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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 2 (1995)

Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Wisdom for Sustainable Development. Edited by Nancy M. Williams and Graham Baines, 1993. Canberra: Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University.


Reviewed by John Cordell, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, Griffith University, Queensland 4111, Australia.

A notable accomplishment of the comparatively shortlived (1983-1989), yet far-sighted IUCN Ecology Commission's Working Group on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), was a special workshop held at the Australian National University in April 1988. This gathering, very likely one of the first multidisciplinary seminars to focus explicitly on the topic of TEK, or at least on its contemporary resource management applications, was also inspired by the 1987 Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, which among other things, drew attention to the potential contribution of indigenous groups to sustainable development.

IUCN subsequently directed its TEK Working Group to explore ways to implement this particular aspect of the Brundtland Commission's findings. The point was to go beyond documenting TEK for its own sake, or for cultural preservation, and to start to identify new outlets and uses for spheres of indigenous knowledge that had been ignored or inadequately valued in the past by western scientists. These efforts culminated in the present volume, which contains the proceedings from the 1988 Workshop in Australia. The editors, Graham Baines, who chaired the IUCN Working Group, and Nancy Williams, an Australian Aboriginal specialist who chaired the Australian Workshop, have more than an abiding interest in TEK. They are concerned with raising the profile of TEK in resource management circles. They note the untapped potential of TEK; under certain conditions it can be a conservation tool, a reservoir of natural history wisdom, in lieu of, or to augment scientific knowledge. The editors and several contributors also see a role for TEK in development assistance. If the book has a take-home message and perspective for future research, this is it: get practical.

The book provides insight into what made the IUCN's TEK Working Group tick, how it was able to network loosely, yet effectively, as an international association of concerned scholars. It stands as a tribute to the group's ideals and commitment to educate western scientists and policy-makers about the benefits of working with indigenous grou s as full- fledged partners in resource management. One of this book's interesting features, for TEK aficionados--it was definitely state-of-the-art in '88--is that it serves as a benchmark for the phenomenal surge of research and popular interest in what was not so long ago largely the exotic shores of ethnobiology and folk taxonomy.

In the turnaround time the book took to see the light of print (five years is not uncommon these days for edited volumes), much has changed. For one thing, TEK has become widely commodified and is the target of numerous debates raging over intellectual property. In certain quarters, Canada particularly, it is also a self-determination rallying cry for indigenous peoples.

Today, people wield the acronyms TEK and IK (Indigenous Knowledge) hardly without batting an eye. Entire resource centers, like the Leiden Ethnosystems and Development Programme, and journals are devoted to TEK and IK (e.g. Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor). Acquisition and uses of TEK and IK are also being actively promoted as an inherently worthwhile undertaking, not just by the IUCN, but quite a few international agencies--UNESCO, UNEP, WWF, Canada's International Development Research Centre (see G. Morin-Labatut and S. Akhtar 1992).

With 22 chapters presented as short essays, thought pieces and overviews, the book condenses a vast amount of information, and indicates something of the breadth of work and directions in TEK studies emerging from the academic cocoon of ethnobiology. Sections on background and methods cover matters of definition, conceptual and field research underpinnings in linguistics, ethnohistory, and archaeology. Various chapters touch on passages from some of the classics in the field, like Bulmer's Birds of My Kalam Country.

It would have been illuminating to expose more of TEK's intellectual roots in cultural anthropology (cognitive anthropology, ethnobotany, ethnoecology) and relation to biology, particularly biosystematics. The third section contains a handful of case study vignettes, with an area emphasis on Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea. Rather than extrapolating anything universal from these cases, where they do excel is in documenting some important occurrences and survivals of TEK in what are perhaps unexpected places and contexts still not fully appreciated (e.g. parallels in the management of fire and consequences of controlled burning in Aboriginal Australia and North America; contemporary resource management uses of TEK in coastal marine settings).

The volume as a whole also reveals how sharply TEK issues, and the emphasis given to definitions, issues, and problems, vary according to region and colonial history, and in terms of the political status of indigenous groups in question. Not surprisingly, in this regard, Canadian Indians would seem to have far less in common with Papua New Guinean customary landowners, than with Aborigines.

Finally, TEK researchers are by no means unanimous in their motivations, ideals, and goals. Some papers were written at a time when it was still acceptable, or at least in theory possible to get away with passing simplistic judgments on other peoples' customs, when an outside observer felt it was warranted. For example, Johannes and Lewis (Chapter 13) argue that Torres Strait Islanders do not understand critical aspects and the limits of their environment. The authors seem disappointed they can find no evidence of a conservation ethic in Islander society. In Chapter 4, Hunn presents arguments in support of sharing indigenous knowledge as an ideal of science, but he ends up sounding mercenary, mainly out to protect the vested interests of the research establishment.

On the other hand, some papers in the Workshop foreshadow complexities and the political volatility of working with IK and TEK, notably Healy's chapter (6) which deals with the relationship of researchers, communities, and consumers. Rose (Chapter 15) raises key questions about the power relationships between knowledge holders and researchers, and the fundamental issue of who benefits from recording TEK.

