Traditional Ecological Knowledge

First Nations encampment beside the Albany River in the Northwest Territories. Image demonstrating how indigenous populations learned to live with the land while using resources in a sustainable manor, 1886.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) represents the knowledge that has been collected over generations of interactions between humans and nature. TEK provides individuals with insights about biodiversity and gives solutions to conservation issues by having a more qualitative approach to ecosystem management. [1] The implementation of TEK solutions to conservation issues are aligned with a traditional belief system of traditional people. [2] Traditional conservation practices tend to have a holistic approach to resource management, meaning that nature and mankind are interconnected within the system and should be managed as such.

Traditional Ecological knowledge (TEK) can be known as the knowledge of Indigenous, or local people that has been acquired by their long-time direct contact with the natural world. Their knowledge about ecosystems has been developed primarily through planting, hunting, fishing, forestry, and agricultural practices along with numerous other aspects of sustainable living. [3] Furthermore, TEK is known to have a holistic approach towards conservation of the natural environment, closely aligning it with what is now recognized as the scientific discipline called "ecology." [3]

Traditional Ecological Knowledge, in relation to resource extraction and use takes into account the effects of the extraction processes and the corresponding long term effects this may have on nature. [4] Due to this, TEK practices can be a critical tool, and knowledge source for long-term sustainability efforts and a valuable source for immediate conservation practices within the modern world. [4] Since TEK is often rooted within a specific population, or community, it can be crucial for informing sustainable conservation practices and management of communities local environment and ecosystems. [4]

Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Climate Change in Alaska

Pipeline Construction Site on the Yukon River Bridge, Alaska. Image demonstrating some of the athropogenic impacts that human activities have had, and continue to have on the river, 1977.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) has been used to refer to sources of knowledge regarding species, ecosystems, or practices held by people whose lives are closely linked to their natural environment. [5] The use of TEK has been successful in conservation planning and resource assessment primarily for these three reasons: efficiency, additionality, and community engagement.[5]

For example, the individuals who maintain and manage parts of the Yukon River, located in Alaska, U.S.A., have noted that environmental changes are beginning to take place within the river that can be largely attributed to the effects of human-driven climate change. [6] These changes in climate have shown to have direct impacts on key aspects of the Yukon River such as: fish, fish habitats, fishing activities and observations also include the drying-up of wetland areas, lakes, and waterways, as well as changes in weather patterns, which in turn affect river levels and average dates of freeze-up and break-up. [6]

For identifying these landscape changes at local and global scales, Traditional Ecological Knowledge has proven to be rather beneficial in identifying the changes that occur to a landscape or to an ecosystem. Understanding the potential impacts of climate change on landscapes, wildlife, and the ecosystem as a whole is important for Federal managers in order for them to carry out the mandates for which the various conservation units were established and to build flexibility into formal management structures to address a changing environment. [6] By using the knowledge collected over a long period of time by Indigenous populations within the area, the Federal managers of this river ecosystem can better develop solutions to combate the growing effects of climate change.

Using TEK allows a mutually beneficial relationship to be created between conservation biologists and local residents. Indigenous scholars and the scientific community can benefit by mutual exchange of information and interpreting the information collaboratively. A critical aspect of conservation biology and the associated environmental management is acquiring information that is not only accurate but trusted by those who make and abide by decisions based on that information. The use of TEK offers one way of bridging gaps in perspective and understanding, especially when used in combination with knowledge derived from the Western scientific method. [6]

Case Study of Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Small-Scale Fisheries

Natives with Hoop Net, Bayamon River, Puerto Rico. Image demonstrating some traditional fishing methods with hoop fishing nets that were used by indigenous populations in Puerto Rico on the Bayamon River.

Puerto Rican small-scale fisheries is an excellent example of the influence of Traditional Ecological Knowledge at work in the present day and age. TEK has helped Puerto Rican small-scale fisheries to achieve high rates of success through managing the social and ecological complexities associated with these fisheries which in turn allows the people to make a living from local fishing. [7] As well, TEK in regards to marine ecosystems is key in achieving ecological success seeing as their marine habitats have such high numbers of species which are not fully understood and known by Western Ecological Knowledge. Due to this knowledge gap in MWEK, it presents the local residents with an opportunity to share their knowledge that they have earned through years of practice and experience with the species that are lesser known; resulting in better overall ecosystem health and cooperation between TEK and MWEK. [8]

Modern Western Ecological Knowledge

Modern day Western Practices typically have a more dichotomous approach, meaning that nature and mankind are separate entities from one another and should be managed as individual parts, not as an interconnected system. Modern Western Ecological Knowledge (MWEK) and its practices transfer to individuals more through formal reports and peer-reviewed publication. As well, Modern Western Ecological Knowledge has a more quantitative approach in addressing conservation issues. [2]

