Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Fishery Management: A Case from Puerto Rico

I've often talked about what is called "traditional ecological knowledge" (TEK) or "local ecological knowledge" (LEK). These terms reflect the local wisdom indigenous peoples have about their homeland, their environment, the resources present, and how they change over time. The value of this knowledge is immense. The collective wisdom of indigenous peoples can bring to bear hundreds or thousands of years of place-based experiential knowledge on a range of topics. Science, a relative new comer in terms of knowledge-forming methods, is still trying to figure out how to incorporate indigenous peoples knowledge (TEK or LEK) into its paradigm. Anthropologists and others have been working on bridging this gap, although at times it can be quite difficult.

Personally, I have worked on several projects where we have used traditional ecological knowledge to inform and compliment resource management plans, natural resource damage assessments, and environmental impact assessments. Not only do you get a better understanding of the resource under consideration, but you also get to incorporate the indigenous peoples' values into the plan, allowing for a more comprehensive, collaborative, and sound result. In a recent study published in the American Anthropologist, Carlos G. Garcia-Quijano exemplifies the utility of indigenous peoples' knowledge in managing tropical fisheries off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Here is the Abstract:

Fishers' Knowledge of Marine Species Assemblages: Bridging Between Scientific and Local Ecological Knowledge in Southeastern Puerto Rico by Carlos G. Garcia-Quijano

Increasingly, local ecological knowledge (LEK) held by groups of people engaging directly with their ecosystems for food production is recognized as a valuable tool for understanding environmental change, as well as for ecosystem management and conservation. However, the acceptance of LEK for resource management has been partly hindered by difficulties in translating local knowledge into a form that can be applied directly to Western scientific endeavors. Anthropology's focus on cultural meaning makes its practitioners uniquely qualified to find common ground between different systems of knowledge. Here, I report the use of ethnographic methods to represent Puerto Rican small-scale fishers' knowledge about tropical coastal habitat connectivity and the composition of species assemblages by underwater habitats. These two topics are of current interest for tropical fishery science and their study can benefit from fishers' extensive experience with the coastal environments on which they depend.

What are some of the benefits from this particular study? Local ecological knowledge (LEK) was able to inform science about appropriate "indicator" species of fish for understanding the health of the coral reef ecosystem, the identification of representative species assemblages for different types of underwater habitats, the degree to which adjacent neighborhoods share fish and shellfish species, and habitat connectivity. As such, indigenous peoples and their knowledge can make broad contributions to the knowledge used for local ecosystem management. Just because indigenous peoples' knowledge may not be "empirical" in the standard way does not mean it cannot be used with empirical data to inform decisions.

By working together, scientists, managers, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples can all help to keep the earth in a better state of balance. Hopefully, with this study and others, we (as humans) can interact and manage our resources in a more holistic and sane manner.

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