This book, in a sense like this review, is a snapshot of the times. However tempting, it would be unfair to take issue with the results of a seven-year-old conference, as the reference points for debates about TEK, and TEK politics, are rapidly shifting. For instance, the role of international conservation agencies in relation to TEK came up at the Australia Workshop (no paper was produced), yet no actual conflicts between protected area managers and indigenous landowners were discussed (only the potential for conflict).

Similarly, the contributors to the book have a tendency to put TEK on a pedestal, to compartmentalize and treat it as something in isolation from other cultural systems. Although TEK is bound up with contentious land rights and tenure issues in many places, the book for the most part sidesteps such problems. What government would not prefer to appear progressive in negotiating to preserve TEK rather than deal with land rights? The value of TEK alone to indigenous peoples in their land justice struggles seems debatable, though no doubt it is something that needs to be looked at case-by-case.

Romanticization and fetishization of TEK seem natural, and perhaps necessary given that indigenous knowledge has clearly been undervalued in the past. Yet one wonders whether the conservative perspectives and interpretations concerning TEK in this book really do much to demystify it. It is reasonable to speculate what would happen if a similar conference were to be held today; what would the agenda be? Moreover, who would be there?

Posing these questions reveals several of this volume's weaknesses. Looking back, certain items seem conspicuously absent from the Australian Workshop agenda. Perhaps these omissions are a 'sign of the times,' but they are troubling. Much is made in the preface about 'partnerships,' in the editors words, 'partnerships in tradition and science.' There is even some discussion of what one participant (Con Boekel) calls 'ethics in partnership,' rules of engagement that should govern the working relationship of nonindigenous researchers and indigenous knowledge holders.

Yet the TEK conference was ultimately about the people who weren't there. Despite much tipping of the hat to indigenous collaborators, there are no contributions from indigenous groups or representatives voicing their perspectives, not even a few direct quotes. Instead we get lectures on things like 'choosing the right informants' (Johannes and Lewis, Chapter 13). It is difficult to escape the feeling that the partnerships uppermost in the minds of many contributors to this book are still the interdisciplinary ones between anthropologists and natural scientists. Also noticeably missing in this volume is treatment in any depth of intellectual property rights issues surrounding TEK. What could have enlivened and enriched this volume, otherwise replete with extremely worthwhile examples and information that might never be very accessible beyond the South Pacific region, is a critical perspective on TEK. Without such a perspective, TEK studies can wind up with some extreme, if not dangerous, distorted, reductionist comparisons of indigenous knowledge and western science, as in the dichotomy of cognitive processes drawn by Wolfe et. al. (1992): IK is intuitive, oral, holistic, subjective, cyclical and inclusive vs. western science, which is analytical, literate, objective, linear, etc.

Today a healthy, more reflexive, critical perspective on TEK is taking shape. Many unrealistic claims and interpretations regarding the significance, uses, and characteristics of TEK--notably its uncritical celebration as wisdom for conservation and sustainable development in the modern world--are being constructively challenged on a broad front, not least by indigenous groups themselves.

One thing the Australian Workshop did not foresee was how quickly and energetically many indigenous groups would move to regain control of their cultural information (symbolized by TEK). Increasingly, indigenous communities are cornering the discourse on TEK (note the Inuit experiences reported by Kemp and Brooke in Cultural Survival Quarterly (1995: 25-27). Remarkably, many groups are now revitalizing and reclaiming, for their own purposes, what, as late as the late 1980s, was still fast becoming an anthropological salvage operation. For better or worse, in many cases, indigenous TEK initiatives are not exactly turning into the kinds of joint ventures, or 'partnerships' envisaged by Workshop participants in 1988.

The low profile IUCN TEK Working Group has a lot to its credit. It was instrumental in producing this valuable book, and seeding a number of other TEK initiatives that are still ongoing. It is hoped that this book will gain the attention of a wider audience, which it deserves. One final thought: for the sake of comparison, it might be profitable to read this edited volume back-to-back with Cultural Survival Quarterly's 1991 issue focusing on Intellectual Property Rights, Cunningham (1993), and the Intellectual Property Rights for Indigenous Peoples Sourcebook edited by Greaves (1994).

Although this edited volume is main y geared for like- minded professionals inside and outside universities variously concerned with TEK, the approach and format for the book work well as an introduction for nonspecialists, as well as specialists concentrating on regions other than the South Pacific.

References Cited:

Brundtland Commission.

1987 Our Common Future. World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Cunningham, A.B.

1993. Ethics, Ethnobiological Research, and Biodiversity. World Wide Fund for Nature.

Greaves, Tom.

1994. Intellectual Property Rights for Indigenous Peoples, A Sourcebook. Society for Applied Anthropology.

Kemp, William and L. Brooke.

1995. Towards Information Self-Sufficiency: The Nunavik Inuit Gather Information of Ecology and Land Use. Cultural Survival Quarterly. Winter. pp. 25-28.

Morin-Labatut, G. and S. Akhtar.

1992. Traditional Environmental Knowledge: A Resource to Manage and Share. Development 4: 24-30.

Wolfe, J., C. Bechard, P. Cizek, D. Cole.

1992. Indigenous and Western Knowledge and Resource Management Systems. Rural Reportings, Native Canadian Issues Series, 1. University of Guelph. Ontario.