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Traditional Ecological Knowledges: Learning from the past to inform the future

Updated Thursday, 22nd October 2020

Many indigenous communities have used their environmental knowledge to manage their environment. This article explores Traditional Ecological Knowledges and how we can live more sustainably.

The diversity of biota (that is the animal and plant life of a particular region, habitat, or geological period) in our world as well as the diversity of those who live in it is mind-bogglingly fascinating. From the biodiverse tropical jungles of Amazonia, to the unique fauna of Australia; from the species-rich grasslands of temperate Europe to the extremely acidic and salty pans of the rift valley in East Africa, life in our blue and green planet is richly diverse and still largely mysterious to us. We can only guess the extent of this diversity, with most recent studies estimating that there are potentially hundreds of millions of species of organisms. Humans, like other organisms, are dependent on this diversity, whether it is for direct resources as food and shelter or the various ecosystems services that sustain and enrich our existence (for example, services such as nutrient cycling and even recreation).

When looking at the environment and humanity, it is not just the diversity of life and cultural forms that is striking, but also the interrelation between them. The environment has undoubtedly shaped the inhabitants who live with it, but also – as it has become increasingly clearer, especially with studies on climate change – human management of the environment is shaping the world around us.

Our environmental challenges

Our world is facing major environmental challenges, including deforestation, pollution, loss of biodiversity and the chaos of climate shocks. The alarm has been raised and many scientists, educators and activists are voicing the need to act (Consider the eminent Sir David Attenborough’s recent plea to world leaders and launching of the recent most prestigious Earthshot Environmental Prize).

Solving our environmental challenges will require not only accurate scientific understanding of what environmental change entails, but also fully engaging in changing the ways that we all act as our planet’s inhabitants, at government, business, civil society and individual levels. This week, as the world celebrates Sustainability Day (an annual event on the fourth Wednesday of October) it is time to reflect on what we could do towards repairing our planet. In this article, we highlight the importance of knowledge and experience possessed by local indigenous communities.

Traditional Ecological Knowledges

Many indigenous communities have lived in their local environment for millennia (and many still do). Their adaptation to environments that are at times harsh, such as the deserts and Arctic, has gone hand in hand with overcoming colonialism and other forms of violence, and dealing with progressively more frequent environmental shocks. People’s knowledge about their environments and the way they have sustainably taken care of them can be generally referred to as Traditional Ecological Knowledges (TEK).

Bajau fisherman s village on sea water with blue sky Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Photo 30837718 © Ew Chee Guan | Dreamstime.com At basic level, TEK indicates Indigenous knowledge comprising of beliefs, behaviours and cultural practices. It is often holistic in nature, focusing on the relationships among various constituents of the environment (e.g. relating all living and non-living things) and this knowledge is often passed orally and by demonstration. Consider examples of how water proverbs symbolise peoples’ relationship with water, or how Australian aborigines use controlled fire to clear bushes, to allow biodiversity to recover and reduce risk of big fires in the future. Or how the Amazonian indigenous community make potentially poisonous food plants, like cassava, safe to consume via a processing ritual. TEK knowledge, perfected through time, have helped indigenous communities survive and thrive by managing their environment in ways that saw the sustenance of humans as interconnected with the environment around them. You can check out some examples of TEK manifestations in BBC Human Planet Gallery.

In conclusion, TEK provides lessons for environmental management that it is important to learn from. So making environmental management more effective could go hand in hand with making it more inclusive by valuing the perspectives that may be seen as the margins of ‘modern’ scientific knowledge . Given that many people versed in western science are used to thinking about the environment as instrumental and extractive, looking at traditional knowledge and indigenous perspectives could constitute a possible way to start acting differently. The World Indigenous Science Network sees balance and respect as fundamental features of ecological knowledge. Indigenous scientists have repeatedly spoken out about how their knowledge are disavowed in favour of science. For non-indigenous people and scholars, a dialogue between different ways of living and acting sustainably, must be built on mutual respect and a willingness to listen and learn from resources such as the guidelines produced on the uses of TEK when dealing with climate change.

What can you do:

You may be wondering what you can do about living more sustainably. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Learn: Discover biodiversity and appreciate the value of ecosystems it provides, whether it is economic, environmental or cultural. A starting point is to be able to identify species around you to appreciate them. You may find courses in various places such as OpenLearn. Read books, blogs and resources written by Indigenous people, such as WISN, Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology by Raymond Pierotti.
  2. Participate: Interact and, if possible, join like-minded communities, either virtually or locally. This could be helping clear invasive species or monitor local flora and fauna. Such engagement is useful not only to learn but also share ideas and motivate each other.
  3. Commit: work to make others aware and engage in democratic processes, such as elections to vote for people and policies that you agree with. Consider changing your lifestyle and see if you can be more environmentally friendly (for example, think about how you use energy, where you get your food, or how you recycle waste). Small changes in your daily lifestyle can have a big impact.

After all, it will all come down to each and every one of us to do our bit, for a better world.

 

Useful links

References

Harford, T. (2019) ‘How do people learn to cook a poisonous plant safely?’, BBC News, 3 September. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-48859333 (Accessed: 21 October 2020).

Mazzochi, F. (2006) ‘Western science and traditional knowledge: Despite their variations, different forms of knowledge can learn from each other’ EMBO Reports, 7(5): pp. 463–466. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1479546/ (Accessed: 21 October 202).

Stiegler, C. D. (2018) Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Learning from Indigenous Practices for Environmental Sustainability. Edited by M. K. Nelson and D. Shilling. New York: Cambridge University Press..

 

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