Local Ecological Knowledge

What is it? Why is it important in conservation? Why are anthropologists scared?


By CHLOE CHESNEY, a PhD student in Anthropology at NOVA FCSH and the CEC, University of Exeter looking at the role of local people in the long-term persistence of western chimpanzees in West Africa.


Welcome to the third, and final blog entry on ‘Anthropology and Biodiversity Conservation’ for ConScience. In the first volume/part we looked at the value of anthropology in biodiversity conservation focusing specifically on environmental anthropology and ontological anthropology. In the second volume/part we looked at the role of anthropology for biodiversity conservation in this period of rapid environmental change especially with regards to the climate.


Now, I want to introduce you to the concept of ‘LEK’: local ecological knowledge.


In 2017–2020 I was living in Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau working in conservation and environmental education projects. Along with colleagues and friends, we often spoke about how we can/should/could do justice to the things local people in these ‘community conservation’ projects were telling us. The general idea being, the people we work with know their environment far better than we ever would/could yet the decisions and strategies regarding this environment were often predominately decided or expected to be decided by us (in a broad sense). Knowing that the success of our work depends on local people, being acutely aware of the neo-colonial nature of elements of conservation and wanting to just do-our-best, we tried our best. But how should we include the things people were telling us into the biodiversity conservation strategies?


I still haven’t fully worked it out. And for years I wasn’t really sure where to start. In fact, since then I have been exploring these ideas, reading about other places where local knowledge is more incorporated in conservation planning than what I saw in my own experience, and around these topics from different perspectives. Reading and following success stories, and challenges.


And that brings us to now…


In 2022, in continuing to further explore these ideas I have started (in 2021) a PhD on the role of local ecological knowledge both inside and outside protected areas in West Africa (Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone). I have decided that an interdisciplinary approach is important, and that anthropology should be the dominant angle to explore these ideas further. To align theory with my own interpretation of what I already saw, heard and think is difficult, but I think it is important and so I am learning.


My motivations remain much the same in the 5 years that I haven’t stopped thinking about this yet my understanding has shifted from entirely naive to (I hope) a little less so. And so I share with you the concept in which I have begun to situate my research… ‘LEK’: local ecological knowledge.


There are various terms used to describe local knowledge, understandings and practices related to the ecosystems we live in. These terms can focus on ecological knowledge (more focused on interactions between species and their surroundings) or environmental knowledge (more focused on the surrounding and their conditions). These terms can focus on local people and/or indigenous people. These terms can refer to dimensions of historical and cultural systems of belief (tradition) or not. Either way, they are often more complex than on first-read, both tangible and intangible, dynamic and importantly have implications locally and on a large scale.


Knowledge of nature, the environment, ecosystems and their interconnections is not bound to the kingdoms of life on Earth (fauna, flora and funga) but can be both descriptive (i.e. ‘facts’) and ‘prescriptive’ (i.e. value) and is therefore not just knowledge but a part of a person or societies ontology (Solinas 2003).

P.s. if this paragraph makes no sense, I hope it makes more sense after reading Part 1 of this series.


I have decided, for now at least, to go with the term ‘local ecological knowledge’ (LEK) (and i’ll explain a bit more about why in a couple of paragraphs). There is a lot written about it and I have tried to summarise the key components below but for more detail you can start here: Ingold 2003; Ellen and Harris 2003; Aswani, Lemahieu and Sauer 2018.


  • LEK can be defined as observational knowledge, understandings, practices related with resources, and beliefs related to ourselves as part of ecosystems;

  • LEK is generally transmitted culturally, across generations, in relation to people’s interrelations and interconnections with each other and the natural environment;

  • LEK is most often transmitted orally and practically through imitation and repetition;

  • Once viewed (at least academically) as a static body of knowledge, research investigating LEK has shown changes, hybridisations, adaptations and disappearances in this knowledge over time in response to socio-ecological changes which has shifted the view of LEK to something more dynamic or fluid;

  • Generally speaking, LEK is specific to an area and/or a group of people and is integrated within the boundaries of cultural traditions holistically and is therefore, to the people with it, intuitive and informal and built within the history of the land and involvements with its inhabitants.

It should also be noted (strongly) that the conceptualisation of LEK in academia and policy-making is distinct from the local perception of this same knowledge (Ingold 2003). Local, indigenous and/or traditional knowledge has been thought of as different from Western knowledge (or science) in some fundamental ways by some, and similar in the shared way that knowledge is based always and simply in an ‘accumulation of observations’ (Berkes, Colding, and Folke 2000).


