Learn more about conservation and trust from Indigenous societies

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young anthropologist working in northern Siberia, the native hunters, fishers, and trappers I lived with would often stop and solemnly offer something to the tundra. It was usually small in size, like coins, buttons, or unlit matches. But it was considered essential. Before going on a hunting or fishing trip, I was asked if I had changed my coat. If I didn’t, someone would get me some so it was handy. We also left other goodies, like wild reindeer fat to feed on the fire.

I was intrigued. Why do these things? Their responses were usually “We are the children of the tundra” or “We are making these sacrifices so that the tundra will give us more animals to hunt next year”.

These practices are part of what I and other anthropologists call ‘traditional ecological knowledge’. Beliefs and traditions about the natural world are central to many indigenous cultures around the world, bringing together what industrialized cultures consider science, medicine, philosophy and religion.

Many academic studies have debated whether Indigenous economies and societies are more conservation or ecologically oriented than others. Certainly, the idealized stereotypes many people hold about Indigenous groups being one with nature are simplistic and potentially damaging to the groups themselves.

However, recent studies have pointed out that conservationists can learn a lot from TEK about successful resource management. Some experts argue that traditional knowledge must play a role in global climate planning because it promotes “cost-effective, participatory and sustainable” strategies.

Part of TEK’s success stems from how it fosters trust. This takes many different forms: trust between community members, between people and nature, and between generations.

Understanding Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Looking more closely at TEK’s components, the first, “tradition”, is something learned from ancestors. It’s transmitted.

“Ecological” refers to the relationships between living organisms and their environment. It comes from the ancient Greek word for “house” or “dwelling”.

Finally, the earliest uses of the term “knowledge” in English refer to the recognition or possession of something, the admission of something, and sometimes the acknowledgment of a person’s position or title. These now obsolete meanings emphasize relationships – an important aspect of knowledge that modern usage often overlooks, but which is particularly important in the context of tradition and ecology.

Combining these three definitions helps generate a framework for understanding Indigenous TEK: a strategy that encourages respect for ancestral ways of life. It is not necessarily about strict “laws” or “doctrines” or simply observation of the environment.

TEK is a way of looking at the world that can help people connect the land they live on, their behavior, and the behavior of the people they are connected to. Indigenous land practices are based on generations of careful and insightful observation of the environment and help define and promote “virtuous” behavior in it.

As an American commuter living in a remote community in Siberia, I was always learning what was “appropriate” and “inappropriate”. Many times people would tell me that what I or someone else had just done was a “sin” in relation to TEK. When someone’s aunt died one year, for example, community members said it happened because their nephew had killed too many wolves the previous winter.

The author teaches how to cut dwarf willow the right way to use it in a summer pot, or tent, for smoking caribou meat. John Ziker, CC BY-NC-ND

Similarly, after stopping to assess the freshness of some reindeer tracks on the tundra, a hunter told me, “We let these local wild reindeer roam in the middle of winter so they come back year round. next and for future generations. Here, TEK lays out the potential environmental impacts of greed, which in this case would mean overhunting.

Concepts like these are not isolated to Siberia. Much work has been done to examine the parallels between ancestral systems of deference in Siberia, the Amazon, North America, and other regions.

Trust and tradition

These examples illustrate how TEK is a set of systems that foster trust by encouraging deference to ancestral ways of inhabiting the world.

The moderation of self-serving behavior requires such confidence. And the trust that the environment will provide — caribou to hunt, for example, or ptarmigan to trap — depends on the idea that people will treat the environment respectfully.

Previously, I studied prosociality – behavior that benefits others – in northern Siberian practices of food sharing, childcare, and hunting land use.

These aspects of life are based on the idea that the “true” owners of natural resources are the ancestors and that they punish and reward the behaviors of the living. Such ideas are encouraged by elders and leaders, who praise virtuous and prosocial behavior while linking negative outcomes to selfishness.

Trust is an essential component of reciprocity – exchange for mutual benefit – and prosociality. Without trust, it makes no sense to take risks in our relationships with others. Without trust, we cannot cooperate or behave in non-exploitative ways, such as environmental protection. This is why it is advantageous for societies to monitor and punish non-cooperators.

A number of small items are strewn across the top of a sled sitting in a field.
An abandoned reindeer sleigh, probably a grave, with several personal items. We have no right to disturb it, it would be disrespectful to the dead, who are considered the true owners of the earth. John Ziker, CC BY-NC-ND

In other words, minimizing the use of resources today to improve the future requires trust and the mechanisms to enforce it. This is also true in larger social formations, even between nations. Groups must trust that others will not use resources they themselves have protected or abuse their own resources.

‘Be responsible to your descendants’

Today, many environmental experts want to integrate the teachings of indigenous societies into climate policies. This is partly because recent studies have shown that environmental outcomes, such as forest cover, for example, are better in indigenous protected areas.

It also stems from a growing awareness of the need to protect the rights and sovereignty of indigenous peoples. TEK cannot be “mined”. Outsiders should show deference to knowledge holders and respectfully solicit their views.

One idea societies can embrace in their fight against climate change is the importance of trust, which can seem hard to come by these days. Young activist Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future initiative, for example, highlights ethical issues of trust and responsibility between generations.

Many outdoor enthusiasts and sustainability organizations insist on “leaving no trace”. In fact, people always leave traces, no matter how small – a recognized fact in Siberian TEK. Even footsteps compact the ground and affect plant and animal life, however careful they may be.

A maxim closer to TEK and more precise might say: “Be responsible to your descendants for the traces you leave behind.”The conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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