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Tokenism, Collaboration and Traditional Ecological Knowledge

For millennia humans have lived within, been a part of and influenced ecological systems (Denevan, 2011). Through our interaction with the environment many communities have accumulated a body of knowledge formed through their experiences and adaptation to the environment (Berkes, Colding, & Folke, 2000). This knowledge often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge or TEK, is being recognised as a valuable source of knowledge for environmental and conservation practices (Gomez-Baggethun et al, 2012).

However, there is concern that use of local expertise can be tokenistic or in other words TEK is “used” to give the appearance of inclusion (Pulsifer, 2011). As a result, the benefits of TEK if used in this way can be limiting. Whereas greater gains can be made if TEK is used through meaningful inclusion of both the knowledge and the people who hold it.

Why TEK is useful
TEK is a rich source of knowledge, including long term environmental patterns (Drew, 2005), conservation and resource use methods (Snively & Corglisia, 2000; Kimmerer, 2002) and specific local details of ecological systems (Drew, 2005). TEK also provides a platform for dialogue and collaboration with local communities (Huntington et al, 2011; Berkes, 2004). By incorporating TEK and the holders of this knowledge into environmental management and conservation practices it helps decrease distrust of scientists and government and increases the willingness to share knowledge (Lyver, 2002; Pierotti & Wildcat, 2000). This would be of benefit especially in areas where conservation issues and people are very much connected.

There has been an ongoing debate whether in order to protect ecosystems, people should be removed from them (Campbell, 2007; Terborgh, 2000). However, this fails to recognise that people have been part of ecological systems for millennia (Denevan, 2011; Schwartzman et al, 2000). Furthermore, environmental and social issues are complex and require a diverse and integrated approach to solving them (McNie, 2007; Berkes, 2009, Huntington, 2011). Subsequently, the incorporation of TEK and the people that hold it into collaborative relationships may add to a more diverse approach needed to solve environmental and social environmental issues (Kimmerer, 2002, Berkes, 2009; Uprety et al 2012).

Tokenistic use of TEK
TEK and the holders of this knowledge can suffer from tokenistic inclusion in conservation and environmental management. A good example of tokenistic inclusion is seen in Victoria Australia where politicians stated that they had managed to fully include Aboriginal people in the management of Victoria national parks. However, this was certainly not felt to be the case for the aboriginal people who did not feel included at all (Kingsley et al, 2009). Holders of TEK may be selectively integrated only as a means to secure political control of resources (Sylvain, 2005). In the scientific community TEK is often only used for its raw data where people, and cultural context are ignored (Agrawal, 2002; Briggs & Sharp, 2004). Furthermore, the inclusion of people in environmental management through various participatory forms is still questioned as to its benefits to the people involved and whether it is just bureaucratic tokenism (Palmer, 2006; Scott, 2011). Lastly inclusion may falsely label local communities especially indigenous, as being inherently conservationist rather than acknowledging that they use resources and may wish to develop further and improve their lives (Valdivia, 2005).

Tokenism impedes the benefits that TEK could have for decision making and local communities (Ellis, 2005). Such impediments retains distrust of government and scientists, creates assumptions over local people’s goals and hinders overarching environmental goals (Valdivia, 2007; Martinez, 1996).

A way forward
Tokenistic use of TEK and people will be met with resistance (Ross & Pickering, 2002). For a way forward there needs to be better understanding of how TEK can be used. Being able to work together and creating an environment to do so, effectively allows solutions to environmental issues to be realised (Berkes, 2007).

Some of the key ways to achieve better use of TEK is through the education of researchers (Pulsifer, 2011), the equal participation of the people whom the knowledge belongs in which they are treated as professionals and the equal use of TEK alongside more modern methods (Sutherland & Swayze, 2012; Ens, 2012). Doing so fosters can help collaborative relationships and ensures the knowledge used in decision making is not misunderstood (Stevenson, 2006, Mason et al, 2012).

TEK offers the chance of a more inclusive style of solving our environmental issues from resource use to conservation. This not only means communities become more willing to participate and to conserve but perhaps that it offers different views to the current norms (Kimmerer, 2002). The environmental issues we face are complex due to ecological and social interactions. As such, it makes sense that to solve these issues not only do we need to involve people at the local level but also to take advantage of the knowledge that they hold (Berkes, 2009).

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Catastrophic regime shifts in ecosystems: linking theory to observation

Paper by Scheffer, M. and Carpenter, S.R. (2003)

Synopsis by Hannes Öckerman

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Click here for a PDF version.

Great Apes and Biodiversity Offset Projects in Africa

ERES525 SPS - Offsetting