May 9th, 2010

The Value of Indigenous Ways of Knowing to Western Science and Environmental Sustainability

By Dennis Martinez

Sustainability has been defined and redefined for decades, yet remains an elusive concept to most. In many ways it has lost its power to stir our imaginations because of overuse. When linked to economics, sustainability comes across as an oxymoron. Perhaps the simplest definition can be found in The New Oxford American Dictionary: “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources”. Ecological balance? There is the rub: What exactly is “ecological balance”? An easy answer could be: science can tell us what ecological balance is. But has it? Can it? I would argue that, while Western science can tell us a lot about the natural world, what it has to say about nature is not up to the task of explaining, by itself, ecological balance. This is particularly important now for knowing how to build in resilience to rapid environmental changes like climate disruption and how to adapt to these changes (human resilience).

Western science has the necessary technology and quantitative methodology, but lacks sufficient longterm experience on the ground in particular places. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) average global precipitation and temperature data have been useful for convincing many that climate change is real, averages tell us little about specific regions or local places. Western science is good at generalizing from experimental research, but lacks long-term data from most local places—for example, leading local ecological indicators of climate change, including local knowledge of changing weather patterns—by which to assess climate impacts. Extreme (unique) weather and environmental events are what count. Western scientists are beginning to appreciate the complementary role of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in climate change assessments. It is practically a truism that computer simulation modeling is only as good as the data that the modeler puts in. Local people, directly dependent on their environment for subsistence livelihoods and possessing longterm environmental knowledge—in other words, local environmental baselines with which to track change—know their places far better than the scientist whose research schedule is set by the academic calendar and bound by the vagaries of short-term boom-and-bust foundation and institutional funding.

Western techno-science is similarly limited. There are significant differences between Geographic Information Systems (GIS) vegetation mapping or simulation modeling and the real world.  GIS assessments of suitable animal habitat without ground-truthing—especially by Indigenous practitioners who know the habits of the animals that they have hunted or observed since childhood—could create a very different reality for the animals under assessment. They may see things altogether differently with respect to suitable habitat. GIS has a subjective aspect that could lead to the imposition of anthropomorphic projections onto habitat seen from the air. Indigenous people are in a privileged position to ground-truth Western science. It is important, when talking about the complementary nature of Western science and TEK, to realize that the two knowledge systems often reflect different perspectives and emphases. Sea ice is a good example. While passive microwave imagery discovered a decreasing trend in Arctic summer sea-ice extent and thickness in 1979, and while this generally agrees with local assessments (made as early as the 1960s by the Inuit and Inupiat), there are still significant regional differences that can have important ramifications for wildlife and Indigenous communities living in the affected regions. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the many different qualities of sea-ice that Indigenous practitioners know in their own  languages. This is an issue of acute importance to fishers and hunters who trust their safety and lives to their knowledge of sea-ice. Compared to other regions of the world, the Arctic probably has the greatest uncertainty concerning the rate and extent of climate change; so collaborative research that includes firsthand Indigenous experience is critical to assessing climate change. An exclusive focus on remote sensing may limit our understanding of climate change and its impact on Arctic communities and wildlife. In every case I know of, estimates of animal population viability and population size by local experts have been more accurate than estimates by Western scientists in Alaska and Canada.

For example, according to the Nunatsiaq News (March 14, 2008), in a news brief entitled ‘New bowhead numbers show Inuit are right”, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had to admit that their eastern arctic bowhead population estimates were wrong by an order of 15. Inuit estimates were 15 times greater than DFO had thought only 8 years before. Scientists had estimated a population of only 245 bowhead whales, allowing a harvest quota in Nunavut of one every two years. Now, DFO admits that the bowhead numbers could be as high as 73,105, supporting an annual hunt of between 18 and 90. DFO also conceded that there are not two bowhead populations in the eastern Arctic, but only one, as the Inuit claimed.

