Ecological Restoration
Vol. 23 Number 4

Learning from Traditional Ecological Knowledge

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, which in itself is most likely a product of western science, and we assume that the same science that got us into our current predicament will offer us ways to set things back in balance. As Albert Einstein puts it –

“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking
with which we created them.”

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. Many TEK experts retain a remarkable long-term view of environmental change as a result of their people having lived in the same place for eons. 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 a strong oral tradition 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. And in September, they are going to have that opportunity!

SER International’s Working Group, the Indigenous Peoples’ Restoration Network (IPRN), is convening an historic gathering of indigenous experts from around the world to discuss, compare ideas and share expertise on how TEK can address global climate change. Called Earth in Transition: How Traditional Ecological Knowledge Addresses Climate Change, the meeting will be held on September 13, 2005, in Zaragoza, Spain, the day before SER International’s three-day World Conference on Restoration begins, and continuing as a special track during the World Conference. Invited experts include 100 indigenous leaders from the Subarctic and Arctic zones; arid regions of Africa, Central Asia, and Australia; the Russian Far East and Siberia; the South Pacific\Indian Ocean islands; South America; Latin America and the Caribbean. More than a thousand ecological restoration professionals from around the globe will be attending the World Conference which follows Earth in Transition, and TEK experts will have many opportunities to network, educate, share resources and have a profound influence on the field of ecological restoration.

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 listen, learn and put into practice what our indigenous colleagues have to share with us. The point is, we need all the creative collaboration we can get to find ways to mitigate the negative effects of global climate change. 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.

What is exciting is that Earth in Transition is part of a long-term effort by SER International to help develop TEK and integrate it into the practice, research and celebration of ecological restoration. At the conclusion of the Earth in Transition gathering, SER will invite participants to form an advisory council of TEK experts to collaborate with SER to convene a World Congress on the integration of TEK and Western science, to be held in 2007.

For more information about Earth in Transition, and to find out how to get a copy of the DVD of the proceedings, visit the new IPRN website:, a first of its kind portal to resources and information on TEK.

Keith Bowers, Chair
Society for Ecological Restoration International

Further Reading

Meet Assistant Construction Project Team Leader Bryan Sullivan
Meet Conservation Biologist Nolan Schillerstrom
Get to know Allyson Gibson, Biohabitats Extern
Get to Know Graphic Designer Joey Marshall
Evolution: A New Leadership Team for Biohabitats

More From This Author

Rewilding and the Musuem of Modern Art – Really!
Ecological Restoration: In the year…
Human Systems
Keith Bowers WVU Commencement Speech
Restoration as a Conservation Tool