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The Traditional Ecological Knowledge Conundrum

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is often seen as a positive and important characteristic of local and indigenous peoples. Ensuring the inclusion of TEK into social-ecological research is gaining ever more attention. However, less attention has been given to understanding why TEK is being maintained.

In their recent paper, Hartel, Fischer, Shumi, and Apollinaire (2023) explain why TEK continues to exist and discuss what they term “the TEK conundrum”.

First off, what exactly is TEK? It has been defined as a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving from 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.

Hartel et al. (2023) focused on rural systems in their quest to understand when TEK has been sustained. What they found were four different system states under which TEK exists today.

The first state is where TEK is alive and well. The people practicing this TEK understand the feedback loops of their actions. They have strong human-nature connections and deliberately choose to continue in this system rather than pursue other options. This state is a healthy and sustainable example of TEK.

The next state is remnant TEK. In this system, the reliance on symbiosis with nature may be just as strong as in the previous state, but for different reasons. In this situation, TEK is being maintained due to necessity (i.e. a lack of alternatives) rather than because of deeply held principles and beliefs. This is the TEK conundrum. The lack of agency these groups have may force them to maintain their TEK – even though they may otherwise like to “modernize”.

In the third state, people practice subsistence farming but are losing their TEK and its benefits. As globalization and monocropping progress, many native species and their accompanying knowledge are being lost. Interestingly, one of the researchers observed that the Covid-19 pandemic caused a renewed interest in TEK in one such system when lack of vaccine access drove locals to traditional medicines.

The final state is one in which industrialized farming has all but stamped out TEK. This is common for industrialized societies, such as Germany.

When we look at the different states of TEK, it is obvious that emphasizing knowledge of nature is not enough to sustain TEK. Only through reinforcing certain feedbacks, values, and beliefs can TEK be maintained.

We can apply a leverage points perspective to TEK and thereby derive a number of hypotheses that will guide the future of TEK research and understand the TEK Conundrum.

Hypothesis OneMismatch of leverage realms   In this situation, shallow leverage motives may not correspond with the deeper system design. Here researchers can try to understand contextual nuances and drivers to guide locally appropriate development.  
Hypothesis TwoExternally imposed rules and paradigms   When external factors are at odds with the reality of the system, biodiversity may suffer. In such situations, farms might knowingly be harming biodiversity because they have no alternative options. Researchers guided by this hypothesis can focus on how policies need to change to better match the system.  
Hypothesis ThreeCorrupt intent   When corruption is present, it has profound impacts on human-nature relationships. Research guided by this hypothesis can illuminate the extent to which corruption negatively affects TEK.  
Hypothesis FourCultural dilution   The migration of non-locals into a system can weaken the cultural ties necessary for TEK transmission. Changing identity ties to nature also has a weakening effect on TEK. Research working with this hypothesis can explore ways for cultural evolution and innovation without the resulting loss of human-nature connections.  

In conclusion, TEK is valuable for both biodiversity and local livelihoods. However, we should not assume that the mere presence of TEK implies a sustainable and healthy system. We must remember that people in some systems may be suffering under the TEK conundrum. By hypothesizing about the reason for the TEK’s continued existence, we can better understand the systems we are looking at.

If you are interested in reading more about this topic, follow this LINK.


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