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Last Updated: 10/18/2012
Lost in Assimilation: The Tragedy of Traditional Ecological Knowledge
Febna Reheem Caven

The field of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), which captures the worldviews and ways of living of indigenous communities in relation to their environments, has become a glamorous concept in the lexicon of development theorists. The paper seeks to critically engage with the possibility and challenges of ‘successful integration of indigenous knowledge and ethics into modern science and culture’, highlighting two challenges in particular: the itemization and alienation of beliefs and understandings to fit within a functional and mechanistic worldview (a tragedy of parts), and the broader negative consequences of distorting cultural epistemologies of profound wisdom and relevance to the survival of our species (a tragedy of the whole).

Dr Richard Evans Schultes, Harvard, collecting plant species in the Amazon circa 1941

Traditional Ecological Knowledge: the embeddedness, the process, the culture/science and “the state of mind”

Though there seems to be no universally accepted definition of the concept of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the one offered by Berkes (2008) seems quite comprehensive in its scope as it puts together the salient features of TEK as identified by a number of different theorists. As per this definition, traditional ecological knowledge is a cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment. Implicit in this definition are 1) an amalgamation of science and culture (for the system is seen as a body of knowledge, practice and belief), 2) a predominant non-anthropocentrism (as relationship between other living beings and environment is deemed as important as that of humans’), and 3) a view of knowledge as a process that is context-specific (as the mention of ‘adaptive processes’ implies). Absence of a subject/object dichotomy (Apffel-Marglin 1993) is another defining characteristic ascribed to indigenous knowledge that should be applicable to TEK too and so is the close enmeshment of spiritual and moral values with knowledge (Turnbull 1997). With a phenomenological approach being the base of the these knowledge systems, TEKs are often not just about survival, but also about meaning and so one can find environmental ethics to be embedded within the knowledge components themselves.

Another radical and promising conception of traditional ecological knowledge goes beyond ethics and culture to the realm of psychology. This is shown in the work of Basso (1996), who theorizes that TEK could actually be seen as the very personal, very existential “state of mind.” The conversation Basso has with Dudley, an Apache Indian man, is a very lucid elaboration of this concept:

Wisdom sits in places. It's like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don't you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. Then you will see danger before it happens. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. People will respect you (Basso 1996; p70).

Basso (1996) further explains how the three mental conditions of the bIni' godilkooh (smoothness of mind), bIni' gontl'iz (resilience of mind), and bIni' gonldzil (steadiness of mind) are essential components of Igoya’i (wisdom) in Apache culture and draws attention to the fact that knowledge of places and their cultural significance is crucial in developing these faculties. This validation of place embedded existence and training of state of mind that the indigenous knowledge systems possess offers much promise in understanding and solving the existential and behavioral problems that seem to beset our alienated worlds. Our perceptive and cognitive apparatuses evolved watching, living with, and hunting what we now deem as the “Other”- animals, plants, and other aspects of nature. The “ontogenetic crippling” that our species suffers from as a result of alienation from the worlds in which we evolved prevents the modern human from fulfilling his/her full potential to mature and disposes him/her to a life-long state of adolescence (Paul Shepherd 1995). The traditional ecological knowledge system with all of its phenomenology, culture, rituals and psychology may offer a cure for our cerebralized engagement, which is actually a detachment, from the natural world. That having been stated, the important concern is then to explore effective, fair processes and frameworks that facilitate the ‘translatability’ of these unique insights and practices into the mainstream discourse on development and conservation (Viveros de Castro 1992, as cited in Green 2005).

Integrating the Sacred and the Scientific: A Challenge and a Need

By its very definition, an indigenous knowledge system is a stark contrast to the scientific paradigm characterized by centralization (Warren 1991), disembeddedness, universalism, individualism, and nature/culture and subject/object dichotomies (Berkes 2008). Also, the heavy incorporation of the spiritual and the cultural within indigenous knowledge systems is a stark contrast to the materialist philosophy of science (Kelbassa 2005; Turnbull 1997). While its strong rootedness in local contexts renders it less mobile than ‘Science’, its combination of knowledge-belief-practice (Lewis 1993) makes it a holistic alternative to science’s reductionism.

