In a paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, a team of international researchers explain ‘scientific colonialism’ practices that have persevered into the 21st century.
“Although colonialism is frequently described in political, social and military contexts, it is also present in many scientific practices still in use today,” scientists write in the journal Royal Society Open Science. “The development of scientific disciplines, educational programmes and academic organisations were all products designed to benefit colonial advancement, e.g. advancements in geological tools allowed colonial powers to uncover and exploit several natural resources in colonies.”
The researchers reveal that scientific practices rooted in colonialism, “whereby middle- and low-income countries supply data for high-income countries” are still very much in effect when it comes to palaeontology, much like the devaluation of local expertise by foreigners.
They mention specific countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, that adopted protective laws and regulations in the 20th century “to preserve their palaeological heritage.” Yet even in the face of such laws and regulations, the researchers find that ‘scientific colonialism’ is alive and well, and can be observed in many publications describing fossil specimens recovered from these countries.
The paper focuses on examples of ‘palaeontological colonialism’ from publications that discuss Jurassic-Cretaceous fossils from NE Mexico and NE Brazil from the 1990s to the 2020s. Juan Carlos Cisneros at the Federal University of Piaui in Brazil and colleagues note that they’ve identified common issues as “the absence of both fieldwork and export permit declarations and the lack of local experts among authorships.”
Cisneros et al write that “Both Mexico and Brazil are former European colonies with vast territories, large sedimentary basins and a huge palaeontological potential that remains relatively unexplored,” pointing out “These characteristics, together with the predominance of an overall low-income population and weak local currencies, make them attractive targets for palaeontological colonialism.”
“It might not be the colonialism we think of, when we imagine 19th-century ships sailing across the Atlantic, but it is still a modern form of neocolonialism where we’re being extractive and exploitative for our own gain at the expense of lower income countries,” says Emma Dunne, a palaeobiologist at the University of Birmingham, and a co-author on the paper.
The team adds that the modern-day equivalent of colonialism hampers scientific progress and drains resources that could aid longer-term economic activities, such as tourism.
“I think we are often seen as cute characters that wear Indiana Jones outfits, and could surely do no harm. But actually, Indiana Jones is a really good example: one of his catchphrases was ‘this belongs in a museum’ – but what he means is his museum, not a museum in the country he’s collecting the thing from.
“We’d love for individuals to change the way they work, to really focus on creating genuine partnerships that are built on respect for local communities and their interests.”
The authors write that while their investigation focuses on Brazil and Mexico, its results are applicable to wider geographies. They ask museums, universities and funding agencies to abstain from colonial scientific practices, “especially when there are signs of violation of local laws and regulations, such as the illegal purchase and export of fossils.”
The team asks scientific journals to demand required research and exportation permits alongside submissions, and “refuse to publish research that is produced through unethical and irregular activities.”
The authors request foreign researchers to abide by local laws and regulations, and cooperate with their counterparts in the local communities.
They also call for fossils that have been unethically removed from middle- and low- income countries to be repatriated from colonial powers.