The concept of Modern Western Ecological Knowledge (MWEK) is a relatively new and debatable concept in environmental sciences. In many cases, Modern Western Ecological Knowledge is used for economic growth and production in many developed and developing countries.[9] The MWEK is part of the western science and technology that is categorized under anthropocentric ethical perspectives and the dichotomous world view as it has a human-centered point of view that places humans separate from the natural world. Thus, the MWEK sees the natural world as a potential to full-fill human needs. [10]

Modern Western Ecological Knowledge: Ecosystem Services Approach

Ecosystem Services Types - Supporting, Regulating, Provisioning and Cultural. The Ecosystem Services approach is a modern-day conservation practice that brings light to the relationships that humans and nature have while ensuring sustainable development of these resources is practised. [11]

The modern-day concept of ecosystem services first emerged around the 1970's between biology and economics, in an effort to better manage the relationship between humans and nature.[2] These ecosystem services have since been categorized into four broad types: supporting, regulating, provisioning and cultural ecosystem services. Since ecosystem services emergence, the concept has become a foundation for a diversity of literature that measures, assesses, and values aspects of human reliance on nature for the sake of conservation and sustainable resource management. [2] The increasing acknowledgement of the value of ecosystem services for sustainable development is demonstrated by developments such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES); an intergovernmental body consisting of over 130 member states whose mission is ‘to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development.' [12]

The Econonmics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is a global inititive that is focused on 'making natures values visible.' [13] Below is a brief description of each ecosystem service as described by TEEB along with the services that they provide society.

Supporting Ecosystem Services: Services that ecosystems provide as support for all other ecosystems services to be possible, theses primarily include habitat creation, soil formation and maintenance of genetic diversity.

Regulating Ecosystem Services: Services that ecosystems provide by acting as regulators, these include regulating the quality of air and soil and provide flood and disease control.

Provisioning Ecosystem Services: Services that describe the physical material and energy outputs from ecosystems, they include food, water and raw materials.

Cultural Ecosystem Services: Cultural ecosystem services are those services that are non-raw material services that individuals receive from an ecosystem, these generally include spiritual and religious values, recreational services and aesthetics.

The figure to the left demonstrates a more in-depth analysis into the key aspects of each ecosystem service type and the benefits and relationships that the natural environment and humans share.

Synergies between Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Modern Western Ecological Knowledge

While Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is known as the accumulation of information, beliefs, and practices over a large scale of time primarily from Indigenous populations, and Modern Western Ecological Knowledge (MWEK) is rooted in rational and factual based practices, it can be said that these two practices can be complimentary, not conflicting of one another. [14] Although TEK may have religious or cultural views towards nature, which may not apply to WWEK, they are still an integral part of understanding and preserving the environment. [14] Because TEK often relates the environment to religion or culture, it does not mean that their conservational methods aimed at preserving nature are any less effective than the WWEK methods may be. Therefore, the two terms, TEK and WWEK can be assumed to be complimentary to one another through similar desired end results from their methods. [14]

The TEK and the world-view of indigenous people about nature and ecology sometimes go hand in hand with scientific discipline of ecology that is more adapted in Western culture. For instance, the importance of TEK in decision-making and planning for sustainable development has been recognized by the UNESCO Canada and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Research Council (CEARC) with the hope of recognition, understanding and use of TEK for sustainable development.

Another reason that there is synergies between the TEK and technologies is that, each of the model of management has its own criticisms. The western adapted knowledge that uses enhanced technologies itself has criticisms and has been recognized as reasons of the problem found in current conservation issues. For economic development and ecological sustainability to be continued,technology alone is not enough; more traditional knowledge is needed to help conservation and the issues around conservation, thus, TEK and WMEK can be complementary to one another.[15]

Differences between Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Modern Western Ecological Knowledge

While Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), and Modern Western Ecological Knowledge (MWEK) may have similarities in practice, they also have numerous differences, which ultimately affect how each acts towards conservation. Moreover, specifically through their differing worldviews, TEK being primarily holistic and MWEK being primarily dichotomous, this leads to distinctive differences in terms of how each knowledge base responds to conservation issues.

Major differences, as outlined in the book: Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Concepts and Cases, edited by: Julian T. Inglis' [3] include:

Table 1: A comparison between Indigenous Knowledge and Modern Knowledge [16]

This table below demonstrates the two knowledge based ecological practices; Traditional and Modern Western. Through this table the two practices are contrasted with one another based on their knowledge and the values that each practice has towards conservation practices.