With strengths and weaknesses being more or less complementary, TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) and SK (Scientific Knowledge) together seem to be a potent combination in understanding the ‘reality’ that combines ‘the cultural and the scientific’, ‘the local and the global’, ‘the traditional and the modern’, ‘the objective and the subjective’. Not surprisingly, the project of ‘using TEK in informing Natural Resource Management (NRM) and Environmental Ethics’ quite rapidly shot to fame and has acquired in its short history quite a considerable following of developmental theorists and practitioners. As Kelbassa (2005) concludes from his analysis of indigenous environmental ethics:

The world views of the indigenous traditions of various countries in the world contain many environmentally friendly and profound insights into the nature of life and our mother Earth. The foregoing discussion further suggests that indigenous environmental ethics can be integrated into modern environmental ethics. There are many things that the rural people know and environmental ethicists do not, and vice versa. In some cases peasant farmers and pastoralists who live on and by the land are far more resourceful and innovative than modern technicians in the area of environmental control and soil conservation. Likewise, modern environmental ethics and related theories can address a vast array of problems that indigenous knowledge cannot. Thus modern environmental scientists and ethicists and the rural people can learn from one another.

The Practice of Knowledge Integration

Though the excitement in envisioning such integration seems palpable in conservation and development discourses, the actual translation of such a vision into practice seems to lack in imagination and critical rigor. As Agrawal (1995b) somewhat ruefully notes, the “creation of national archives” and “information clearing houses” are the most common prescriptions to revive and disseminate indigenous knowledge. He quotes Uluwishewa who, being a proponent of integration of traditional knowledge with science, advocates that such knowledge centers will help in ‘collection, compilation, dissemination of indigenous knowledge globally, facilitating transfer of indigenous knowledge from one place to another’. This trend, which shows an implicit espousal of ‘isolation of knowledge, followed by its documentation, centralization, systematization, and bureaucratization’, is all too congruent with the present modern science paradigm and completely at odds with the theorizations of many of these “neo indigenistas” themselves (Agrawal 1995b).

Another assumption that has been implicit as well as problematic in the knowledge integration process is the one that deems that TEK could be incorporated just by isolating individual units of ‘TEK’ from its larger system and then attaching it into lacunae and side streets of the Western Science model. This assumption that is in play is evident in an example for “integration” offered by Kelbassa (who was cited above for his advocacy of integrating knowledge systems). He notes:

[…]there are encouraging signs that many modern scientists, particularly in the medical and agricultural sciences, are coming back to indigenous knowledge to enrich themselves. They understand that science and indigenous knowledge are not diametrically opposed. For instance, scientists are using the Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) as an insecticide in India (Kelbassa 2005).

It is not that such a ‘lift and incorporate’ model of integrating traditional products is not valid. As far as immediate utility goes, it might work. Nevertheless the argument against this tendency is that, it is in no way an integration of “systems”; leave alone an “equal” integration of systems. Rather, a ‘tragedy of parts’, where extracted indigenous knowledge is isolated from its context to fit neatly within the paradigm of science and subsequently ‘museumised’ is more likely to happen (Visvanathan 1997).

When the living wisdom of a traditional community is thus reduced to a pharmacologically active ingredient, dissociated from the rich milieu of social processes, philosophical underpinnings, and cultural practices, can we say that it has done the celebrated task of offering old wisdom to solve the new problems? Or has it just further entrenched the problems of modern societies?

