Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Climate Justice
August 25, 2022
InciWeb-Incident Information System

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) broadly refers to the evolving Indigenous understanding of the environment that has been cultivated over centuries and generations. While it must be understood that the term TEK has been “coined in non-Indigenous academic and policy circles, and often does not fully reflect the ways in which Indigenous communities refer to, or think of, their knowledge and lifeways,'' the term is used in some Indigenous circles and it is gaining traction within the climate justice movement. TEK includes a deep understanding of “the relationships between people, plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes, and timing of events for activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry,” a holistic approach to understanding the natural world. 

In Alaska, for example, researchers are trying to better understand the impact of climate change on Beluga whale populations. They learned from Inuit elders that the changing climate had sparked, “an increase in beaver populations…which had reduced spawning habitat for salmon and other fish, which meant less prey for the Belugas and so fewer whales.” This unique interconnected approach, passed down from generation to generation, has helped Indigenous peoples thrive for centuries. 

Adapted from: Houde, N. Ecology and Society

TEK cultivates an intergenerational justice, with importance placed not only on the bestowal of traditional knowledge onto future generations, but on the continued access to ancestral/traditional land and resources. This interconnectedness between humans and land was emphasized by Lorén Spears, the Executive Director of the Tomaquag Museum, and citizen of Narragansett Nation, in a presentation on TEK and Climate Justice in New England: “Everything we are as Indigenous people is connected to the place.” 

Despite generations of Indigenous people utilizing TEK as a holistic tool for survival, the introduction of Western/European science and neo-colonial capitalist ideologies disrupted this harmony. Spears explains this destruction of the human-nature equilibrium through the idea of an ideological “Clash” between a TEK-based culture that is balanced with the land and a capitalist economy that relies on the exploitation of land for profit. In North America, this clash manifested in a multitude of ways which are overlapping and mutually reinforcing.

“Despite generations of Indigenous people utilizing TEK as a holistic tool for survival, the introduction of Western/European science and neo-colonial capitalist ideologies disrupted this harmony.”

The conquest and commodification of land, water, plants, animals, and minerals by European settler-colonists created an ideological disconnect between humans and nature. Nature became something to be controlled, owned, disassembled, and reassembled into private property and the commodity form. This commodification of nature, paired with the profit-motive of capitalism, incentivized ecologically destructive practices. This took the form of massive deforestation, the obliteration of habitats and various species of wildlife, the damming of wild rivers, destructive mining operations, the introduction of domesticated animals, and agricultural monocropping - all weakening biodiversity and unsettling the natural environmental order. 

Settler-colonists employed various methods of control over Native populations, including displacement onto reservations, enslavement, forced assimilation, dehumanization, and outright genocide as mechanisms to justify and enhance control over land and resources. Examples of these processes in North America include the U.S. government’s creation of ‘Indian boarding schools’ which served to forcibly assimilate native children into the “American way of life”. These schools often instructed an un-learning of TEK based principles, instead emphasizing, “the importance of private property, material wealth and monogamous nuclear families…since…[t]he end goal was to eradicate all vestiges of Indian culture.” 

Finally, legal strategies, such as coercive treaties (that were continually violated by the U.S. government), hunting and harvesting bans, and more deliberate measures including the Indian Removal Act, which required Native people to give up their land east of the Mississippi for lands to the west, legally “justified” severing Indigenous peoples from their land, resources, and cultural practices. While TEK based principles emphasize humans' interconnected relationship to the natural world, capitalism has fundamentally reduced nature into a “resource” for private profit, leading to our current climate crisis.  

While capitalism, and the notion that nature can be relentlessly commodified, has led us to the current global ecological crisis, Western bourgeois ideologies have long discounted Traditional Ecological Knowledge as “unscientific”. But now, much of the world is coming back full circle to reclaim agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and Indigenous knowledge as key tools for solving the climate crisis. The efficacy of TEK in maintaining and understanding the natural world cannot be disputed. After centuries of genocide and settler colonialism, Indigenous peoples comprise around 5 percent of the world’s population yet maintain and protect over 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. This shocking statistic highlights the overwhelming burden that Indigenous peoples carry in regards to taking care of the planet, as well as the incompatibility between Western capitalism and the preservation of biological and cultural diversity. 

As the impacts of climate change become ever more dramatic, Western scientists and politicians are finally opening up to the potential of the TEK framework to provide holistic solutions necessary to create a just and sustainable future. Throughout North America, for example, Native Tribes have been practicing controlled burns of forests for centuries. These burns not only assist the growth of food sources such as acorns, support the life-cycles of animals like salmon, and serve as an important cultural practice, but also work to prevent larger fires by lessening the fuel load. 

Despite these benefits, the United States passed legislation in the early 20th century that prohibited Indigenous fire management practices. The rationale was that it would limit forest fires in the short term, while protecting commercial timber supplies and infrastructure. As a result, the growth of forest understory vegetation, which serves as a wildfire fuel-load, has increased to dangerous levels. With fire risks magnified by drought and other impacts of climate change, forests are reaching a tipping point. Since the U.S. started nationally measuring ‘total acres burned’ in 1983, the three most destructive years of wildfires (measured in total acres burned) have occurred since 2015. The problem is only getting worse: “In 2020, nearly 60,000 wildfires raged across the United States, burning a record-breaking 10.3 million acres. The fires weren’t just frequent; they reached epic proportions: California and Colorado recorded their biggest fires ever.” 

