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LEO Network shares knowledge across borders

June 16th, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

Alaska's citizen science reporting site crossed borders this month with its formal expansion into Canada and Mexico.

The Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network, managed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), on June 1 opened new hubs in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

"The model is three countries, one environment," said Orlando Cabrera, program manager for environmental quality and climate change at the Secretariat of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), based in Canada. "When you think of the people of North America, we have three countries, many people, many languages, but we have one environment."

The commission was developed in 1994 to support the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC), which came as an accompaniment to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), calling on the three participating countries to work together on environmental protection issues alongside trilateral economic growth and trade.

"Basically, the mission of the commission is to protect and enhance the North American environment," Cabrera said. "We share political borders, but we [also] share ecosystems, watersheds, and habitats. They cut across political borders, so it's very important to do transnational work on these environmental issues where information from all sides can be used."

The CEC provided startup funding for the new LEO Network hubs, along with on-site training. It also helped develop collaboration agreements among the supporting organizations.

"They saw value to this kind of approach to sharing it with other regions," said ANTHC's Mike Brubaker, who developed the LEO Network. "I think a lot of that outreach had to do with their guidance."

The network functions on a social media platform. It crowdsources environmental observations from users and places the sightings on an interactive map. Those ground-level observers are then connected with scientists and experts in the field who take a closer look at their reports and have the chance to respond, explain what's going on, or ask for additional information, like photographs.

"Bringing people together to share the information they collect based on their local observations is incredibly powerful," he said. "We're bringing the people together, the knowledge together, to address issues of concern or to bring up something that may not be on the radar of the environmental authorities at the moment," said Cabrera.

The first group outside Alaska to formally develop a hub, which is supported by moderators and experts, was the Yurok Tribe in California.

By word of mouth and user-to-user sharing, the site gained followers scattered loosely across the country.

Dr. Tom Okey, a Pew Fellow in marine conservation and adjunct professor of environmental studies at University of Victoria, British Columbia, said he'd been following the network since its inception. After years of watching it grow, he reached out to ANTHC with the First Nations Health Authority to ask about developing a Canadian hub. Around the same time, the CEC came forward to support an expansion.

"It's a really strong illustration of the common interests that really reach across borders because you can see that people are observing the same kinds of shifts and they are connected with the same sorts of resources," said Okey, who now oversees the British Columbia hub. "I think salmon is such a great example. These salmon stocks and salmon species don't know about the different borders and they swim across them and basically shift seasonally and over time to different areas. There are salmon people and salmon cultures that go across borders."

Many of the users across Alaska's far north — on the North Slope and in the Northwest Arctic and Bering Straits region — are village residents who are noticing strange animal behavior, unusual plants, or surprising weather phenomena.

"I've always been interested in connecting these different dimensions of knowledge," Okey said.

For him, tapping into traditional knowledge is one of the main strengths of the network and where some of its greatest possibility lies for the future.

"It makes it tremendously more rich because we have this problem that has been recognized in the scientific literature which is called the shifting, or the sliding, baseline problem. Even if you're an expert at a university ... your perception of what that ecosystem is supposed to look like is strongly shaped by the time period or the moment you started studying and observing that system. That's because a lot of people don't really try to look back deep into history to understand how a system might have looked," he explained. "That is a problem that is totally addressed by indigenous knowledge because folks are oftentimes immersed or connected with their cultural history, which contains a lot of knowledge. That's one of the reasons this particular approach is so powerful."

Cultural history and hyperlocal information plays a significant role in the LEO Network's function at its Ensenada, Mexico hub, as well.

The hub's director is Federico Mendez, executive director of Mexico's Grupo de Ecolog?a y Conservaci?n de Islas, A.C. [Island Ecology and Conservation Group].

The organization focuses on restoration and conservation and in particular, on the impact of invasive species on about 30 islands around the country.

"We're mostly focusing on removing invasive species, doing eradications. After that we jumped into doing active restoration with other species. After removing invasive mammals like cats, rats, dogs even, we started working with seabirds and vegetation ... to attract them back to the islands. That's where the connection with the LEO Network came to be," said Mendez.

Because of how remote many of the islands are, the researchers have to rely on locals to let them know when they see invasive species on the islands or when they think there's a threat of unwanted plants and animals coming back — on docks or boats traveling to and from the mainland, for example.

On a personal note, he said many of the new users just find it fascinating to be a part of a tri-national project.

"We have had comments from them saying it's really interesting to know [what] their peers, other fishermen who are living up in Canada or the United States, [are] experiencing [in terms of] climate change-related issues. Here in Northern Mexico they're experiencing problems with disease on the abalone that they're harvesting and other issues that are going up north that might be related — warmer waters or kelp not showing up in the densities they were before. So, they're really interested in connecting not only with scientists, but also with other people that are similar to them in other countries. They're really eager to make that connection," he said.

For Mendez, it's the chance to take a step in the right direction at a prudent moment in history.

"They saw the opportunity to connect different local communities, indigenous people, and scientists among the three countries and that's really something we should be thinking now in these times — how we go beyond borders and instead of raising walls, let's build bridges," Mendez said.

That harkens back to the original idea behind the network, founder Brubaker said. It's about bridging knowledge gaps and giving a platform for people to share ideas and information about important environmental issues.

"Boundaries that we would normally call climate regions or vegetation regions, not to mention political boundaries between nations and states, maybe have less meaning than ever," Brubaker said. "So, what used to be characteristic of southern Alaska is becoming characteristic of western Alaska. And what was western Alaska is becoming more characteristic of the northwest. Everything is moving; it's like we live on a river. So, having an eye to what's upstream is really important and also having some kind of conversation with people who live upstream and who know what's coming and have already dealt with it or are developing strategies on how to deal with it is really important, especially in a time of reduced funding resources and rapid change."

More information about the LEO Network can be found at


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