Valuing traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous wisdom
Daniel Christian Wahl

My own observations, during fieldwork among a hunter-gatherer group in the Kalahari, indicated that the specific patterns of gathering and of hunting played a role in shaping their ecosystems in positive ways. Clearly too these were in many cases carefully articulated, and deliberate, measures. A conceptualization of animal behavior and reproduction, as well as ecosystem dynamics, based on empirical observations, accumulated over many generations, was more than “hunting lore”: it was wildlife management. So, the subsistence ecology was based on a kind of folk science, not mythology or magical thinking. “Folk science” it might be, but in the years since my fieldwork, the principles of ecology implicit in much of what I observed, and was told, has actually been confirmed in studies published by wildlife biologists and ecologists, not just in semi-arid ecosystem, but even in more heavily forested[i] and arctic ones as well.
 When I arrived to take up a teaching post at the University of Alberta, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Milton Freeman, Senior Research Scholar with the Canadian Circumpolar Institute. He had spent a lifetime studying Inuit traditional knowledge, and his findings about their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) were a striking parallel with what I found among the Kua. He wrote the following, in a report to for the Environmental Committee, Municipality of Sanikiluaq, N.W.T.: 
 “Increasingly, the published scientific literature and the convening of conferences and workshops reflects the growing awareness that there is a legitimate field of environmental expertise known as traditional ecological knowledge. For about a half century anthropologists and some animal and plant taxonomists (e.g., Mayr et al. 1953:5) have recognized the accuracy with which various non-western peoples have identified different species; indeed, such “folk-taxonomies” include more than just those food or medicinal species having obvious practical utility. The comprehensiveness of the taxonomic system suggests that the extent of traditional knowledge may be quite profound, and that, indeed, taxonomy is important (as in the biological sciences) as the basis for building extensive systems of knowing about nature.

More recently, many scientists have begun to understand that such traditional knowledge extends far beyond what in western science would be called descriptive biology, beyond knowing how to identify different species of animals, or describe their feeding, reproduction, or migratory behaviour. The knowledge possessed by such tradition-based, non-industrial societies is essentially of an “ecological” nature, that is to say, it seeks to understand and explain the workings of ecosystems, or at the very least biological communities, containing many interacting species of animals and often plants, and the determinative role played by certain key biological and physical parameters in influencing the behaviour of the total biological community.

In the recent social science literature this aspect of traditional knowledge has to a large extent been documented, more especially, for a large number of so-called foraging (i.e., hunter-fisher-gatherer) peoples, from the tropics to the Arctic (e.g., Williams and Hunn 1982; Freeman and Carbyn 1988; Ruddle and Johannes 1991). It is important to note that such traditional ecological knowledge has been found to have management relevance, especially in regard to sustainable use of renewable resources (McCay and Acheson 1987; Berkes 1989; Freeman et al. 1991). It is also important in such endeavours as Environmental Impact Assessment (e.g., Freeman 1975; Craig 1989; Nakashima 1990).

Expressed another way, traditional ecological knowledge is more than merely esoteric; it is directed toward gaining a useful understanding of how ecological systems generally work, to how many of the key components of the total ecosystem interrelate, and how predictive outcomes in respect to matters of practical concern can best be effected…

…Traditional knowledge seeks to comprehend such complexity by operating from a different epistemological basis. It eschews reductionism, placing little emphasis on studying small parts of the ecological system in isolation from the dependent interacting biophysical milieu. It also recognizes that the reductionist approach is impractical in the extreme: even if one were to know everything there was to know about everything of importance under all possible combinations and permutations of variability, such an immense database would be impossible to work with in practice.

…The traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) approach recognizes that a supercomputer of extraordinary sophistication does exist, and that it can work for all practical purposes with incomplete data sets. Indeed, it is able to creatively fill in many of the knowledge blanks, an absolutely essential characteristic in those cases where knowledge is not just unknown but, in fact, may be unknowable.

This supercomputer, the human brain, is programmed to collect and systematize knowledge, to intuitively filter out background noise and discern chaos, and to draw normative conclusions from various disparate data sets (via group experience extending through preceding generations) pertaining to the same general ecological system in all its varying states. The programs which run the computations in this supercomputer may be old, quite traditional in fact, but the data-base is constantly updated as new data pertaining to changing environmental circumstances alter the behaviour of the biological communities which provide the empirically derived data which the brain receives, stores, and analyses…

…Some might argue that, as TEK has provided the basis for whole groups of people surviving as food-gatherers, often in seemingly inhospitable environments, then the long-term persistence of these particular human societies should be evidence enough that it does work, at least most of the time. This “most of the time” rider would accommodate the obvious fact that sometimes people did not succeed, and either died of starvation or periodically suffered from serious food shortages…

Perhaps the best way of trying to assess the efficacy of the TEK approach to understanding nature, is to look at some recent examples where it has been contrasted with scientific understanding of the same event. Here, I merely contrast a few examples that I have personal knowledge of, relating to events having taken place over the past several decades in the North American arctic regions.