A survey of the Kivalliq’s Beverly and Quamanirjuaq caribou herd by DFO calculated that its population had plummeted to 105,000 animals. Hunting quotas were imposed on the Inuit who claimed that the herd was increasing, with some of the original herd migrating to a different range. It took 10 years for DFO to prove the Inuit correct when they finally found 276,000 caribou.

Western scientists can be unbelievably ignorant of animal behavior. Some years ago the Canadian government allowed the sport hunting of Arctic muskox who had passed reproductive age. Inuit hunters objected. They knew that herd elders were critical to the survival of the herd when it was under stress, e.g., keeping the younger muskox calm during sieges by wolves. They also knew that the larger, heavier older muskox, like bison, are able to break through thick ice-encrusted snow, allowing smaller, younger animals to access the browse beneath the snow. It wasn’t until the herds began to crash some years later that scientists recommended stopping the shooting of “over the hill” muskox. This mechanistic approach of scientists to animal management prevented them from recognizing the social ecology of animals. Western scientists have only very recently conceded that animals even have emotions. And that was pioneered by women, especially at the leading Western institution of animal behavior, Cambridge’s male-dominated Department of Ethology.

The world is changing rapidly. Climate disruption is happening faster than animals, plants, and human communities will be able to adapt to without taking extraordinary action. In vulnerable ecosystems like the subarctic and arctic, low-lying coastal areas and small islands, semi-arid and arid regions, tropical and subtropical forests and savannas, dry and sub-humid grasslands, and high mountains, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that up to 30% of animals and plants face extinction if global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in coming decades. There was a time when human communities and animals were not restricted in their mobility and could move to other places when necessary. Today there are significant obstacles, like the built environment of roads, cities, etc. to animal mobility. Landscapes are badly fragmented with few natural migration corridors remaining. Possible migration corridors are in the planning stages but are very far from being implemented. Indigenous communities are locked into place in reserves, reservations, rancherias, and ejidos and cannot move with displaced species.

But climate disruption alone cannot be blamed for this in much of the world. Climate disruption is exacerbating already degraded landscapes, impacting the structure, composition, and function of the world’s ecosystems. E.g., warming temperatures are extending the length of the fire seasons (by 70 days in the past three decades in the US Pacific Northwest) because of shorter winters (by two months in my region in northern California, Oregon, and Washington), allowing more regeneration cycles for bark beetles that are devastating conifer forests from Alaska to Mexico. Government fire suppression polices of the past century, coupled with rampant industrial logging and replanted monoculture plantations, have allowed fuels to build up to levels that are totally outside the natural or historical range of variability. In the mixed evergreen-conifer forests of my region, where there used to be 40 to 60 large trees per hectare, there are now 4,000 to 6,000 small trees. Important cultural plants are being shaded out or burned out in high severity fires. Where Indians in my region used to burn regularly, their frequent low intensity fires rejuvenated forests and permitted the culturally rich herbaceous understory to flourish. Now, our forests are so choked with dense doghair conifer stands and brush that even animals are finding it difficult to travel except on logging roads. During plant surveys, I often find rare and endangered plants on compacted (but sunny) log landings, roadcuts, skid roads, and toxic serpentine rocky outcrops—because they are unable to successfully compete with shade tolerant species in the forest understory.

We hear a lot now about “bridging” or “integrating” Traditional Knowledge (TK) and Western science. Do examples of collaborative research suggest that we are “bridging” these two knowledge systems that are based on very different cosmovisions and descriptions of the natural world—let alone “integrating” them? To answer this question, we have to first explain the differences. There are no shortages of definitions of TK in the literature. A 2004 report by the International Council for Science—the ICSU—includes most of the attributes of traditional knowledge commonly used in its definition: (1) TK is a cumulative body of locally contextualized knowledge, know-how, practices and beliefs maintained by oral transmission from generation to generation; and (2) TK is part and parcel of a cultural complex and cosmology that encompasses language, naming, classification systems, and spiritual ceremonies and protocols. From where I stand however, spirituality is the primary organizing principle in TK—not just a component. This is because spirit and matter are not separated in Indigenous thinking, in the same way that energy cannot be separated from matter in Western science. But I would add two more attributes: TK is dynamic and adaptable to changing circumstance, it is never static; and above all, TK is about relationships: How to be a human and live in harmony with all our relations—a relationship that includes reciprocal obligations between humans and the natural world. I coined a word, now common in the literature, that distinguishes the Indigenous principle of kinship from the Western dichotomy of biocentricity vs. homocentricity: It is “Kincentricity”. It is relationship centered. It is process-centered.

