Traditional ecological knowledge

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) describes aboriginal, indigenous, or other forms of traditional knowledges regarding sustainability of local resources. TEK refers to "a cumulative body of knowledge, belief, and practice, evolving by accumulation of TEK and handed down through generations through traditional songs, stories and beliefs. [It concerns] the relationship of living beings (including human) with their traditional groups and with their environment." [1] TEK is commonly used in natural resource management as a substitute for baseline environmental data to measure changes over time in remote regions that have little recorded scientific data.[2]

The use of TEK in management and science is controversial since methods of acquiring and accumulating TEK, although often including forms of empirical research and experimentation, differ from those used to create and validate Western scientific ecological knowledge (SEK).[3][4]

There is a debate whether holders of TEK (i.e., Indigenous populations) retain an intellectual property right over traditional knowledge and whether use of this knowledge requires prior permission and license.[5] This is especially complicated because TEK is most frequently preserved as oral tradition and as such may lack objectively confirmed documentation. Ironically, those same methods that might resolve the issue of documentation compromise the very nature of traditional knowledge.

TEK is often used to sustain local populations and maintain resources necessary for survival.[6] However, it can be weakened or invalidated in the context of rapid climate change, environmental impact, or other situations in which significant alterations of ecosystems render TEK weak or obsolete.

TEK can also be referred to as traditional environmental knowledge which emphasizes the different components and interactions of the environment. More specifically it contains the knowledge of species of both animals and plants, and biophysical characteristics of the environment through space and time. However Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Traditional Environmental Knowledge can be used interchangeably due to the nature of both terms being synonymous where both emphasize the cultural relations with the environment and non-human relations with animals.

Faces of traditional ecological knowledge

The faces of TEK provide different typologies in how it is utilized and understood. These typologies are good indicators in how TEK is used from different perspectives and how they are interconnected, providing more emphasis on "cooperative management to better identify areas of difference and convergence when attempting to bring two ways of thinking and knowing together."[7]

Factual observations

The first face of TEK incorporates the factual, specific observations generated by recognition, naming, and classification of discrete components of the environment. This aspect of TEK is about understanding the interrelationship with species and their surrounding environment. It is also a set of both empirical observations and information emphasizing the aspects of animals and their behavior, and habitat, and the physical characteristics of species, and animal abundance. Therefore this type of "empirical knowledge consists of a set of generalized observations conducted over a long period of time and reinforced by accounts of other TEK holders."[8]

Management systems

The second face refers to the ethical and sustainable use of resources in regards to management systems. This is achieved through strategic planning to ensure resource conservation. More specifically this face involves dealing with pest management, resource conversion, multiple cropping patterns, and methods for estimating the state of resources.[9] A lot of ignorance toward traditional ecological knowledge is at the fault of management, these people are used to growing up in a more modern advanced system, they tend to ignore it.

Past and current uses

The third face refers to time dimension aspect of traditional ecological knowledge, focusing on the past and current uses of the environment transmitted through oral history.[10] Oral history is also used to transmit cultural heritage through generation to generation to maintain the sense of family and community.

Ethics and values

The fourth face refers to value statements and connections between the belief system and the organization of facts. In regards to TEK it refers to environmental ethics that keeps exploitative abilities in check. This face also refers to the expression of values concerning the relationship with the habitats of species and their surrounding environment - the human-relationship environment.

Culture and identity

The fifth face refers to the role of language and images of the past giving life to culture.[11] The relationship between Aboriginals (original inhabitants) and their environment are vital to sustaining the cultural components that define them. This face reflects the stories, values, and social relations that reside in places as contributing to the survival, reproduction, and evolution of aboriginal cultures, and identities. It also stresses "the restorative benefits of cultural landscapes as places for renewal"[12]


This last face of TEK is a culturally based cosmology that is the foundation of the other faces stated. The combination of these faces relates to the assumptions and beliefs about how things work, and explains the way in which things are connected, and gives principles that regulate human-animal relations and the role of humans in the world. From an anthropological perspective, cosmology attempts to understand the human-animal relationship and how these directly influence social relationships, obligations toward community members, and management practices.

Ecosystem management theory

Main article: Ecosystem management

Ecosystem management is a multifaceted and holistic approach to natural resource management. It incorporates both science and traditional ecological knowledge to collect data from long term measures that science cannot. This is achieved by scientists and researchers collaborating with Indigenous peoples through a consensus decision-making process while meeting the socioeconomic, political and cultural needs of current and future generations.

Case study: Gwaii Haanas

Main article: Gwaii Haanas

The case study on Gwaii Haanas serves as an excellent example of the use of TEK and science together to foster natural resource management. In agreement with the Haida Nation, the Canadian Government designated Gwaii Haanas as a National Park Reserve to govern its cultural heritage and ecological importance. This process is achieved through cooperative management that engage in solutions to implement strategies to managing the terrestrial and marine areas. This cooperative management tactic established the Archipelago Management Board (AMB) in which they will manage the uses and resources of Gwaii Haanas.


The long-established Māori system of environmental management is holistic. It is a system that ensures harmony within the environment, providing a process of, as well as preventing intrusions that cause permanent imbalances and guards against environment damage. Kaitiakitanga is a concept that has "roots deeply embedded in the complex code of tikanga”.[13] Kaitiakitanga is a broad notion which includes the following ideas: guardianship, care, wise management. However, while kaitiakitanga is a proactive and preventative approach to environmental management, this traditional management system has not always had an opportunity to address large scale environmental degradation.

See also



  1. Berkes, F. (2000).
  2. Freeman, M.M.R. 1992. The nature and utility of traditional ecological knowledge. Northern Perspectives, 20(1):9-12
  3. McGregor, D. (2004). Coming full circle: indigenous knowledge, environment, and our future. American Indian Quarterly, 28(3 & 4), 385-410
  4. Becker, C. D., Ghimire, K. (2003). Synergy between traditional ecological knowledge and conservation science supports forest preservation in Ecuador. Conservation Ecology, 8(1): 1
  5. Simeone, T. (2004). Indigenous traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights. Library of Parliament: PRB 03-38E. Parliamentary Research Branch Political and Social Affairs Division.
  6. AAAS - Science and Human Rights Program. 2008. 10 February 2009 <>.
  7. Houde, N. (2007) Ecology & Society.
  8. Usher,P.J. 2000. Traditional Ecological Knowledge in environmental assessment and management
  9. Berkes 1988, Gunn et all. 1988
  10. Usher 2000
  11. Houde 2007
  12. Lewis and Sheppard 2005
  13. Marsden, M., & Henare, T. A. (1992). Kaitiakitanga: A definitive introduction to the holistic world view of the Maori: Unpublished manuscript.

Further reading

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