TEK & Ecological Restoration

By virtue of their survival, all traditional ecological practices are based on self-interest: they are considered life-enhancing and thus sacred to Native peoples. Property rights and land tenure (responsibility and incentives) are critical components of TEK and restoration. In addition, community-based decision-making and rules governing resource management also play a large part in preserving biodiversity and encouraging sustainable use.



Significantly diverse cultures around the world frequently share certain basic TEK characteristics such as shifting cultivation in the tropical ecosystems and the marine/watershed management systems of the island and coastal peoples. Yet there is often great diversity in practices and techniques among communities that exist in close proximity.


Three Sisters Agriculture

Squash, corn and climbing beans are the Three Sisters, the main food crops of the Iroquois and others tribes in North America before the advent of the Europeans. On raised mounds, the squash and beans are planted around the corn once it has reached 6-10 inches. In addition to the combined and complimentary dietary benefits which made these crops sacred, the ecological advantages of the Three Sisters practice include a living structure for the beans to climb, nitrogen amendment provided by the beans, and weed prevention and living mulch courtesy of the squash groundcover. This and related techniques are known as companion planting, now used extensively in organic, bio-dynamic and “permaculture” systems throughout the world.


Traditional Resource Management in Africa

In Madagascar, the traditional dina is a community-based system of rules that governs the control and use of resources, an integrated management approach that has been transmitted orally from generation to generation. The dinaupholds reciprocal arrangements for resource access in which farming, grazing, forest and fishing territories are shared by different tribal and social groups. As a result, there is a common vision that regards the forest and its resources as a heritage to be managed for present and future sustainable use. After a century of colonial disruption and exploitation, thedina was reinstated in the early 1990’s and has virtually eliminated deforestation, soil erosion, and unsustainable harvests in certain areas. At the national level, the government is now attempting to implement a forest certification scheme in which resources would be managed according to this common vision.

In Tanzania, the ngitili is a silvopastoral practice that allows for the regeneration of grasslands during the dry season by enclosing prescribed areas. This indigenous technology which includes tree planting has been used to preserve watersheds, conserve soils and restore degraded lands. As a traditional practice, ngitili can improve the ecology of the soils and biodiversity of the sites where trees, grasses, herbs and forbs grow together. Trees stabilize and enrich soils while ground cover prevents soil erosion and facilitates water infiltration, percolation and storage. In recent years, the personal or community responsibility for ngitili plots has fueled a remarkable change in attitudes towards forest and grassland restoration.


Coffee Agro-Forestry

The application of TEK (organic, shade-grown, polyculture) in coffee cultivation and its support by consumers is now significantly reducing the environmental degradation associated with the practice of open-field coffee monocultures that emerged in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Coffee is a small evergreen, an understory tree that originated in the tropical forests of Africa. Once domesticated, it was traditionally grown in the shade of other trees such fruit and exotic hardwoods.

The practice of “shade-grown” under a protective canopy offers a number of advantages over the more intensive “sun-grown” coffee including multiple harvests of coffee and other forest products, fertile/moist soils, temperature control, flora/fauna diversity, and the organic control of pests/disease. Traditional coffee plantations in El Salvador now constitute more than 60% of her forested land. With increased consumer demand for organic, shade-grown and fair trade coffees, farmers can return to the resilient mixed cropping systems of the past that offer sustainable harvests while still preserving biodiversity and the integrity of the tropical forest ecosystem.


Aboriginal Fire Management

In Australia, traditional landscape burning is based on an intimate understanding of plant life cycles and animal behavior as well as historical fire patterns and climate. There are clear ecological restoration objectives that include increasing resource availability for the benefit of all plant and animal species. Burns in the late dry season serve to prepare the bush for the coming rains and increase the productivity of fruit trees and other plants during the first month of rains.

Although many of these principles are supported by Western science, there is still a hesitancy to recognize these practices as legitimate or of equal merit. Aboriginal depopulation in theKimberley in the last 100 years and the absence of traditional fire management has resulted in fire regimes dominated by intense, uncontrolled burns that have been increasingly detrimental to the health of the environment.