How is TK different from Western science? Just as Traditional Knowledge and culture is the context for TEK, so Western culture is the context for Western science. Western science developed historically within an increasingly secular and materialistic culture without spiritual reciprocal obligations to the natural world.  As a result, Western Science views nature as without spirit. It is reductionist—not holistic. It is linear—not circular. It is product more than process. Explanation is more important than meaning. Nature is divided into its component parts in order to gain a large measure of control for technological innovations and development as well as for the verification or falsification of hypotheses through replicable localized empirical experiments for generalized predictions of natural phenomena in short intervals of time and space. As the philosophical father of Western science, Francis Bacon noted four centuries ago: “To understand nature is to control nature”. Western science methodology is a powerful quantitative tool, but the kinds of questions Western science asks—or doesn’t ask—of nature are culturally determined to a large degree—and is a tool that is spiritually and historically decontextualized. Tools can be used for the benefit or the detriment of the world. It has done both. The same toolkit can be used to benefit Indigenous peoples as well. But it has also led to the poisoning of our waters and lands and has had, more often than not, a devastating effect on our health and the health of other peoples as well.

Clearly, the core beliefs of the two epistemologies can be neither bridged nor integrated. What about  Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), a sub-set” of TK that Western scientists and government agencies value because of its direct ecological relevance? Is collaborative research an example of bridging? Is it cross-validation? I would say that it is more a case of balancing—balancing local with global or regional knowledge. The geographic scales are incommensurate. The respective methods are different—remote sensing vs. direct observation., local vs. generalized, long-term vs. short-term, qualitative vs. quantitative. But even if a scientific field researcher and an Indigenous expert both make the same direct observations, the observations of the Indigenous expert is considered “anecdotal” and “subjective” from the point of view of Western science—despite a peer-review process by community knowledge holders. That is, there currently is an unbalanced relationship on the scales of knowledge weighted toward Western science.

Collaboration is about balancing knowledge that is locally contextualized with generalized scientific knowledge—not in the abstract or in the literature—but sitting down together in integrated discussion scenarios and hashing things out. This is not unlike what two or more local Native practitioners and Western researchers often do in the field. Are we bridging quantitative vs. qualitative observations? I think we are balancing them because they are not directly translatable. Is “bridging” even desirable from the point of view of Native peoples? And who is doing the “bridging” and for what purpose? Listen to the Indigenous delegation to a meeting of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2004: “A bridge between epistemologies is not possible or not desirable, because it produces invasion and domination. We can only sit down at a table of negotiation and dialogue in a world where many worlds [or epistemologies] are welcome, where we can talk between us, and also talk with modern science.” Equality or parity, and mutual trust are the preconditions for negotiation. Indigenous people do not want the cultural baggage associated with Western science. It is about a partnership with Western scientists. And they always have the right to say “NO!”

A competent Indigenous hunter, fisher, farmer, or pastoralist—like a competent Western field researcher—uses the same human powers of observation, inductive and deductive logic, pattern recognition, skepticism of 2nd and 3rd hand information, nuanced judgment, imagination, open-mindedness, inference and prediction, inquisitiveness, creativity, intuition, and honesty, as well as a willingness to experiment and a sense of wonder. All humans adapt to their world by remembering and learning. Indigenous peoples have the advantage of a much longer collective memory and a longer time frame for learning.

