From Blue Iguanas to Blue Vervain
Sharing the colonial histories from the UK Overseas Territories
This collaborative project began in 2022 and brought together a consortium of partners in the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, the UK and Belgium.
Funding was provided under the United Kingdom Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) as part of the call: “Hidden Histories of Environmental Science: Acknowledging legacies of race, social injustice and exclusion to inform the future”
It was led by the UK Centre for Hydrology & Ecology with partners at the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, The Montserrat National Trust, Meise Botanic Garden, Belgium; Leeds Museum and the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum.
It aimed to understand environmental research in the context of historical colonialism and making recommendations. Community and non-academic partners were a core part of this and our other projects to assist the pursuit of excellent research and engage wider communities including the public where relevant.
British colonialist policies have had, and continue to have, significant social and environmental impacts throughout the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) and former colonies. UKOTs are UK sovereign territory, their citizens are UK citizens. They have played a vital role in the UK’s history and cultural development; they support important archaeological and built heritage sites and are home to the most globally important ecosystems and species for which the UK is responsible under international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Each of the 16 UKOTs has a unique history of control and domination by European colonialists, all of which are connected to the imperialist foreign policy and former colonial powers exercised by Britain across the world. While Britain’s forced migration of millions of enslaved people from Africa to the Americas was most destructive between 1640-1807, it extended from the early 16th century, and its impacts are still felt today in legacies of racial inequality. During this period British colonial practices removed cultural artefacts and materials, natural heritage and scientific capital to the UK and other European collections and only now is repatriation of these valuable collections being considered. British colonialism also impacted the UKOTs’ environment practices such as deforestation, land clearance for agriculture, and the mass movement and establishment of non-native species both deliberate and accidental, leading to significant impacts on ecosystems.
The establishment of invasive non-native species (INNS) has negatively impacted global biodiversity, human health and economies. INNS interact with climate change, being described as a “deadly duo” by the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN), increasing the likelihood of extinction events occurring. However, the mass importation and establishment of non-native species has included species that have had positive impacts. Some introduced species can provide climate regulation and prevent soil erosion, whilst others provide food, textiles and medicines. Medicinal plant use can either involve species brought from their original homelands, or the use of species in the new environment similar to known species from the homeland.
It is evident that human movement, whether free or forced, has had, and continues to have, a significant impact on the UKOTs’ unique biodiversity and habitats, and the ability of the local communities living there today to conserve them. The UKOTs form ideal case studies because they are spatially discrete ‘island laboratories’ acutely affected by INNS and climate change but are also home to plants used for positive impacts such as medicine. This project focussed on the current impacts and the role of colonialism on the UKOTs to understand the historical importance of non-native species in shaping the current cultural and ecological climate on the UKOTs. Through two case studies in Montserrat and the Cayman Islands, the project sought to address three questions relating to re-discovering hidden knowledge on people, plants and animal species to empower data sharing between the UKOTs and UK.
- What is the role of colonialism in shaping the current perceptions of children and young people in Montserrat of “weeds and bush” known culturally as medicinal plants?
- What is the role of colonialism in shaping conservation needs and local views on the endemic blue iguana on the Cayman Islands?
- How are data and materials from the 16 UKOTs represented in overseas museum and herbarium collections, displays and educational materials? How best can they be shared between the UKOTs and UK to ensure equity in data use in informing education, research and nature conservation?
In answering these questions, we sought to address the loss of cultural and ecological heritage in the UKOTs whilst raising awareness of UKOT museum and herbarium collections, highlighting the lack of equity in funding to UKOTs and offering potential solutions to this.
Community engagement and raising awareness on Montserrat and Cayman Islands; datasets and paper (UKOTs); tools and processes for data sharing between UKOTs and UK; Cross UKOTs-UK partnership research opportunities identified.
Chronicle of environmental history of colonialism (cross UKOTs); datasets on species on Montserrat and Cayman Islands; Interpretation materials and signage; Online UK and UKOTs museum exhibits; Co-developed template on best practice for sharing data across UKOTs, the UK and elsewhere; Creation of knowledge sharing network and catalogue of data and materials from UKOTs
Our project worked with a range of stakeholders including UKOT NGOs; UKOT government; UKOT scientists; UKOT community (both on and off UKOTs- school children, general public, medicinal plant practitioners, environment officers, farmers and herbalists); UK museum and herbaria curators; UK (global) academics; UK government; UK NGOs
Increased understanding of Montserratian community members of cultural benefits of medicinal plants; increased awareness of Caymanian community members of impacts of INNS; Establishment of UKOTs-UK Knowledge sharing network; UKOTs aware of and can utilise materials held in UK museum and herbarium collections.
Project Work Packages
Three interconnected work packages (WP1-3) were undertaken from January 2022 to March 2023.
These are outlined below.
This WP explores and shares the hidden stories of plants and animals in UK museum collections. It encourages participation in nature-based activities on Montserrat and the Cayman Islands through bioblitzes and promotion of biological recording applications.
This WP aimed to develop a framework of best practice to enable increased prospects of resourcing for environmental work in the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) to address needs agreed by workers in the UKOTs. If these are adhered to both by those planning work and applying for funding and permissions and by the funding bodies, there are good prospects of moving towards a more equitable system.
Data repatriation and open access to collections and resources are increasingly being written into museum and herbarium principles. The current extent and detail of data and materials held in UK and overseas museums and collections is broadly unknown to UKOTs communities. Outreach and educational displays, held online on open access platforms will reveal the hidden historical and contemporary links between the UK and UKOTs.