The term ‘traditional’ for anthropologists is in some ways reminiscent of the emergence of the discipline of anthropology and the ideas developed by cultural evolutionists (e.g. Tylor). Within cultural evolution in early anthropology, the idea of ‘traditional’ became intrinsically linked with ideas of ‘savagery’ which would (and in their mind, ‘should’) ‘evolve’ into cultures deemed ‘civilised’ because of their belief in science over religion (e.g. Frazer). These ideas of mental and cultural evolution discriminated against ‘non-Western’ cultures and perpetuated, and justified, racist movements including European colonialism (Eriksen 2010). For this reason, anthropologists have tended to feel more comfortable with the term local and/or indigenous more than ‘traditional’. Other disciplines interested in these kinds of knowledge, and without this sensitivity and history have nevertheless continued use of the term ‘traditional’ and therefore established ‘traditional’ knowledge for all intents and purposes as synonymous with ‘local and indigenous’ knowledge. Regarding ecological knowledge see the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s working group on ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’’s work. The term has since been used by conservation biologists, environmental anthropologists, development studies, the pharmaceutical industry and many other research areas.


And so questions emerge…

Such as… Is it necessary from ‘outside’ to separate local knowledge from global knowledge?


Roy Ellen and Holly Harris (2003) posit these kind of questions and suggest that since indigienous people (in most cases) now rely on a mixture of both local and global knowledge that ‘we’ should accept this interface and stop to perpetuate such a separation, but investigate the relationship between ‘expert knowledge’ and ‘real-world situations’.


Nevertheless, increasingly now, outside academia and external institutions, terms such as LEK, have been adopted by the people with the knowledge themselves, mostly in defence of their property, both physical and intellectual, in a political rhetoric with international agencies (especially development and extractive) and governments (Ellen and Harris 2003). This is because LEK and associated concepts are linked with concerns over biodiversity conservation and therefore have power and weight in political discussions.


LEK can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and ecological processes.


Now, more than ever before, biodiversity conservation is inextricably a part of studying (and in more ‘real-life’ situations too) people, other species and habitats because of the wider, global context: the Anthropocene (Fuentes and Hockings 2010).

*(more about this is in Part 2 of this blog series).

Anthropologists cannot ignore the ‘biological side’ as biodiversity conservationists cannot ignore the ‘social side’.

*(more about this in Part 1 of this blog series).


In 2018, Aswani and colleagues collated publications on LEK to map global trends and predict the implications of these trends in biodiversity conservation. They found that of the papers they analysed, 77% reported loss of knowledge, driven in the majority of cases by globalisation and related phenomena (Aswani, Lemahieu, and Sauer 2018).


The authors say:


“The observed increasing cognitive dissonance between local and imported belief systems can typically result in an intergenerational loss in local people’s capacity to classify their environment correctly, manage their terrestrial and marine resources, and understand spatiotemporal changes locally”

(Aswani, Lemahieu, and Sauer 2018, 2).


But what are the potential implications of this?


Aswani and colleagues (2018) map the erosion of LEK, to the loss of local resilience capacity, to the subsequent loss of both cultural and biological diversity. Though the scale becomes global in these discussions, the nexus remains the local scale.


So what erodes LEK?

What does loss of local resilience capacity mean?

And what can be done to mitigate the loss of both cultural and biological diversity?


- And here is where my PhD research is situated (as I begin).


Put simply, there is a link between LEK and biodiversity conservation because there are tangible and intangible links between biological and cultural heritage and even more simply, without any further specification, links between biology and culture.


What contributes to the erosion of biology (or biodiversity) may not be the same as what erodes culture (or LEK). Or, perhaps in some cases it is?


And finally, in true blog fashion of not concluding anything, I make just one other point.


In some cases, LEK can provide a framework for collaborative management, complementing scientific information and/or contextualising other (usually more biological sciences) data (e.g. Shaffer et al. 2018). And yet I finish this blog with this quote: “Exaggerated claims on behalf of traditional ecological wisdom require a reality check” (Berkes, Colding, and Folke 2000).


Final Note - Of course many important topics and points of discussion are missing from this exercise which may be considered introductory to the overall topic and intrinsically in need of revision.
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