There is still another connection between Western science and TK as well as local non-Indigenous knowledge that is not generally known except by historians of science. As the International Council for Science (the ICSU) has noted: “This can be seen in the development of hypotheses, research designs, methods, and interpretations employed by scientists, as shown by contemporary historical science. It is evident in Linneaus’ use of [Saami] folk taxonomies in his development of biological classification systems [the binomial system, since modified, is still in use today], and the physics of Galileo, who used knowledge of ballistics developed by craftsmen at the arsenal in Venice.”  I would add Charles Darwin who was probably predisposed to discovering evolution by natural selection from his study of artificial selection by plant and animal breeders. The ICSU goes on: “Western science is built on Greek, Roman, and Islamic foundations. Traditional knowledge has informed modern science. As many as 80% of the world’s people depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care. Twenty-five per cent of all [modern] prescriptions contain plant material shown to science by traditional people.” Witness the use of TEK in bioprospecting for new pharmaceuticals on Indigenous territories—usually without full, prior, and informed consent or compensation.

This recently recognized role of TEK in the history of Western science can also be traced to the growth of Western ethnoscience. Beginning with the work of Harold Conklin with the Philippine Hananu people in the 1950s, “Scientists came to appreciate the coherence of Indigenous Knowledge systems, according to the International Council for Science, their empirical precision, and their attunement to environmental contexts. Ethnobotanists discovered cases in which the number of plant species was greater than the number of species recognized by western science.” It was around then that modern scientists recognized that traditional peoples were a potential source of knowledge of biodiversity. That realization was soon extended to pharmaceuticals and agriculture in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, “During the 1980s, researchers in multilateral and bilateral development agencies began to recognize the significance of Indigenous knowledge, both for the conservation of biodiversity and technologies for agricultural productivity…scientists began to work closely with Indigenous communities to promote their mutual interest in sustainable agriculture and resource management. This trend will only intensify in the 21st century both because of the recognition that many environmental problems are local in nature and the need for the cooperation of traditional peoples in addressing global issues…TK is providing scientific insight into crop domestication, breeding, and management…[traditional fallow] swidden agriculture, agroecology, crop rotations, pest and soil management, and other areas of agricultural sciences…”

Here is where TEK has direct relevance to the applied environmental sciences, providing an alternative model of sustainability at a time when world hunger is increasing due to reliance on modern crop monocultures and oil-derived energy inputs promoted by economic globalization and benefitting a privileged few with the means to purchase the requisite manufactured inputs at the expense of local smallholders.

TEK—especially traditional landcare practices—can also assist Western conservation biologists and restoration ecologists conserve biodiversity. Eighty per cent of the world’s biological diversity, according to the World Conservation Union (the IUCN), occurs on Indigenous ancestral lands. Sadly, big environmental NGOs—BINGOS—give credence to the evictions of Indigenous peoples from protected areas by claiming that they either have no beneficial impacts on the environment or actually diminish it. BINGOs rely on Western scientists who themselves too often have a poor grasp of local Indigenous environments and are unaware of the keystone ecological role that Indigenous peoples play in their home environments—a role, that once it ceases, leads to unanticipated negative cascading ecological effects that begin a process of ecosystem unraveling. Are Western scientists open to the importance of Indigenous landcare practices in protected areas? The answer to that question has a major bearing on cultural survival. And the loss of Indigenous protection to the genetic diversity of plant and animal species reduces species’ ability to adapt to climate change.

In spite of the ample documentation attesting to the sustainable landcare practices and the value of TEK to Western science, most educated Westerners consider traditional Indigenous cultures to be backward, unprogressive, and anachronistic in the modern world. At best, TEK is considered a pseudo-science. The ICSU thinks differently: “Pseudo-science is an enterprise in competition with science [e.g. creationism]; it poses as science by mimicking it” TK is as Native science Pueblo educator Greg Cajete terms it—a knowledge system that needs no external validation. It stands on its own, just like Western science.

