are totally dependent on that world. It provides our food, water and air. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it.” Sir David Attenborough
In the case of Kampung Komburaon, listening to, sharing and collaborating with community members through mapping, monitoring and the formation of a community committee enabled us to extend our WASH project. Not only were we able to increase the supply of safe and sustainable water to the community, but we were also able to work with community members to ensure the water lasted through periods of drought, by installing additional water storage tanks.
Indigenous communities in Sabah are natural stewards of the land. Through careful observation, collaboration and planning; all principles associated with science, they have sustainably managed the natural resources of their rivers, forests and seas for generations. Increasingly however, their way of life has been threatened by rising global air temperatures bringing with them a loss of water security, a decline in the yield of their crops and a rise in the rates of pests and disease.
By working alongside rural communities, empowering them with new knowledge and skills whilst learning from them about their home, we can collaborate to conserve the land that so many people rely on. Water quality testing enables us to monitor the health of our rivers; biodiversity surveying enables us to monitor the abundance of our forests, whilst mapping land enables us to see how sensibly it is being used. Through the meeting of new and traditional knowledge, we can create new ideas and possibilities for rural communities to strengthen their resilience and adapt to changes. By sharing our knowledge, skills and heritage through citizen science we can work alongside communities in mutual respect for our earth and mutual respect for each other; a pretty powerful weapon for changing the world!