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Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Anthropology and Climate Change

  What are the implications for indigenous or place-based cultures facing the imminent and gradually destructive processes of climate change? There is a significant amount of literature that suggests the most vulnerable, natural resource-dependent groups of the world will disproportionately experience the harmful effects of climate change. Less developed countries and their indigenous populations are largely...

Photo Courtesy of Altaire Cambata


What are the implications for indigenous or place-based cultures facing the imminent and gradually destructive processes of climate change? There is a significant amount of literature that suggests the most vulnerable, natural resource-dependent groups of the world will disproportionately experience the harmful effects of climate change. Less developed countries and their indigenous populations are largely agricultural, dependent on the land for subsistence and economic livelihoods.

Like air pollution, climate change is transboundary. Despite a nation’s involvement or lack thereof in catalyzing global warming, the subsequent ecological problems will affect all people and all nations. Species extinction and sea level rise are encumbrances borne by the entire globe, but more so in the developing world, where the contributions to atmosphere pollution have been the smallest, even negligible (excluding “more developed” economies, such as those of India, China and Brazil). The cumulative effects of climate change on water supplies and farming systems, and the habitability of such areas, will provoke drastic economic, political and cultural impacts by broadening the divide between those who can afford to adapt and those who do not have the money, knowledge or time to do so.

On the other hand, victims of climate change are potential agents of solutions, leadership, climatic wisdom and untapped contributions to Western science. Through the increasingly popular anthropological method of collecting traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in climatically vulnerable areas, scientists and anthropologists have slowly recognized indigenous groups as possessors of information critical to the study of climate change.

Photo Courtesy of Altaire Cambata


According to natural resource use scholar Bikret Ferkes, Traditional Ecological Knowledge is defined as, “…a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by 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.” TEK has become an asset to climate change research, collected largely by anthropologists; it provides a local, qualitative scale of analysis for questions about weather patterns, animal migrations and adaptation strategies. Creating links between local and global conditions offers a wider range of knowledge and, therefore, a more comprehensive toolkit for understanding the biosphere.

Quantitative/biophysical data not only neglects to describe accurately the complexity of interactions between humans and the climate, but its methods can fail to record key climatic features. A study performed by anthropologist Andrei Marin, dedicated to gathering weather information from nomadic herders in Mongolia, found long-term climate trend analysis ignored extreme yet short-lived weather events, such as droughts and dust storms. Local understanding of climate was seen to contradict larger scale meteorological records, which neglected the fact that combinations of short-lived yet more frequent events drastically affected the nomadic lifestyle. The study also concluded that a pastoral way of life better lent itself to the collection of accurate climate data: Nomads gathered environmental knowledge over larger areas and with finer spatial clarity – providing more detailed descriptions of these areas – whereas weather stations only registered infrequent point occurrences of weather patterns.

Many communities are potential libraries of ethno-botanical information and can make invaluable contributions to conservation policy by sharing taxonomic knowledge and ecosystem management approaches. Such communities are in a position to provide much-needed innovation in the fields of biotechnology and modern medicine – information that could perish with certain vulnerable plant species, language or diminishing cultural practices.

Photo Courtesy of Altaire Cambata


Those place-based people who have historically dealt with regular climatic disturbances in relatively harsh environments can also suggest innovative agricultural techniques that can bolster food security. By monitoring adaptation strategies among indigenous peoples and organizing a system to disseminate such information, disparate cultures could empower one another. The exchange of sustainable technologies between regions with similar agroclimatic and socioeconomic conditions would provide support for farmers coping with similar disturbances.

Some argue that climate change adaptation research should take into consideration cultural frameworks advocating environmental ethics. Values such as respect, sharing, reciprocity and humility characterize systems of traditional ecological management that seem to operate sustainably in many contemporary communities including American aboriginal, African and Pacific Island groups.

Photo Courtesy of Kathryn and Jonmikel Pardo


Perhaps most importantly, the anthropological collection of TEK can play a role in helping indigenous peoples advocate for their rights, legitimize land ownership and apply for adaptation aid, as not all communities have the experience or platform to pursue collective political action. In places where civil society and advocacy are lacking, assistance may be required to aid those particularly vulnerable to the repercussions of climate change.

Though full of potential benefits, the illumination of TEK should not be considered a replacement for Western science, but rather a means of verifying information derived from global, biophysical reports and augmenting human defenses against climate change. It should be remembered that neither indigenous nor scientific communities produce consistently uniform or infallible knowledge. Generally, however, indigenous peoples have sustained harmonious relationships with the landscape for millennia. By putting into practice ecological knowledge embedded in their culture, they have many times actually increased local biodiversity. The need to collect and disseminate these traditions with proper compensation for such knowledge is urgent; globalization has prompted the urbanization of younger generations, and the impending death of elders means critical indigenous knowledge may be lost forever.

It remains to be seen whether or not people can combine resources quickly enough to expose and mitigate inequalities resulting from climate change. Such a dilemma inspires another anthropological question: What are the implications of inhabiting a rapidly warming planet where experts needed for understanding and adapting to climate change have yet to be consulted?

To read the full article written by Altaire Cambata, please visit



Berkes, Fikret. “Rediscovery of Traditional Ecological Knowledge as Adaptive Management.”Ecological Applications 10.5 (2000):1251-1262.

Mauro, Francesco, and Preston D.Hardison. “Traditional Knowledge of Indigenous and Local Communities:International Debate and Policy Initiatives.” Ecological Applications 10.5 (2000):1263-269.

Marin, Anderi. “Riders Under Storms: Contributions of Nomadic Herders’ Observations to Analysing Climate Change in Mongolia.”Global Environmental Change,Adaptive,  Adaptive Capacity to Global Change in Latin America (2010):162–176.

Thomas, David S.G. and Chasca Twyman.”Equity and Justice in Climate Change Adaptation Amongst Natural-Resource-Dependent Societies.” Global Environmental Change 15 (2005):115-24.

Wisner, Ben. “Climate Change andCultural Diversity.” Editorial. UNESCO 2010:130-40.

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Voices for Biodiversity
Voices for Biodiversity (V4B) is an online conservation media magazine that shares the stories of people from around the globe in order to help all species survive and thrive together. The e-zine is a gathering place for those who believe that humanity’s health and well-being depend upon the health and well-being of other species and the ecosystems that support us all. Voices for Biodiversity shares the stories of eco-reporters from around the world, using the ancient human art of storytelling to connect people with each other, other species, and the natural world. The magazine’s goal is to alter human behavior in such a way as to connect the human animal with the global ecosystem in order to stem biodiversity loss and arrest the sixth extinction of species taking place in this time, the Age of the Anthropocene.