Chickens in Tanzania, rabid dogs in Indonesia, and road-killed pigs in Samoa: Exploring ethnographies of environmental knowledge in indigenous, local, and traditional cultures, to assess agreement between actions, perceptions, and values

Chickens in Tanzania, rabid dogs in Indonesia, and road-killed pigs in Samoa: Exploring ethnographies of environmental knowledge in indigenous, local, and traditional cultures, to assess agreement between actions, perceptions, and values

November 17, 2020

Prepared by Kirk Saylor for MEES-620 (Fall 2020)

Readings and discussion for this week, led by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jen Shaffer at the University of Maryland, built on discussions of cultural models last week with Professor Michael Paolisso by exploring various knowledge systems, norms, values, and worldviews.  Shaffer’s research has focused on land-use, knowledge co-production, and cognitive climate models in East Africa (e.g., Mozambique1,2 and Tanzania3) and is in the process of widening to encompass other geographies, e.g. Pacific Islands and the United States. She seeks to understand human-environment interactions, perceptions, and frameworks to improve conservation management.  Joining in this discussion were course faculty – Drs. William (Bill) Dennison, Kenneth (Kenny) Rose, and Elizabeth (Liz) van Dolah – as well as the students. 


"Elephants - Serengeti National Park safari - Tanzania, Africa" by David Berkowitz is licensed with CC BY 2.0.


In her slide presentation, Shaffer began by introducing the concept of biocultural diversity,4 in which human language diversity seems to be directly correlated with levels of biodiversity (i.e., species richness, e.g. of higher taxa such as avian fauna).  Since ~ 1970 CE, both the number of human languages and biodiversity has declined considerably.  Both biodiversity and cultural heritage decline with the extirpation and/or extinction of endemic species.

Shaffer defines anthropology as a discipline involving the application of mixed methods in situ – principally, long-term participant observation, and the collection of qualitative data.  Participant observation typically involves “long-term stay” with communities based in places well outside an anthropologist’s native land, and it can also involve hands-on involvement / direct participation in household and field-based activities.  Qualitative methods, such as interviews and surveys, complement participant observation by eliciting information from the local population.  These data can be used to assess the relative agreement between what people are saying, on one hand, and doing, on the other, through a process of “triangulation”.

The anthropological subfield of Ethnoecology is concerned with “folk knowledge”.  Due to pervasive modernization across the developed world, much of this knowledge is being or has been lost over time, although remnants remain (e.g., in the Western vernacular: “red skies” as a proxy for predicting the weather, “robins” as a harbinger of spring, etc.).  Across developing regions of the world, local/indigenous populations actively maintain such knowledge systems, which they rely upon for their survival.  Early ethnoecological work by westerners focused primarily on plants and was motivated by prospecting for species of commercial value (e.g. agricultural or medicinal).  The Western age of exploration exemplified such an effort to identify, catalog, and cultivate species of perceived value.  Shaffer mentioned early expeditions involving large fleets from China may have operated similarly.  Out of concern for actual losses and potential threats of further loss, arboretums - such as those across Great Britain (e.g. the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew ) serve as repositories of specimens and associated knowledge.


"Royal Botanical Garden" by Koshyk is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

The anthropological subfield of linguistics has also contributed to the study of ethnoecology.  Early work done by Conklin in the Philippines was built on by Berlin and Kay regarding the cultural perception of the environment.5  Differentiating “light” from “dark” (e.g. culturally encoded as white vs. black) seems a foundation of color perception. Red constitutes a secondary level.  Other colors (e.g., blue, green, yellow, orange) occur at tertiary or higher levels.  In this vein, Dennison commented on the universality of red for signifying fire/danger, with physiologic effects on humans (i.e., as contrasted with the calming effects of green).  Culture as a shared system of knowledge depends on the use of language as a medium between culture bearers. 


"Colours & Cultures Infographic" by MissNatalie is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

With regard to naming systems, common objects generally have specific names more often than objects that are encountered less frequently.  Such names may differ on the basis of gender (i.e., referred to differently by men and women).  Cecil Brown articulated a theory of universal life-form categories, e.g. tree, bird, snake, in 1984.6   Berlin assessed that nomenclatures were non-arbitrary and often having a basis on either distinguishing features or vocalizations.7 

Ethnoecology is concerned with “big questions” important to human survival.  It seeks to understand what people need to know in order to survive and succeed in a given environment (i.e., meeting basic needs for food, shelter, etc.).  In addition to having the necessary knowledge, survival depends on the correct application thereof.  Underlying knowledge systems are cultural norms regarding what people value based on day-to-day usage.  Underlying praxis and norms are worldviews (s), or fundamental beliefs about the world should work. 

Indigenous knowledge (IK), local ecological knowledge (LEK), and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) represent “cumulative bodies of knowledge” transmitted across generations.8  Such knowledge systems are not static, but require updating and should be viewed as dynamic / evolving over time, per Shaffer.  However, even with advanced industrialized society, there are major discrepancies in terms of the acceptance of science (e.g. climate change, as seen in the results of annual surveys by the Yale Climate Change Communication program).  Knowledge co-production requires cultural competency, including awareness of people’s worldviews.  If core beliefs are challenged, it could evoke strong pushback.   Dennison asked what does entails in a practical sense, e.g. language proficiency?  Shaffer said familiarity with basic phrases and gestures/hand signals should be considered essential for interacting with new/different groups of people.  Shaffer agreed with Van Dolah that recognizing applicable cultural model(s) of the group being researched is also essential.9


"Interactive Carbon Atlas" by Cea. is licensed with CC BY 2.0.