Case I

This relates to Inuit knowledge that survival of Peary caribou in the High Arctic depends upon the social structure of the small herds in winter. Therefore, the management of these caribou for sustained harvesting requires, in addition to an overall quota system, the non-selective hunting of all animals encountered opportunistically rather than through the management system instituted by scientists where selective hunting of large males is advocated with a prohibition on hunting females and immature animals. The TEK view holds that only hunting large males will quickly result in the accelerated death of the remaining population, a view that has been born out by subsequent monitoring of the south Ellesmere Island regional population (Freeman 1985).

Case 2

Inuit TEK of the social structure and behaviour of musk-oxen (an animal not at the time hunted due to a 50-year-old management restriction) argued that scientists’ ideas of “solitary and surplus” males were incorrect, and that such animals play an important role in enhancing musk-oxen population survival. Therefore, instituting a program to harvest such “surplus” animals would prove unwise. Such views, contradicting scientists’ conventional wisdom, were nevertheless independently corroborated (Freeman 1971; 1985).

Case 3

Scientific surveys indicated the Beaufort Sea bowhead whale population was very depleted, with only about 800 whales surviving in 1977. Local hunters stated the whale population was about 7000. They also took issue with assumptions underlying scientists’ population estimates (e.g., that whales only migrated in open water leads, and were incapable of swimming under the ice offshore and did not feed during migration). On the other hand, Inuit hunters believe whales migrate hundreds of miles offshore under the ice and therefore cannot be censured by visual means alone. On the basis of these methodological criticisms, a sophisticated survey technique was developed, incorporating Inuit assumptions (later verified). Using the new census methods the 1991 bowhead population was conservatively estimated to be in excess of 8000 whales, despite an annual harvest of between 20 and 40 whales over the past decade. The findings tended to confirm the Inuit 1977 population assessment of about 7000 animals (Freeman 1989a).”[ii]

[i]! See also


The following references are from this report. 
 Berkes, F. (editor) 1989. Common property resources: ecology and community based sustainable development. London: Belhaven Press.

Capra, F. 1982. The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture. London: Fontana, Collins.

Craig, D. 1989. Resolution of conflict in Australian water management: Aboriginal interests and perspectives. Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University, Canberra

Freemam, M.M.R. 1971. “Population characteristics of musk-ox in the Jones Sound region of the Northwest Territories.” Journal of Wildlife Management 35:105–110.

Freeman, M.M.R. 1975. “Assessing movement in an arctic caribou population.” Journal of Environmental Management 3:251–257.

Freeman, M.M.R. 1985. “Appeal to tradition: different perspectives on wildlife management.” In J. Brosted, J. Dahl et al. (editors) Native Power: the Quest for Autonomy and Nationhood of Aboriginal Peoples, pp. 265–281. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Freeman, M.M.R. 1989a. “The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission: successful co-management under extreme conditions.” In E. Pinkerton (editor) Co-operative Management of Local Fisheries, pp. 137–153. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Freeman, M.M.R. 1989b. “Graphs and gaffs: a cautionary tale in the common property resource debate.” In E Berkes (editor) Common Property Resources: Ecology and Community-based Sustainable Development, pp. 92–109. London: Belhaven Press.

Freeman, M.M.R. and L.N. Carbyn (editors) 1988. Traditional Knowledge and Renewable Resources Management in Northern Regions. Occasional Paper №20, Boreal Institute for Northern Studies, Edmonton.

Freemam, M.M.R., Y. Matsuda and K. Ruddle (editors) 1991. Adaptive Marine Resource Management Systems in the Pacific. Philadelphia, Tokyo, Melbourne: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Mayr, E., E.G. Linsley and R.L. Usinger 1953. Methods and Principles of Systematic Zoology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McCay, B.J. and J. Acheson 1987. The Question of the Commons. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Nakashima, D.J. 1990. Application of native knowledge in EIA: Inuit, eiders and Hudson Bay oil. Report prepared for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Research Council, Hull.

Ruddle, K. and R. Johannes (editors) 1990. The traditional Knowledge and Management of Coastal Systems in Asia and the Pacific. Jakarta: UNESCO (2nd edition).

Tanaka, S. 1986. On a practical method for stock assessment. Document SC/A86/CA5, International Whaling Commission, Cambridge.

Williams, N.M. and E.S. Hunn (editors) 1982. Resource Managers: North American and Australian Hunter-gatherers. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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