How Can Traditional Ecological Knowledge Help Our Climate?

traditional ecological knowledge

Humanity is currently grappling with the challenge of promoting justice and equity alongside our fight against climate change.

And a big part of this has to do with creating a platform for indigenous voices and their valuable generational knowledge.

But what exactly is traditional ecological knowledge – and how can we best preserve and honor the insights of native communities?

As we navigate the impacts of climate change, it’s becoming more obvious that these insights will be key in preventing further environmental destruction.

Let’s take a look into this idea as a whole.

What is traditional ecological knowledge?

Traditional ecological knowledge, also known as TEK, is a cumulative and living body of knowledge, practices, and beliefs surrounding the relationship of living beings and their environment, passed down through generations by cultural transmission.

It’s a record of how the world works, and includes things like the distribution, behaviors, and diversity of flora and fauna, weather systems, and natural resource management practices.

Such deep knowledge of local environments results from centuries of intimate contact with natural ecosystems, through which native communities have developed a fine-tuned awareness of the minute changes taking place in their local environment.

indigenous agricultural methods

These indigenous knowledge systems have been, and are, integral to their ability to live sustainably within the ecosystems upon which they often wholly depend on.

Despite a history of being discredited as “primitive”, the value of TEK is starting to become recognized as an important aspect of sustainability and conservation.

Best-selling books such as Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass are helping to turn the tide, with lesser known ecological knowledge progressively returning to the mainstream as we seek to better understand our climate-disrupted world.

How does it differ from a science-based approach?

TEK is based on experiential and place-based knowledge, acquired through observations and real-life experiences that have been made and repeated over generations.

While conventional science tends to break down and compartmentalize the world, TEK takes a holistic approach to understanding – meaning it recognizes the relationships between different elements of a specific bioregion.

american indian turtle garden

Science-based approaches to gathering knowledge often operate in silos. A comprehensive meta-analysis of ecological studies published in the last 30 years found that 70% focused only on one species or on negative interspecies interactions.

Meanwhile, indigenous ecological knowledge is highly sensitive to multi-species relationships. For example, TEK may recognize the timing of fruit-bearing trees as an indicator for the start of the fishing season for certain species in the same area.

But TEK isn’t limited to mere observations of nature; it’s also grounded in principles that oversee human relationships with the natural world.

Empathy, reciprocity, caretaking, and kinship – these are a few of the many foundational principles that offer alternative ways of perceiving and existing in the world.

Why is traditional environmental knowledge important?

TEK treads the line between knowledge and wisdom, offering up insights into the intricate relationships between humans and the natural world; and such a balanced relationship can only be achieved through environmental stewardship.

Indigenous communities are critical guardians of the environment, and majorly contribute to reducing biodiversity loss. Despite representing less than 5% of the world’s population, these communities are responsible for safeguarding a quarter of global land, over 10% of our forests, and over 80% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity.

So, the relationship between TEK and concepts like sustainable agriculture and reducing deforestation through proper ecosystem management is undeniable.

tek agriculture

Sustainability lies at the heart of TEK, as evidenced by the long-term survival of native communities who have co-evolved with their ecosystems. What’s more, TEK also offers insights into adjusting to our changing world.

Indigenous lands are experiencing slower rates of degradation, which means this knowledge is not simply a reflection of cultural tradition – it’s also the key to adaptation in many circumstances.

While it’s tempting to romanticize indigenous culture as spiritually connected to the earth, it’s important to realize that these values have been developed over generations as a matter not of cultural preference, but of survival, even in the most unforgiving of environments.

And indigenous practices which were originally (or still) used mainly out of necessity, like whaling, are demonized by those lacking the proper context.

Which isn’t to say slaughtering whales has a place in modern society, but the argument against these kinds of traditions often ignores facts; in this case for example, industrial overfishing contributes to most cetacean deaths, not whaling itself.

What do indigenous practices in action look like?

With the recent upsurge of deadly wildfires, alternatives to conventional fire management methods have been gaining traction.

One approach involves embracing fires as natural phenomena and allowing smaller, more manageable ones to occur in order to prevent uncontrollable blazes from taking hold.

This method of thinking is rooted in ancient practices that stem from observations of the natural world; for instance, aboriginal Australians first noticed the behavior of certain bird species which start fires to hunt their prey, such as black kites.