I think that we need to recognize non-Western knowledge systems as alternative modernities. This kind of affirmative paradigm or framework blurs the conventional   Western/modern dichotomy, and calls for the reformulation of knowledge relationships in a multicultural world. Swain, an Australian anthropologist, considers “the traditional Aboriginal” to be an academic fiction—in the sense that “tradition” evolves and changes with time, adapting to an ever-changing world. Academia denies that adaptability and resilience by freezing and reifying TK. This reification has been used by neo-colonial government administrators and courts to deny Native land claims because Indigenous peoples are not perceived to be the same as the “real” Natives at the time of contact. E.g., The Australian MABU Land Claims Act of 1993 requires that Aboriginal people prove that they can trace their lineage back to 1838—despite clear evidence that they are Aboriginal; the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) of 1971 set up village and regional Native corporations in such a way that Native Alaskans would eventually lose their ancestral territories and subsistence culture and become assimilated into the American economic mainstream.

Traditional knowledge is a fragile living library of oral knowledge passed down from generation to generation. It is and always has been adaptable and resilient. Because of its adaptive nature, it cannot be preserved in libraries. Its survival depends on the survival of Indigenous cultures. TK may have no more than two generations left—some say just one generation—unless the holders of TK—Indigenous peoples—are able to withstand the impacts of loss of languages, secure land tenure, access to resources on ceded or stolen lands, political and economic marginalization accelerated by globalization, loss of locally adapted heirloom seeds and land races to multinational corporate homogenization, patenting, genetic modification, loss of sacred sites, and climate change.

If TK is lost, Western science loses too. A time-tested model for sustainability is lost. Hundreds to thousands of years of knowledge of how to care for the land is lost. And when Indigenous languages no longer exist, the world will have lost the detailed, long-accumulated ecological knowledge of local places that is encoded in language. Even to speak to educated Western people with words that convey Indigenous spirituality and thought will be impossible. As one Cree elder said, “The Spirit is in our words”.

At exactly the time that some Western scientists have finally recognized the value of TK, the holders of that knowledge are struggling to survive. The promise of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and other integrated scientific assessments may not be realized. Climate change has already severely disrupted Indigenous cultures in the Arctic and Sub-arctic—the melting of the polar ice cap, mountain glaciers and snowpacks, loss of seven villages to coastal erosion, melting of permafrost and the release of methane gas, invasive species and diseases, raging fires that burn up lichens (the food of caribou), all of this causing a decline in animal populations, animal behavior and migration patterns, inability to grow summer gardens or store perishable food in melting permafrost—impacting Indigenous and non-Indigenous subsistence livelihoods alike. And the loss, as Sheila Watt-Coultier of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) said, of the right to be cold.

Never has there been such a pressing need, to quote the MA Alexandria conference Indigenous representatives, “to sit-down at a table of negotiation and dialogue”, but on Indigenous terms and in a local context. The world can no longer afford the questionable luxury of working solely within the Western tradition if we are to learn to live sustainably. Conserving our options means, in part, conserving the diversity of ways of thinking about problems—including climate change—for the generations coming after us.

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Comments (2)

  1. Esmeralda Guevara Esmeralda Guevara says:

    How often have I shared these sentiments. It can be very frustrating to have Western scientists come to Ecuador and believe that they have the only way of understanding our biodiversity, or the way our agricultural systems work. And so often, they leave behind a system that is implemented for a few years, or a study that is half-done, and then do not give credit for those who have been working tens, hundreds and even thousands of years. Thank you, Dennis, for this great perspective on relation between indigenous ways of knowing and Western Science.

  2. Terrence Knight says:

    What an extraordinary load of reductionist, post-modern, pseudo-intellectual bullshit, and all of it written in that over-educated, formally stylized, academic, stiff and spiritless style of a graduate of some nameless, third-rate university.

    It’s exactly this type of crap that has made “sustainability” arguments so meaningless and ineffective with the general public – and allowed corporate fascism and control to widen its growing, deadly grasp.

    If we really want to save ourselves, we’ve got to do better than this.

    Terry Knight