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Traditional Environmental Knowledge: Eco-practices Through Space and Time in the Age of the Anthropo

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Amina highlights the power of traditional environmental knowledge and shares her worry that this valuable ecological heritage is being lost from society as our fixation with technology grows.

Photo Credit: Eugene Golovesov

When I was a child, my grandmother used to enchant me with stories about her simple yet adventurous life in an organic and nature-centred environment before the proliferation of modern industrialization and urbanization. All her stories depicted an outdoorsy lifestyle, roaming the mysterious lands and forests, climbing trees, eating fresh food right from the ground. Her fascinating narratives featured sophisticated agricultural activities, medicinal practices, and a deep understanding of the environment and climate cycles without the sophistication of modern science and technology. For this reason, I have always been curious to find out how different civilizations and human societies understood and interacted with their environments despite the lack of robust scientific measurements and models. Different societies and cultures developed sophisticated knowledge of and interaction with the environment; a tight-knit connectedness and appreciation of nature. This knowledge, appreciation, and connectedness with the environment is called “Traditional Environmental Knowledge” or “TEK” for short. Thus, we are mistaken if we think that modern technology and science are the sole source of environmental knowledge and accurate data about nature and the varying ecosystems on the planet.

What is TEK?

Traditional Ecological/Environmental Knowledge (or TEK) refers to the knowledge acquired by indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. TEK can also be defined as the traditional ecological heritage and an invaluable important component of the world’s biocultural heritage. This knowledge that is shaped through space, time and culture includes the relationships between plants, animals, natural phenomena, and the landscape. Elemental constituents for people’s activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, reading weather patterns and forestry. TEK, in sum, is a holistic approach and a body of knowledge, practices, and beliefs that embody the world view and ontologies of indigenous people such as ecology, spirituality, human and animal relationships. TEK, as a body of traditional knowledge is transmitted orally across generations through stories, songs, folklore, proverbs, rituals, local laws, beliefs, lore, languages and practices. Despite its richness and value, there is minimal appreciation and understanding of TEK in the modern sense compared to the advanced technology models and scientific methods. Although this trend is incrementally changing given the environmental turn in the modern context, TEK is still held back compared to modern mainstream scientific approaches.

We are forgetting how to interact with our environment

Challenges to TEK

The current era is the epitome of human development, mastery, and technological advancement that provided human beings with the privilege of control and power over the environment. This privilege, however, disconnected human beings from nature which moved from a revered and respected entity to a tool or a mere constituent in the journey of power accumulation and advancement. Human beings have forgotten to appreciate the environment, to observe and learn how to interact with it. Accordingly, the value of TEK decreased as our appreciation of the environment declined. With the advent of globalisation, the industrial revolution and capitalism, TEK has seen a withdrawal and erosion from the mainstream science and discourse. Additionally, the influence of formal schooling and loss of local languages and urbanization set further challenges to the continuity of TEK and its validity.

Photo Credit: Akil Mazumder

It is important to note that TEK is not measured or quantified with modern data tools but rather, needs a deep qualitative understanding and socio-cultural interaction with the local traditional knowledge and people. This is, potentially, another reason behind the shortfall of TEK compared to modern scientific tools, large datasets and quantitative measurements. Despite these challenges, TEK provides valuable data about the environment and the varying environmental challenges imposed by the Anthropocene. Creative, sophisticated and sustainable practises that help the modern human society understand the environment and interact with it in a more ethical, eco-friendly and sustainable manner. In the modern context, TEK can help us reconnect with nature and the environment, track the changing patterns of the climate and devise effective environmental behaviours and strategies that respect the environment and human beings alike. Alongside science and technology, TEK can be used to devise effective strategies to understand the environment and learn how to cope with and manage its changes.

TEK and the Changing Patterns of the Climate

TEK does not merely implement knowledge of the environment for the sake of securing a safe and continuous living but also teaches the concept of living well. Living well is a fundamental concept constructed by the values of living in harmony with the self, family/community and nature. Living in safety, solidarity, reciprocity and clean environment. To preserve these values, it is important to develop sustainable strategies such as eco-tourism, sustainable land management strategies and inclusivity of all community members. TEK and indigenous people’s knowledge of the environment can be helpful to build a robust and thorough understanding of climate change and its effects on the planet and people. Different people today live in environmentally vulnerable and hostile ecosystems such as circumpolar Arctic, high-mountain zones, floodplains, tropical rainforests, desert margins, small islands and low-coastal areas that are directly affected by climate change and loss of biodiversity.

The environmental hostility can be seen in melting glaciers that affect hunting, rising sea-levels that affect the land surface and desertification that affects agriculture and water safety. Despite this environmental hostility, local and indigenous people devised persevering approaches and strategies to sustainable and adaptive livelihood. This creative adaptation and resilience stems from the deep knowledge, appreciation of and connection to the environment and application of traditional methods. An example of using and engaging TEK in livelihood activities and contribution to scientific understanding of the environment, is when indigenous people in British Columbia, Canada, employ their knowledge of weather patterns, ocean currents and tides for safety in the water during fishing activities.

TEK: Adaptation, Resilience and Perseverance

TEK is an assemblage of understanding, appreciation of the environment as well as perseverance, resilience, and adaptation to its changes and hostilities. We have herein discussed the traditional environmental knowledge as a body of human knowledge and awareness of the environment through interaction, observation and appreciation. TEK, despite being existent for hundreds if not thousands of years, is still under constant challenges due to the rapid increase of technology, urbanization and gradual disconnection from nature. I believe that TEK could evolve if it is carefully studied in a deep immersive approach to provide substantial addition to scientific and environmental studies. This addition will account for the human values of place attachment, reciprocity, cultural and traditional values as well as the careful observations and records that people have of their local environments. Therefore, TEK provides a creative, ethical and sustainable approach to the study and management of human-environment nexus in a tech-driven world and the age of the Anthropocene.

About the Author: Amina Ghezal is a postgraduate student, studying Politics at The University of Exeter. Her PhD research is in international migration and place attachment and she is especially interested in the Tuvaluan migrant communities in New Zealand. Amina has written for a few online magazines and student-led magazines such Her Campus Cornwall, The Falmouth Anchor and Vitriol. Amina loves books, writing, volunteering, and photography.

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