In many communities around the world, water is a constant chore. The short supply and limited access to running water requires people to move places looking for resources, collecting them and bringing it home in gallons, buckets and large pans. And in many communities around Africa, women take this responsibility such as in the Samburu tribe in Kenya. For women of this tribe, this chore is a daily routine.

“Traditionally I say that in Samburu, women are left behind when the men go (to work),” Lilian Nguracha said. As men in their tribe go to work in the farm, the household is left to the women at home. “(With this) It's the role of a woman to go to fetch water.”

Lilian is the founder of Women.conserve and part of the Samburu tribe. The organization she manages envisions to empower Samburu women to be great conservationists, to train women on how to make and use maps to identify their territories, and communicate their issues (see Figure 1). According to her, Samburu women navigate through lands to find water and fetch them so they could use it at home.

Photo of a Samburu woman who maps during their training
Figure 1: Photo of a Samburu woman who maps during their training

Yet beyond this gendering, Lilian also noticed an opportune moment to use the chore as a powerful tool in making indigenous women powerful and informed.

Mapping water locations and territories

Lilian is an advocate for women empowerment through science. Having worked before as a gender specialist at the Northern Rangelands Trust, it is easy to figure out why she wants to champion women and their rights. She believes that through the proper use of science in her community especially in the field of remote sensing and Earth observation, she can push boundaries for women.

“Water is life and without it, no life. It’s important for these women to identify where there is clean and sufficient water,” she says.

Lilian adds that the indigenous women, in general, use their knowledge to identify these water resources and mentions that satellite maps help them sketch out their territories.

“They (indigenous women) use their indigenous language to mark their roots — in terms of migrating, identifying where they can get enough water for their household chore, drinking water, etcetera. It’s important for them to use satellite maps to map out their areas which will help them mark their boundaries, identify the areas where clean water is available to avoid becoming sick of contaminated water,” she adds.

Aside from mapping out water resources, satellite data and maps also help women determine margins of their territory. Educating Samburu women in the use of satellite imagery also enable them to tell their stories and identify even critical institutions like dispensaries where they access their medicine.

“It’s very critical for them to know where they can go for treatment and get referrals. They can also map the fertile areas where they can also farm and get their own food,” Lilian adds.

Promoting knowledge and sense of ownership
What makes this initiative powerful is that women can map out critical areas such as water resources in their own language.

“When they use these maps, they use it in their own language, and they translate it in their own language. And this is very important, it gives them a sense of ownership,” Lilian highlights.

For her, using the local language to support the maps they created also gives them the power and authority to manage it. With such knowledge and ownership, the applications of Earth observation data and maps help maintain their culture for generations to come. It also helps them communicate, share their ideas, and tell their stories to the world and amongst themselves.

“We have our own ways of telling. (Through this), we also tell others that they can also conserve (the environment), and also the culture in an indigenous way of doing things,” Lilian says.

Lilian explains further that with such possibility of continuity of knowledge and the impact of learning it gives, it helps them even more to manage their resources.

Where there is water, communities gather
Moreover, Lilian emphasizes that where the water resources are, life flourishes.

“In Samburu, living things move in such a way that they follow water,”

The above also rings true for all living things on Earth. Lilian stresses that through marking water resources, indigenous women can also track migration routes of wildlife. Lilian shares that in their tribe’s belief, the wildlife is entrusted to women. She says that in Samburu, women are the ones who witness wildlife suffering especially when affected with natural phenomena and are the ones who report it. With such knowledge and information at hand, women can share with their community where water is available, and where wildlife is more evident. This way, it promotes land management. It helps her tribe identify areas where the daily resources they need are available.

“(Earth observation data) helps in routes, manage drought. In terms of land management especially here in Africa, when there is drought, then they are able to mark boundaries, and they are able to rotate in terms of the season,” she says.

This also helps outline migration routes, where people and wildlife live, and ultimately, prevents wildlife-human conflict, which according to Lilian, causes death. This then promotes peaceful ways of living including the utilization of natural resources such as water and trees. If there is enough of these resources, it creates balance.

“It’s helping bring peace and creation among wildlife and human life,” Lilian adds.

The important role of Indigenous communities shaping the Earth observation field

During the 2021 International Symposium for Digital Earth Youth Summit organized by the International Society for Digital Earth in July, members of the GEO Indigenous Alliance represented by Lilian and James Rattling Leaf, Sr. who is a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe discussed on the issue of why the involvement of indigenous people must be accounted for in Earth observation research. Moreover, they expressed that addressing the issues faced by our planet is integral.

