How should ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ be used in environmental science?

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Concepts such as ‘traditional ecological knowledge’, ‘indigenous and local knowledge’ and ‘local environmental knowledge’ (summarised as TEK), have become increasingly popular among environmental scientists. But is this usage entirely unproblematic?

Policymakers and international institutions are promoting the usage of TEK in environmental research, conservation, restoration and management. It is argued to be beneficial to environmental sustainability, eco-systems, indigenous groups and local communities alike. But as TEK is closely related to culture and traditions, previously studied by social scientists and particularly social/cultural anthropologists, questions have been raised about how TEK is incorporated in a scientific field that is not traditionally experienced with studying these themes.

CESSS-member Carina Green has published an article together with Benedict E Singleton, Maris Boyd Gillette and Anders Burman from University of Gothenburg, where they analyse how TEK is handled in peer-reviewed articles by environmental scientists published in 2020. The aim is to highlight areas where environmental scientist can learn from the anthropology field, and their long experience of studying culture and tradition, to hopefully avoid repeating the mistakes that earlier anthropologists have already made.

One of the concerns raised in the article is the tendency overly homogenizing indigenous groups, called ‘essentialism’. The authors argue that essentialism is not necessarily harmful, but when used without reflection, it risks creating injustices for those who belong to an indigenous group without meeting the stereotyped expectations of that group.

Another problematic area identified is the tendency of not paying attention to power relations and downplaying the political implications of TEK usage. The authors stress that any involvement in TEK will have an impact on power relations and thus is inherently political, and this should be recognised by the scientists.

The concept of ‘productive complicity’ is introduced as a reflexive way of approaching TEK with more sensitivity to what the consequences of their research might lead to. The authors do support the usage of TEK in environmental science, but suggests four questions derived from anthropological knowledge, that natural scientists can ask themselves to facilitate a more reflexive usage of TEK. These questions are: What and/or who is this TEK for? What will this knowledge result in/what will this knowledge be used for? How is compensation/credit shared? Am I giving back and giving forward to the people I work with and depend upon?

Singleton BE, Gillette MB, Burman A, Green C. Toward productive complicity: Applying ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ in environmental science. The Anthropocene Review. December 2021.

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