Adapted from: Ang, C. Visual Capitalist

This dramatic increase in wildfires and deforestation is not limited to North America, in fact, in 2019, Australia suffered a historically devastating fire season, coined “Black Summer” burning over 24 million hectares. To put this into perspective, the state of California is about 42 million hectares in size: the Australian fire season burned an area equivalent to half of California. In South America, the Amazon rainforest—which absorbs over 5% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions—has suffered from recent deforestation and wildfires. Devastatingly, these fires have begun the transition of the Amazon from a carbon-sink to a carbon-emitter. A recent study conducted by Nature, has found that the Brazilian portion of the Amazon—which makes up 58% of the total Amazon, 46% higher than the next country—has for the first time begun emitting more carbon than it absorbs. Although the Amazon as a whole is still a net-sink, it is trending towards entirely becoming a net-emitter. The surge of wildfires around the globe is just one example of the astronomical damage caused by the subjugation of Indigenous knowledge and practices in favor of shortsighted capitalist economic policy. This crisis exposes the need to center and collaborate with Indigenous communities  in the fight to mitigate climate change.

Now, the U.S. government has begun to work with Native tribes to conduct controlled burns once again, albeit on a much smaller scale. In recent years, the Yurok Tribe has partnered with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to conduct controlled burns and participated in a cooperative burning program organized by The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service.

Other examples of governments ultimately adopting an integrated Western science and  TEK approach to their climate mitigation strategies include a relationship between the Sámi people and the Government of Finland. After years of observing dwindling salmon populations due to the impacts of mining, development and climate change, the Sámi people’s observations were finally taken seriously when progressive scientists partnered with the tribe to document the changes in populations. After the study had been concluded, the Finnish fishery management worked with the tribe to restore “damaged habitat and agree on harvest limitations to increase the number of spawning fish able to reach key areas.” Because of these TEK-based observations the Finnish government is now encouraging fishers to take “more pike, which prey on young salmon, as part of their catch." The partnership between the Sámi and the Finnish government, as well as between Indigenous Tribes in North America and U.S. fire departments, highlight the potential benefits of including TEK into climate-adaptation strategies.

These collaborations are early signs that TEK is becoming more respected in both policy and political circles. Since issuing a memorandum recognizing TEK in November of 2021, President Biden and the White House has founded a Working Group on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge which includes more than 25 Federal Departments and Agencies. The Biden Administration has also announced that it is developing guidance on how to best include TEK into Federal decision-making and policy processes. The update to the memorandum deliberately stated that this process needs to include Tribal Nations, Native communities, and knowledge holders…“from beginning to end.” It also provides the public with the opportunity to submit written comments and attend Tribal Consultation Listening Sessions. 

Ethical Concerns and Guidelines of TEK

In order to ethically apply TEK to the climate crisis, Indigenous scholars and activists are urging the climate justice movement to incorporate a few key elements into the work. First, it must be understood that Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs writes, “Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, due to their dependence upon, and close relationship, with the environment and its resources. Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by Indigenous communities, including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment.” Therefore, it is imperative that the climate justice movement prioritizes Indigenous communities by including them into the movement-building and policy planning process. Any climate justice movement or policy must also place importance on the needs of future generations—an inherent principle of TEK, and often missing from Western science and policy. Lorén Spears powerfully states: “Climate justice is ensuring the rights of the next generation to have access… to the gifts in that relationship with the land.” 

Finally, it is extremely important that non-Indigenous people and organizations engage and collaborate respectfully with Tribal Nations during climate adaptation and mitigation planning processes. In 2014, the Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup—a group of Indigenous scholars, tribal leaders, and activists—created a set of guidelines that organizations, government officials, and individuals should abide by when utilizing TEK in their work and collaborating with Indigenous communities. The authors set three overarching purposes of the guidelines: (1) Provide understanding of the role of and protections for TEKs in climate initiatives; (2)  Provide provisional guidance to those engaging in efforts that encompass TEKs; and (3) Increase mutually beneficial and ethical interactions between tribes and non-tribal partners. The guidelines focus on two principles: (1) “Cause No Harm”, which is centered around avoiding the misappropriation of TEK; and (2) “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”, which prioritizes a fairness in negotiations, the procedural involvement of Indigenous people in any collaboration from beginning of the process, and the right to decline collaboration. The document contains eight guidelines which can be found here

An understanding of the inherent power relations between Indigenous groups and Western researchers, policy makers and advocates is vital to the ethical utilization of TEK. The study, “Toward Productive Complicity: Applying ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ in
Environmental Science,”
written by Singleton,, frames these power relations through the concept of productive complicity, which “requires that we directly confront the contextual, temporal and political dimensions of any and all research collaboration.” The authors provide four questions to help researchers and policy makers ethically collaborate with TEK-holders: What and/or who is this TEK for? What will this knowledge result in/what will this knowledge be used for? How is compensation/credit shared? And am I giving back and giving forward to the people I work with and depend upon? 

TEK is centered around a holistic connection between humans and the natural world, a framework that is not only helpful, but necessary to combat climate change. While it is encouraging to see Western scientists and politicians begin to include TEK into climate science and policy, it is crucial that these groups collaborate ethically with Indigenous populations, rather than committing further appropriation and exploitation of Indigenous knowledge. As we combat the climate crisis, we must honor and stand in solidarity with Indigenous communities who have protected the land for generations.