Indigenous Modern
Epistemology (knowledge)
generated through observations and experiments of uses and by identification with the object of knowledge Means of knowledge acquisition learned in abstract manner, not always linked to application and from the separation of the observer from the object of knowledge
intuitive and subjective Basis of cognition analytical and objective
usually recorded and transmitted orally, sometimes via sacred texts Process of knowledge transmission transmitted deductively through written word
holistic, subjective, experiential, embedded, and integrated in the social, cultural, and moral dimension Integration with worldview and culture reductionist, objective, positivist, disembedded compartmentalized—convergent—homogeneous
Cosmology (the universe)
views all matter as having life force, including inanimate forms—Animistic View of life forces recognizes only plants and animals as having life force—separation between God and people
ecological-based on worldviews which emphasise social and spiritual relations between life forms Perception of nature and life forms hierarchically organized and vertically compartmentalized—the environment is reduced to conceptually discrete components
spiritual explanations of environmental phenomena, revised and validated over time Explanation of environmental phenomena explanations derived through testing of hypotheses, using theories and laws of nature
shaped by the ecological system in which it is located Basis of relationship with nature predicated on people's ability to dominate nature
a finite good Nature of knowledge as a "good" infinite good
sees all entities in a relational context View of universe instrumentalism (views everything as sources of gratification)
stresses inter-dependency and equality of all life forms Equality between life forms sees humans (especially Western men) as superior life form, with an inherent right to control and exploit nature
Ontology (self)
predicated on group values or 'holism' Basis of self worth predicated on individualistic values—nothing but the sum of a biological core and behavioural surfaces—the product of random genetic activity—identity and significance are derived from economic production or consumption
a phenomenon to be rejected or integrated into worldview View of technology a measure of civilization or backwardness
diachronic-based on a long time series in one locality Dealing with change over time (phenomenological) synchronic-based on short time series over a large area
time is measured cyclically Time measurement time is linear
bound by time and space, social contextuality and moral factors Contextual validity superior on the basis of universal validity
requires a commitment to the local context Geographic contextuality values mobility and weakens local context
associated with a system of social accountability (e.g., a Shaman) Social accountability not usually associated with a system of social accountability except theoretical physicists in their role as "high priests of science"

Summary Statements & Key Take-Aways of TEK and MWEK


  1. Yahaya, Abdul-Kadri (2013). "Indigenous knowledge in the management of a community-Based Forest Reserve in the Wa West District of Ghana". Ghana Journal of Development Studies. 9 (1): 101–114. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Saylor, R., Alsharif, K., Torres, H. (2017). "The importance of traditional ecological knowledge in agroecological systems in Peru". International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services & Management. 13 (1). 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Inglis, Julian, T. (1993). Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Concepts and Cases. Ottawa, Canada: International Development Research Centre (IDRC). ISBN 1-895926-00-9. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Menzies, Charles, R. (2006). Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management. Nebraska, USA: University of Nebraska Press. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Rist, Lucy (2010). "The Use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Forest Management: an Example from India" (PDF). Ecology and Society. 15 (1). 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Rinkevich, Sarah (2011). "Traditonal Ecological Knowledge for Application by Service Scientists" (PDF). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 
  7. Garcia-Quijano, Carlos (2015). "Ecosystem-Based Knowledge And Reasoning In Tropical, Multi-Species, Small-Scale Fishers' LEK: What Can Fishers' LEK Contribute To Coastal Ecological Science And Management?". Fisher’s Knowledge and the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries: Applications, experiences and lessons in Latin America. 1: 19–40. 
  8. Garcia-Quijano, Carlos (2009). "Coupling of Humans, Habitats and Other Species: A Study of the Fishers' Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in La Parguera". Sociology & Anthropology Faculty Publications. 45 (2-3): 363–371. 
  9. Zhang, Lei (2007). "The interpretation of ecological modernisation in China". Environmental Politics. 16 (4). 
  10. Maweu, Jacinta (2011). "Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and Modern Western Ecological Knowledge: Complementary, not Contradictory". Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya. 3 (2): 35–47. 
  11. World Wide Fund For Nature (2016). "WWF Living Planet Report 2016" (PDF). Living Planet Report. 
  12. "What is IPBES?". Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. 2019. Retrieved April 2, 2019. 
  13. "The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity". The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB). 2019. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Maweu, Jacinta, M. (2011). "Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and Modern Western Ecological Knowledge: Complementary, not Contradictory". Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya (PAK). 3 (2): 35–47. 
  15. Antone, Joseph (2013). "The Use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Contemporary Environmental Policy". Sociological Imagination: Western’s Undergraduate Sociology Student Journal. 2 (1). 
  16. Studley, John (1998). "Dominant Knowledge Systems & Local Knowledge". Conference: Community-Based Mountain Tourism. 
  17. Rist, Lucy (2010). "The Use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Forest Management: an Example from India" (PDF). Ecology and Society. 15 (1). 
  18. Saylor, R., Alsharif, K., Torres, H. (2017). "The importance of traditional ecological knowledge in agroecological systems in Peru". International Journal of Biodiversity Science, Ecosystem Services & Management. 13 (1). 

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Will. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

egulating the quality of air and soil or by providing flood and disease control.