A five-year project twinning traditional knowledge and Western science has found berries growing near the oilsands industrial sites in northern Alberta have, at the very least, lower nutritional value than berries found in more remote locations.
Since the fall of 2010, elders from Fort McKay First Nation have been using one of their most dependable resources – their traditional knowledge – to monitor the impacts of regional oilsands on cranberries and blueberries in the area, a study in conjunction with the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association’s (WBEA) Terrestrial Environmental Effects Monitoring (TEEM) program.
“The value of having the community monitor the health of berry patches is that they’ve spent their whole lives going to the patches,” said Janelle Baker, an anthropologist and PhD Candidate at McGill University, who has been involved with the project from the beginning. “They have a lifetime of already existing observations and knowing how the patches should be.”
“I’d like to know if there’s any difference in the berries now than when I grew up,” said Barb Faichney, a participant in the study for a number of years. “When I grew up you could walk down the road in the bush and just pick berries off and eat them. I’d like to know if it’s still like that.”
Elders from the community have reported that, even if they could find berries near their homes, they would no longer trust them enough to pick and eat them.
They partnered with the WBEA, an independent, non-profit organization monitoring air in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, to test their findings against Western science. Funding for the project came from the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AMERA).
After a year of participating in visual monitoring, WBEA established five passive air pollution monitoring stations testing for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds at select berry patches, set at varying distances away from the oilsands industrial activity. Farthest from the community and areas of industrial development was a berry patch at Moose Lake.
Results determined the patches closer to industrial development had higher average monthly airborne pollution concentrations than the Moose Lake patch.
Moose Lake blueberries, in contrast, were found to have the highest measure of phenolics, a naturally-occurring chemical known to have antioxidant properties. They also had higher levels of chlorogenic acid – said to help lower blood pressure – and the highest level of proanthocyanidins, which are linked to reducing the risk of coronary heart disease.
A release from the WBEA noted that from a Western science perspective, industrial pollutant concentrations found in the berries were not high enough to cause direct injury to the plants.
Results on the collaborative study and more information on the processes can be found in a video produced by the WBEA, Using Traditional Knowledge and Western Science to Monitor Berry Patches in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region. Watch at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGa6R7jRpnE.