Traditional Ecological Knowledge

The advent of the industrial revolution, cultural imperialism, and quantum leaps in technology have, in many parts of the world, separated the modern human from land stewardship, species preservation, and environmental conservation. Some would argue that the first agricultural revolution which began in the Fertile Crescent some 10,000 years ago was the defining moment in history: the break with our past and the incipient loss of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).

n recent years, there has been increasing attention paid to TEK by academics, natural resource managers, and commercial concerns. The emerging ethnoscientific approach to TEK fuses the methodologies of anthropology and biology to underscore the past and current relationships between Nature and Culture. As biodiversity is now becoming synonymous with sustainable development and human survival, TEK has the potential to provide valuable information if not useful models that can be adapted for resource management today. Agricultural techniques and products based on indigenous knowledge are now being widely marketed: permaculture (mixed cropping and agroforestry systems), water harvesting and soil conservation, fire management (controlled burns), botanical medicines, heirloom grains and vegetables, handicrafts, etc.

TEK ~ Emerging Definitions 

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) ~ or sometimes referred to as traditional environmental knowledge ~ is often described as local and holistic, integrating the physical and spiritual into a worldview or “cosmovision” that has evolved over time and emphasizes the practical application of skills and knowledge. TEK is the product of careful observations and responses to ever changing environmental and socio-economic conditions: as we now know, adaptation is the key to survival.

There is little doubt that TEK holds great potential for insight and techniques in the field of marine and agro-ecosystem management provided that it is not taken out of context or twisted for exploitation purposes. Principle 22 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that:

Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.

TEK as a modern concept has its birth in the marriage of ethnobiology and human ecology beginning with the study of local species and their classification, and progressing (in scope) to the understanding of ecological processes and relationships. As defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 8 (j):

Traditional knowledge refers to the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities around the world. Developed from experience gained over the centuries and adapted to the local culture and environment, traditional knowledge is transmitted orally from generation to generation. It tends to be collectively owned and takes the form of stories, songs, folklore, proverbs, cultural values, beliefs, rituals, community laws, local language, and agricultural practices, including the development of plant species and animal breeds. Traditional knowledge is mainly of a practical nature, particularly in such fields as agriculture, fisheries, health, horticulture, and forestry.

TEK can also be viewed as a system of self-management, an extremely valuable source of environmental information that allows indigenous or other isolated native communities to protect and preserve their way of life. It is the basis for local decision-making in agriculture, hunting and gathering, nutrition and food preparation, resource management, education and health as well as social, economic, and political organization. This is now recognized as “the inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity” (1988 Declaration of Belém).


TEK ~ A Knowledge-Practice-Belief Complex

Fikret Berkes (1999) considers four interrelated levels within TEK which he terms the knowledge-practice-belief complex: the first includes knowledge based on empirical observations essential for survival (species taxonomy, distribution, and life cycles); the second focuses on the understanding of ecological processes and natural resource management (practices, tools, and techniques); the third is the socio-economic organization necessary for effective coordination and cooperation (rules and taboos); and the fourth is referred to as the worldview or “cosmovision” (religion, belief, and ethics).

In describing a holistic native land ethic, Dennis Martinez (199?) highlights the need for a native historical model that captures a culture in harmony with its environment where TEK provides specific meaning and defines personal responsibility. He addresses the role of ethics and resilience in ecosystem management.

Native land ethics teach not to take more than you need or that the land can provide. But Native ethics as care giving goes even further: if you do not use it, you lose it. Many (although not all) plant communities require disturbance to thrive. So, in the act of using plants, they are enhanced and conserved.

Many ecosystems cannot thrive without disturbances, human or otherwise, which serve to regenerate and revitalize their structure and function. In fact, many natural habitats are “cultural landscapes” and most wild species have been modified by human interventions. Thus, the goal of ecological restoration is not a return to the pristine past but the sustainable management of the present. Some of the overt human disturbances include plant and animal domestication, agricultural techniques such as tilling and pruning, soil conservation, water harvesting, fire management, and wild harvesting.

Lastly, it is important to realize the important role of language in the transmission of TEK, the vehicle by which taxonomic systems, metaphysical perceptions, and codified knowledge are passed from generation to generation. Thus, in order for TEK to survive (and prove itself useful in the modern world) so must the language to which it is intricately linked. Although the TEK community is beginning to recognize “the inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity”, linguistic diversity is often not on the agenda of many global forums.


TEK Concepts 

  • Political Control & Social Harmony
  • Cultural Survival & Biodiversity Preservation
  • Knowledge Transfer: Language and Concepts
  • Natural Resource Management
  • Wild Harvesting of Plants and Animals
  • Sustainable Agriculture (“Permaculture”)
  • Fire Management, Soil Conservation, Water Harvesting
  • Adaptation/Migration ~ Climate and Habitat Boundaries
  • The Sacred ~ Myth, Ritual and Belief
  • Integrated Models for Agro-Ecosystem Restoration