Green (2008) clearly describes how isolating TEK and using it within a capitalist business model generally has no benefit for the communities themselves as it serves as an instrument for the profit of others, and often alienates the parent communities from their history, knowledge, and culture. This is essentially violence in the name of development and conservation. As Visvanathan (1997) notes, this violence is not only limited to ‘abuse of science’ (as bio prospecting, bio piracy, etc. can be seen as) but even in the ‘very practice of science’, how modern science expropriates, mutilates, and capitalizes knowledge to further its own clout while trampling over the underlying epistemologies of indigenous knowledge. By expropriating 'units of TEK’, instead of engaging with the underlying epistemological paradigms of TEK, modern science very much acts as a “cognitive gatekeeper” who effectively keeps the sacred and ecological vision of the world embedded in indigenous thought in check, while giving a semblance of flexibility and adaptability.

The tragedy of this state of affairs is that this treatment of indigenous knowledge is detrimental not only to the integrity of these knowledge systems and the people attached to them, but also to the integrity and health of the whole of mankind and the living earth. And here is manifested the ‘Tragedy of Whole’- where the phenomenological, spiritual understanding of the world, which is the most curative aspect of TEK for the treatment of modern dilemmas, is discarded or neglected.

Tragedy of the TEK paradigms: A loss for the ‘Nature Conservation’ cause, a loss for human experience

A ‘paucity of facts and concept to understand the world’ has not been the root of the ‘polycrisis’ that humanity finds itself in (Compas 2007). If that were the case, exploring TEKs to contribute to ‘commodifiable’ units of facts and taxonomies, management models to the modern science could have been a justified vocation. On the contrary, it has been the very paradigm of materialism-consumption that has driven the misappropriation and exploitation of not just indigenous knowledge or indigenous peoples, but the very natural world that we live in (Bodley 2007; Green 2008; Maja 2006). That being the case, the epistemologies that TEKs are embedded in, the holism and life they infuse into the world, and the ethics that are inherent in the knowledge components are all essential to cure and balance the materialism-consumption-modern science paradigm.

In his book Irrational Man, Bartlett (1958) retells the story of the absent minded man told by Kierkegaard. In the story, the absent-minded man is so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one fine morning he wakes up to find himself dead. This existential absent-mindedness and alienation from the earth and realities surrounding us cannot be tackled by more reason. On the contrary it could be very well argued that it is the further and further abstraction and alienation of knowledge and language from experiential realities that led to such a dissociation of modern man from his immediate reality. A “return to experience” is then essential to address the existential and material challenges of our days (Fisher 2002). Such a “return to experience” that could be engaged with by an ecologist or an environmental practitioner could be understood by this exercise prescribed by Livingston (Fisher 2002):

[…]look at the cock pigeon strutting on the eaves trough […] See the bird, really see him, and feel the urgency and perfection and beauty of his hot being. Know that you and he pulse as one and that you always did.

It’s easy to see from this example how experiential engagement and appreciation of the ecological system would then be a process that tremendously influences and gets influenced by one’s identity, emotion, embeddedness to a place, etc. By its very nature, it would then blur the boundaries of self/object and science/culture.

The implication of such an experiential engagement with nature is then tremendous for environment ethics and conservation behavior. The dominant models of environmental ethics have been built around the concept of “instrumental value”, which is very limiting. Unless a human perceives and experiences "instrumental value" in a practice that is evident to him in his time-span and immediate reality, convincing power of the ethic becomes non-existent. As Leopold (1949) notes from his analysis of practices by American farmers, even if utility is evident, practices that benefit the community but not the individual directly are often neglected. Ascribing an intrinsic value to an environmental entity is the other way of doing environmental ethics. Because that which is intrinsically valued is that which is good as an end in itself, it is commonly agreed that something's possession of intrinsic value generates a direct moral duty on the part of moral agents to protect it or at least refrain from damaging it (Jameson 2002). A perception of ‘intrinsic value’ of conservation could be grasped by the human mind only when the otherwise ‘valueless’ (Everdnen cited in Fisher 2011) and ‘passive’ nature is experienced as ‘living pulsing nature’ (Berkes 2008) that feels, acts, and interacts. The ability to perceive nature in such a way would go a long way in curing humankind’s alienation from and resultant exploitation of nature.

