Topic Area: Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Geographic Area: James Bay area in Subarctic Region of Canada
Focal Question: To what extent can indigenous knowledge systems provide alternative frameworks for sustainable uses of the environment?
(1) Berkes, F. 1994. ÒIndigenous Knowledge and Resource Management Systems: A Native Canadian Case Study from James Bay.Ó Speech delivered at the Canadian Anthropology Annual Conference, Vancouver, May 1994.
(2) Holling, C. S., ÒThe Resilience of Terrestrial Ecosystems: Local Surprise and Global Change.Ó In W. C. Clarke and R. E. Munn, eds., Sustainable Development of the Biosphere, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 292-317
. (3) Banuri, T. and F. Apffel Marglin. 1993. ÒA Systems-of-Knowledge Analysis of Deforestation.Ó In T. Banuri and F. Apffel Marglin, eds., Who Will Save the Forests? London: The United Nations University/Zed Books, pp. 1-23.
(4) Alvard, M. S. 1993. ÒTesting of the ÔEcologically Noble SavageÕ Hypothesis: Interspecific Prey Choice by Piro Hunters of Amazonian Peru.Ó Human Ecology 21:355-87.
Reviewer: Staunton St. C. M. Bowen, Colby College Ô97.

There are certain skepticisms surrounding the notion of indigenous knowledge systems. Resource management professionals have always been suspicious about claims of Ònative wisdomÓ in the use of natural resources. Cases have shown (Alvard, 1993) evidence from different groups of hunters that foragers tend to maximize their short-term harvests and that apparent resource management is merely an artifact of optimal foraging strategies. Indigenous peoples may have a profound knowledge of their environment, yet it does not follow that they use this knowledge for a conscious conservation of their resources.

Indigenous knowledge systems are defined as local knowledge held by indigenous peoples, or local knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. This is different than western resource management systems which is designed scientifically to lock out feedback from the environment and to avoid natural perturbations. An indigenous person would look at nature and observe its vibrancy and meaning as well as regard it with awe and uncertainty, while a ÒWesternerÓ would see nature as an inanimate clock governed by simple, universal laws and behaves as an automaton which once programmed will continue to follow the rules inscribed in the program.

The fur trade in the 1800Õs, which was initiated by European firms like the HudsonÕs Bay Company (HBC), introduced Western resource management to the indigenous peoples in North America. However, it is difficult to measure the effect that the European management system had on the conservation of big game and fish. The Western management system incorporated prescriptions against the killing of young animals and mothers, and against hunting during reproductive season. Their strategies may work well for farm animals, yet have no relevance to hunting and fishing strategies in complex ecosystems. The bottom line with regards to the effectiveness of British conservation prescriptions exported to Canada by the HBC is that beaver were hunted to extinction in England by the 1500Õs.

These two systems of knowledge interact in a very cautious manner. As Banuri and Apffel Marglin (1993) put it Ò...indigenous and modern communities are not just different political groups aiming to maximize their income or wealth, but embody different systems of knowledge, different ways of understanding, perceiving, experiencing, in sum, of defining reality, which includes the notions of oneÕs relationship not only to the social milieu but also to the natural environment.Ó As well, both camps have different views on one another. The western view on indigenous systems is that they usually see indigenous peoples not as a source of solutions to resource environmental problems, quite on the contrary, they often see indigenous peoples as themselves being the source of the problem - due to increasing population growth rates, for example. The indigenous peoples incorporate the ÒhuntedÓ into their act of hunting and fishing. In Western management systems there is no room for reciprocity between the hunter an hunted. Indigenous peoples understand the importance of their detailed local knowledge. Even with all their differences and disbeliefs, there has been a growth of interest in indigenous knowledge systems in recent years. It is due in large part to the failures of conventional resource management science, since, even with all of its modern managerial Òpowers,Ó it is unable to halt or reverse the depletion of resources.

C. S. Holling (1986) sees the apparent convergence between indigenous knowledge ideologies and nonlinear, multi-equilibrium ecosystems as a source of possible integration of Western science and indigenous knowledge. He has developed a systematic critique of the view of science as consisting of linear, cause and effect and predictive relationships. In his view, ecosystems are characterized by changes that could not, on looking back, be anticipated. He dubs them ÒsurprisesÓ and their study is called the Òscience of surprises.Ó Holling observed that when ecosystems are managed for human benefit, perturbations are eliminated to increase efficiency of management and hence the productivity of the resource, whether it be trees, wheat or big game. This, however, causes the ecosystem to become more brittle, or fragile. This brittleness does not tend to occur in indigenous cultures. This is due to the knowledge base that has evolved that provides guidance on how to deal with these perturbations and feedback, and how to respond to environmental changes.

Traditional knowledge and resource management can best be assessed in terms of their own long-term survival, as evidence of ecological sustainability. All groups of resource users have powerful, built-in incentives to conserve the resources on which they depend. In many cases they do conserve them, provided they can control access to the resources and can work out rules for collective action, that is, solve the exclusion and jointless problems of common-property resource management. Indigenous management systems have provided adaptations for societies to cope with their environment. In terms of operation, the indigenous systems are characterized by much closer attention to and much greater sensitivity of environmental feedback, such as declining local catches.

A common fallacy is that Westerners believe that indigenous peoples are not in equilibrium with their resources. This is true and is due to the fact that there is no such equilibrium, presumably because equilibrium in the ecosystem is such an elusive notion. Instead, indigenous hunters may be harvesting opportunistically and maximizing short term gains. However, especially in the cases represented in Berkes (1994), the indigenous peoples are also safe-guarding long-term productivity by territorial behaviour and prey-switching. Lessons can be learned from the many long surviving indigenous fishery systems.

The difference between the indigenous and Western management systems described in Berkes (1994) is that indigenous peoples are managed by rules and practices limiting ÒhowÓ to fish and hunt, while Westerners attempt to regulate Òhow muchÓ can be taken. In the indigenous system there is a great deal of learning by doing, and it can be seen as a part of a general process of self-organization arising from the necessity of a social group to deal with information from the environment. The knowledge held by social groups contain recipes for responding to and managing ecological feedback. Western science is moving away from the positivist emphasis on objectivity towards a recognition that fundamental uncertainty is large and certain processes are irreversible and that qualitative judgments do matter. In the larger scheme of things, the gap between scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge may be narrowing.

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