Ecologists are Learning from Indigenous People

More and more, scientists are turning to the knowledge of indigenous people to more deeply understand nature. Indigenous knowledge has been labeled Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK. It is the cumulative body of ecological knowledge handed down through generations.

The knowledge of the indigenous is helping climate scientists with a slew of issues including slowing the melting of Arctic ice and controlling wildfires. In addition, TEK has helped with wildlife population monitoring, sustainable harvesting practices, behavioral ecology, ecological relationships and the like.

Although indigenous peoples comprise just 5% of the world’s population, they use almost 25% of Earth’s land surface and manage 11% of its forests. Since the beginning of humankind, native peoples have developed countless technologies and have contributed much to science. Indigenous science integrates both traditional knowledge and indigenous perspectives, while non-indigenous scientific approaches are commonly called “Western science”.

Indigenous peoples hold a vast amount of knowledge regarding their environment and its ecology. This knowledge can contribute greatly to modern science and natural resource management. For example, the Maya people of Mexico and Guatemala can teach us a great deal about farming. The Maya preserve an exceptional level of biodiversity in their gardens, maintaining harmony with the surrounding forest. Yet the forest gardeners’ skill and sophistication have long been ignored or under appreciated.

Utilizing this wisdom is especially crucial in places like the Arctic, where change is happening rapidly. (Warming is occurring twice as fast there as compared to other parts of the world.) Native hunters and fishers are the first to note the dramatic changes taking place in remote locales – such as thawing permafrost, changes in reindeer migration and other forms of biodiversity redistribution.

Indigenous peoples also have ways of being and perceiving that are distinct from Western culture. Researchers are studying the relationship between some indigenous people and the very different ways they see the world. According to Felice Wyndham, an ecological anthropologist and ethnobiologist, some indigenous people display “a form of enhanced mindfulness... an extremely developed skill base of cognitive agility, of being able to put yourself into a viewpoint and perspective of many creatures or objects – rocks, water, clouds.”

Cooperative management initiatives that embrace indigenous science may be our best strategy in the effort to preserve the wildlife species at risk of extinction. For this and many other reasons, it’s important to encourage indigenous science scholar recruitment. Research that incorporates indigenous perspectives will inevitably lead to more culturally-inclusive scientific approaches.

To the present day, indigenous people continue to offer key perspectives and essential knowledge regarding the development of science and technology.


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