James emphasized that today’s challenges such as managing the lands, water and cultures, the voice of the indigenous community must be heard if the world wants a better future. While there are great efforts in the world today that try to bring together indigenous voices to the table, he added, this platform must be built on justice on cultural heritage that will be based on equity, diversity and inclusion.

According to the United Nations, indigenous people represent around 5% of the world population which accounts to 370 million globally. Indigenous territories cover an estimated 20% to 25% of the Earth’s land surface. This partition holds 50% of protected areas worldwide. With the creation of the GEO Indigenous Alliance at the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Canberra Ministerial Summit 2019, the organization aims “to foster a continued effective respectful, and reciprocal relationship with GEO, and representatives of indigenous communities from around the world.”

James highlighted that

“we have a responsibility for future generations to take care of the Earth by engaging effectively contributing and learning from each other.“

He continues saying that indigenous communities want to provide guidance and educate groups on how they can consult with them. For him, Earth observation, data science and technology can support intuition such as how people manage, protect and sustain lands or resources in many ways.

“I'm in agreement that Earth observation is important that [sic!] I think it has to be one of our tools in our toolkit to communicate to the general world about the issue that we're facing. It's just another way to talk about to share and to understand what's happening on the landscape.”

“More importantly, I think that it begins to document the changes, if there are violations to things happening on our lands. We need a way to document that and to demonstrate again, what's happening. It's part of the toolkit. I think that's why it's important that we need to build our capacity so that our indigenous people can again, protect and sustain our lands, our people in our life ways going into the future.”

Transcending traditional knowledge and modern science

In terms of passing the knowledge and combining this with modern science, Lilian admits that it is a challenge. For her, the scientific and indigenous knowledge are different from each other. A strategy must be created so that people can use both well.

“The bottom line here is learning from each other. As far as we have to bring laws and policies in place, we need to bring the people who are knowledgeable, the elders, the gatekeepers, and also bring the scientists, so that they can learn from each other. But traditional knowledge has to be given the forefront here, in terms of learning, in terms of merging it together,” says Lilian. "This means training, education, and knowledge and experience sharing".

For James, it’s something they’re still trying to understand but he affirms that they’re moving forward alongside. There are questions that need to be raised in bringing both traditional knowledge and modern science together but according to James, people must take time to think it through thoughtfully in terms of the impact of both topics to each other.

“When I think about our communities, I think about our elders, those who are knowledge holders, I think seeking their guidance, their wisdom as they understand the implications of digital technology is very important,” he adds.

James highlights that the pandemic we experienced in the past two years demonstrated the importance of protecting their people especially the elders whom they consider their knowledge holders. This then led them to look at mapping technologies to help identify locations of elders and offer care, support and protection during the health crisis.

James also mentions the support of the GEO Indigenous Alliance for modern science in the form of hackathons. This year, the Indigenous FOSS4G Hackathon 2021 was in partnership with Space4Innovation and the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial by the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo). For him, this platform is a great avenue to link youth, scientists, communities and knowledge holders to address problems in indigenous groups using Earth observation.

4 R’s - Respect, reciprocity, responsibility and relationality

In James’s culture, they have a concept called Seven which means preparing for and planning for seven generations. When they think about the future, they think about seven generations ahead.

James continues, “How do we protect our cultural heritage? How do we develop a workforce for the future? And how do we fund these activities? How do we resource activities? So, there is vision here, there's strength here, and there's purpose here in this work.”

More than these, James stresses that indigenous engagement must be based on what he calls the Four R’s — respect, reciprocity, responsibility and relationality. According to him, relationality is a concept that they hold deeply in their Lakota culture called, “Mitákuye Oyás'iŋ”, which translates to “all are related”. He explains that science and data are one thing but most importantly, the human dimension must not be left out.

James has great hope for the youth and “others that are wrestling with these very difficult issues of how do you bring something new into your culture, and yet maintain the integrity of your culture?”

These questions motion James to actively push for linkages within culture, policy and laws. James continues to highlight that robust laws are needed to protect them while they understand how they can work with modern science such as digital data and how that information gets shared, documented and put on platforms such as the internet.

“When it comes to understanding our lands and our very, I always call, sacred places, things that are important to our people that we need to protect, we also need to guard in a way so that it does not get exploited for the wrong reasons and the wrong purposes.”