TRADITIONAL ECOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE
What is traditional ecological knowledge? Using the formal definition in Sacred Ecology by Fikret Berkes, "A cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmissions, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment."1 What this means is that traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a ‘way of knowing’ that is in contrast with Western science. Traditional ecological knowledge is local information and experiences that have been tried and adapted into successes then are passed onto the next generation. Indigenous cultures have used their local, ecological knowledge of food sources, medicinal plants and game animals for survival for generations. In addition, TEK is post-positivist and has a spiritual component that is in contrast with Western science in which acquires knowledge through controlled experiments and manipulating variables. Western (conventional) science has a positivist and reductionism component. Western science and traditional ecological knowledge are two very different methods in which knowledge is acquired.
The differences between TEK and Western Science2
Traditional Ecological Knowledge
· Embedded in local culture
· Bounded to local knowledge through space and time
· Importance of community
· Nature: Culture are connected
· Nature as unique and irreplaceable attitude
· Disembedded in local culture
· Nature: Culture dichotomy
· Nature as a commodity attitude
Science is not the only way to acquire knowledge and there are other ways ‘of knowing’. Supporters of traditional ecological knowledge believe the information in stories and legends have significant value because the knowledge is part of the culture. TEK is regarded as the ‘tried and true’ knowledge and thereby valid. Opponents believe that TEK cannot be measurable in controlled experiments thereby deeming it sentimental culture. Although I agree that there are differences between the two ‘ways of knowing’ on a fundamental level, I disagree that either lack validity. My position parallels with what was succinctly stated by Fikret Berkes during a recent interview:
"Conventional is good for some circumstances - if the problem is easily defined - environmental problems do not fit that and the top-down approach doesn’t work. One of the challenges is the idea that solving problems goes hand in hand with using the best knowledge available and sometimes the best knowledge available is the local and traditional knowledge. This does not mean you throw out the science but use TEK and science."3
In summary, a well-defined problem solved by conventional science can be controlled and measured such as in the field of microbiology whereas, ecological problems are often more complex thus making controlled experiments more difficult. Tradition and culture is a great library of knowledge documenting the relationships between people and the environment.4 When solving ecological problems, maybe we should checkout the book of traditional ecological knowledge, if the solution is not present in conventional science.
1. Fikret Berkes, Sacred ecology (Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis, 1999), 8.
2. Berkes, Sacred Ecology, 10. This chart was formulated using information from this page.
3. Fikret Berkes, quoted in an interview by Phillip Burgess at the EALAT Traditional Knowledge Seminar, March 2008. http://icr.arcticportal.org/index.php?option=com_hwdvideoshare&task=viewvideo&Itemid=127&video_id=27.