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Integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge & Western Science

Many practitioners of ecological restoration have long assumed that our field is solely the domain of Western science. Many of the environmental challenges we face are a direct result of industrialization, most likely a product of Western science. Yet we assume that the same science that got us into our current predicament will offer us ways to set things back in balance. So where do we turn? Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) may provide many answers. For countless generations, indigenous cultures throughout the world have been developing, refining and passing down TEK knowledge and wisdom.

totem_72Many TEK experts retain a remarkably long-term view of environmental change as a result of their people having lived in the same place for many hundreds of years. For example, indigenous experts in global climate change have been tracking subtle shifts in the flora, fauna and weather patterns where they live. They notice subtle changes in the flavor of the meat from the animals they raise and hunt. They track variations in the migration patterns of birds, and changes in crop robustness. Their intimate knowledge of their land and environment, coupled with strong oral traditions that preserved knowledge form earlier times, offers insights into global climate change that Western science simply can’t replicate. TEK is a cumulative and dynamic process that builds upon collective wisdom, practical experience and adaptation to change. TEK experts typically have access to information about, for example, how past generations coped with environmental changes resulting from radical shifts in rainfall and temperature. Indigenous experts have a tremendous amount of compelling information to share with the ecological restoration community

Like many of my colleagues, I was not aware of the breadth of investigation TEK experts have engaged in to understand global climate change. My hope is that those of us who practice from a Western orientation will seek out, listen to, learn, and put into practice what our indigenous colleagues have to share with us. We need all the creative collaboration we can get to find ways to mitigate the negative effects of global climate change and promote a more life-enhancing way of existing on Earth. And while indigenous solutions may help guide Western science, scientific solutions may help local indigenous communities. The integration of TEK within the modern scientific framework has the potential to offer more stability and balance in the way we interact with the Earth.

I invite you to check out this issue of Biohabitats’ e-newsletter, Leaf Litter, which addresses the topic of TEK and its role in ecological restoration, conservation planning, and regenerative design.

1 comment

  1. Kushal Gurung says:

    I recently did some literature review on this topic and Dr. Berkes’ book ‘Sacred Ecology’ is a must read.
    The difference between western knowledge and TEK is very deep.
    TEK way of knowing–>Holistic, Non-Dualistic, Experiential, Non-linear, Spiritual, cosmic, work with nature, Complex but less precise
    Western way of knowing–> Positivist, Reductionist, Dualistic, work on nature, precise but simplistic

    TEK practice–>Management for survival, large number of indicators, qualitative analysis, heavily dependent on intimate observation, adaptive management and learning through feedback, continuous process, community based
    Western Scientific practice–> Management mostly for economic gain, few indicators/variables, precise quantitative analysis, heavily dependent on technology, expert based

    Verification of TEK–> Survival of the people, Replicability (place based)
    Verification of Western Knowledge–> Replicability, Per-Review

    Common interest of both TEK practitioners and Ecological scientists –> Sustainability

    FUZZY LOGIC could be the bridge between these two ways of knowing and working with our environment.

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