Mirroring natural ecosystem dynamics, traditional burning practices use a mix of low and high intensity fires, to achieve a diverse mosaic of re-growth and prevent the destruction of seeds, soil, and nutrients that occurs during wildfires.

traditional fire management
Image by BLM via Flickr

Another example relates to the behavior of trees, and the notion that trees “talk to each other” through an underground network of soil fungi. Recent research has confirmed that trees communicate their needs, share metabolic resources with one another, signal threats, and even transfer nutrients to neighboring plants before they die.

In other words, trees have social lives – a fact long recognized by indigenous communities living in important forest ecosystems, but only recently acknowledged by conventional science.

Another interesting example is the recognition of complex animal culture within their wild societies, a concept that’s routinely ignored by many people with simplistic views on species other than humans.

These few examples demonstrate the potential of indigenous eco-guidance to offer up deep insights into the complexity and interconnectedness of our natural systems. And by tapping into this knowledge, we have a chance to address the mismanagement of our ecosystems and develop more sustainable approaches.

How is TEK affected by society and climate change?

As a whole, our history is defined by our relentless desire to break free from the constraints of nature. Yet, this quest has led us down a dangerous path.

From our irrational exploitation of natural resources, to our transformation of landscapes beyond recognition – humanity has fully committed to practices which inevitably lead to widespread environmental destruction.

Native communities have weathered substantial environmental changes over millennia, and their knowledge systems have been critical in adapting to these changes.

For example, Australia’s First Nations natives have survived climatic shifts that include extreme rainfall variability and sea-level rise that once flooded the Great Barrier Reef, an ecosystem now under threat of expanding coral bleaching.

However, the speed at which climate change is unraveling today is surpassing the ability of traditional knowledge systems to adapt, as we hurtle towards some very concerning climate tipping points.

tribal conservation
Image by BLM via Flickr

This affects essential activities such as hunting and harvesting – which depend on the predictability of natural cycles in order to be performed effectively and safely.

Violence is also contributing to the loss of TEK, with the violation of indigenous rights being a crucial issue. The exploitation of natural resources by governments and corporations often involves encroachment on indigenous lands and resources, endangering the livelihoods and safety of communities.

The environmental impacts of mining, for example, have devastating consequences for many Amazonian communities such as the A’I Cofán in Ecuador – and smaller, satellite industries intertwined with mining like the illegal wildlife trade make these issues even worse.

In other areas, native populations are being forcibly displaced, such as on the island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea – which is particularly vulnerable to dangerous levels of sea level rise.

Meanwhile, the Karen people in northern Thailand are facing displacement from their ancestral homes due to government efforts to appropriate forested land for conservation purposes.

As native communities face increasing existential challenges, there are growing concerns over cultural erosion and language loss. In the Colombian Amazon rainforest, we are already seeing the disappearance of ancestral knowledge surrounding medicinal plant uses, which has traditionally been passed down through oral transmission.

As more and more Amazonian people are displaced or turn to making a living from other products and foods from the rainforest, these kinds of losses will only become more common.

Traditional ecological knowledge is a priority

Up until now we’ve almost exclusively relied on Western science in our attempt to respond to climate change, but the tide is slowly turning.

A greater diversity of voices is being heard, and we are beginning to recognize the value of traditional ecological knowledge and the practices that have allowed humans to survive and evolve for over 200,000 years.

As the climate crisis unfolds, turning to TEK for guidance on how to adapt to this new reality is becoming more common.

On the research side, we’re seeing more and more blending of indigenous features and knowledge, and mainstream science – signaling a paradigm shift in the relationship between the two areas.

american indian arts demonstration garden

Indigenous groups are cooperating with scientists to adapt to environmental change, ranging from things like agricultural practices to expanding our understanding of the pace and consequences of climate change in the Arctic.

Some of these changes are even reaching the realm of decision-making as well!

New initiatives have seen tribal advisers appointed to natural resource management institutions in places like California, as the state’s government is working alongside native tribes using traditional burning practices to help mitigate fires increasing in intensity and frequency due to climate change.

Final thoughts

Embracing indigenous knowledge is a start, but it’s not enough – as true value comes from understanding the wisdom that underpins this knowledge.

This wisdom is rooted in the awareness that the earth and its natural systems are interconnected: we are not separate from the natural world, and this fundamental understanding fosters a deep respect for our planet.

What’s your favorite example of traditional ecological knowledge?

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