In his book Design with Nature (1969) Ian Mc Harg talks about Iroquois bear rituals preceding a hunt. The hunter talks to the bear and assures the bear that the killing is motivated by need; at the same time, the ritual reminds him of his ethical obligations. Mc Harg observes, “Now if you would wish to develop an attitude to prey that would ensure stability in the hunting society, then such views are the guarantee.” The myths, cultural practices and religious belief of indigenous systems derived out of an experiential engagement with nature are viable mind-roads to perpetuate further experiential engagement and the intrinsic valuing of nature.

When just the knowledge component is extracted, however, leaving behind the myths, the practices, beliefs and ethics, what we have is just a unit of information – maybe in the form of a fact; maybe a method – but essentially a mutilated cerebral addition that is ineffective to transform minds. If the above Iroquois knowledge system is put through the integration process, the modern science of Natural Resource Management might find a “knowledge unit” – along the lines of ‘Sustainable Bear Hunting’ or the like. But devoid of the beliefs, rituals, and philosophy that are crucial in people’s understanding, adherence and harmony with such a technique, the technique remains just a cerebral addition.


The endeavor to integrate traditional and scientific knowledge, if it is to be a transformative one, has to go beyond the typical mutilation-extraction-assimilation approach to Traditional Knowledge described above. The real therapeutic potential of Traditional Ecological Knowledge lies in the underlying epistemology, philosophy, and the practices that are very much a part of them. Seeing these systems as holistic transformative paradigms that link perception, appreciation, knowledge creation, perpetuation, and behavior control are essential to understand and engage with them. And if such a holistic knowledge paradigm is to be really integrated fairly within the conventional science paradigm, the limits of science and the methodologies it adopts for enquiry should be radically extended. It is beyond the scope of this paper to begin to suggest what such a paradigm would look like. Reticent to such a task, as modern science contends itself with a piecemeal approach to engaging with indigenous knowledge, then what results is a separation of the ‘practice’ and ‘information’ from the ‘spirit’. Such a process effectively eliminates any therapeutic potential such knowledge systems have to offer. Moreover, such an approach that mutilates and destabilizes the indigenous knowledge systems. Thus alternatives to the hegemony of Science are effectively eliminated too. As development and conservation practitioners, we should be mindful of the alienation inherent in advocating partial and misinterpreted incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge in natural resource management. By erasing the links between ‘cultures’, ‘ethics’, ‘practices’ and a spiritual-experiential epistemology of the TEK systems, in the name of convenience and viability, proponents of integrating TEKs could very well be furthering the loss of these systems.

Works Cited

Agrawal, A. (1995b). Dismantling the divide between indigenous and scientific knowledge. Development and Change , 26, 413-39.

Apfell-Marglin, F. (1993). Who Will Save the Forests?: Knowledge, Power and Environmental Destruction. Delhi: Zed Books.

Bartlett, W. (1962). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday.

Basso, K. (1996). Wisdom Sits in Places. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Berkes, F. (2008). Sacred Ecology. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis.

Callicott, J. (1982). Traditional American Indian and Western European attitudes towards nature. Environmental Ethics , 4, 293-318.

Fisher(2002). Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life. New York: State University New York Press.

Green, L. (2008). Anthropologies of Knowledge and South Africa's Indigenous Knowledge Systems Policy. Anthropology South Africa , 31.

Leopold, A. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press.

Maja (2006). A Case for COgnitive Justice. Retrieved November 28, 2011, from Global Agenda:

McHarg, I. (1969). Design With Nature. New York: Natural History Press.

Shephard, P. (1995). Nature and Madness. In T. Roszak, Ecopsychology. San Fransisco: Sierra Club Books.

Turnbull, D. Reframing Science and other logic. California: Futures.

Visvanathan (1997). A Carnival for Science; Essays on Science, Technology and Development. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Visvanathan (1998). On the Annals of Laboratory State. In A. Nandi, Science, Hegemony and Violence: A requiem for modernity. Tokyo: United Nations University.

Febna Reheem Caven holds an MA from the University for Peace.