Whose knowledge counts as ILK?  The key criterion for characterizing a population as “indigenous” is that they have “been successful in adapting sustainably to their local environmental conditions” per Shaffer.  Approximately 1.5 billion persons globally meet this criterion.  The distribution of such populations, who are managing ~ 12.4% of lands across the planet, have been mapped to some degree of specificity by the LandMark project.  However, not all governments recognize the existence and/or rights of such peoples within their territories, per Shaffer.  The term TEK can be applied as a workaround in such cases, as well as for cases where outside populations have been managing resources on a long-term (multi-generational) basis.
    Shaffer notes significant differences both within and between groups in terms of the level of knowledge systems.  Within groups, the highest level of education attained may be inversely related to LEK / TEK (i.e. more formal schooling tends to correlate with lower LEK / TEK).  Between groups, adherents to different religions, e.g. Hindi and Muslim cultures, may have a vastly discrepant understanding of certain non-human species, e.g. dogs, based on practices reinforced by cultural norms.  This could have practical implications from a public health and safety perspective, such as the ability to detect rabid dogs.
    A longer-term presence on the ground helps to inform a deeper understanding of these differences that cannot be gained through brief visits.  Dennison echoed that snapshot studies do not provide the same quality of data or level of understanding.  Shaffer underscored a need to understand HEI temporally in terms of the full annual cycle and ideally also a multi-generational perspective. 
    From her own field-based research in East Africa, Shaffer offers two other examples of disparate perspectives arising from cultural differences.  Discrepant perceptions of climate also arise from the much finer-scale appreciation of local populations (spatially and temporally) as compared with the coarse-scale data that are available from meteorological collection stations, which are relatively few and far between (i.e. interpolation of coarse data does not accurately represent conditions on the ground).  In Tanzania, the definition of what constitutes livestock may be defined in a more expansive or restrictive sense depending on one’s cultural background (e.g., the case of chickens in Tanzania, i.e. which Westerners would typically count as livestock but locals would not).  Ultimately, the anthropologist has to recognize prevailing values in a given local system while recording data according to both.  Dennison added that chickens were inconsequential from a roadkill perspective in Samoa, whereas cultural norms dictate that any motorist running over a pig on this Pacific island give compensation to the affected household. 
    Shaffer also identified issues of concern with regard to ethnoecological research, including “biopiracy” whereby corporate interests deny communities just compensation for intellectual property rights (e.g., the medicinal value of certain plants),  conservation funding (e.g., REDD+ funding) being appropriated by governments (rather than given to communities providing stewardship of areas of conservation value), and restrictive government actions vis-à-vis marine protected areas in Mozambique.  Dennison noted the relocation of an interior Aboriginal tribe in Australia from the interior of the continent to an offshore island on the Great Barrier Reef as another example of poorly conceived government policy.  These examples of malpractice require critical re-evaluation to correct/avoid recurrence in the future.  To that end, efforts to promote free prior informed consent (FPIC) have gained wider support through the Belem+30 declaration in Brazil in 2018. 

Question for consideration – existential climate threat to indigenous cultures?
    In addition to examples discussed last week, do you know of any other cultures whose knowledge systems, norms, and worldviews face existential threats from global change processes (e.g. anthropogenic climate change, land-use change, large-scale infrastructures, or other change vectors)?  Can these cultures adapt in a way that enhances their resilience/sustainability?  If communities must be uprooted/relocated, how can they be re-established after displacement?
*A discussion of existential climate threat to indigenous communities in Alaska:
The Atlantic (November 2020): The Alaska Tsunami That Can’t Be Stopped

In response to a student inquiry focused on Tanzania, Shaffer confirmed the importance of establishing local partnerships for conducting ethnoecological research (e.g., academic institutions) in terms of overcoming regulatory hurdles with the host country and improving effect on the ground.  Shaffer and Dennison pointed to New Zealand as an exemplar of collaboration between Maori knowledge (IK/LEK) and western science.  Dennison then reprised his Australian dingo story: fire suppression -> altered vegetation succession -> intense fire -> reduced prey availability -> dingos -> opportunistic predation on humans.  This sequence of events confirms the perils of ignoring IK / LEK / TEK.  The habituation of dingos to human settlements in Australia has some parallels to wildebeest in Kenya noted by Goldman (2007).12

Rose offered some perspective from the marine fisheries field, where IK / LEK / TEK are being included but more as a contextual appendix, rather than bearing directly on management decisions. However, he found the paper of Early-Capistrán et al. (2020) to be exceptional in this regard.10  Shaffer believes it will take truly interdisciplinary collaboration to make better use of ethnoecological knowledge in the future.  This contrasts with the prevailing current model where the anthropologist is brought into the collaboration at the very end. 

In conclusion, as we approach the American Thanksgiving holiday under the shadow of a rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic, we might do well to remember that the original holiday was essentially an act of Native American generosity toward hungry Pilgrims suffering from poor harvests (and thus a testament to ILK).  As we observe this holiday, we can try to look ahead and think about how we might engage in applied research on ethnoecological knowledge systems in our respective study areas in the future, in a way that considers the human population in the context of current ecological constraints and projected future trends (demographic, socioeconomic, climatic, ecological, etc.).  Hopefully, we can each contribute positively to improving understanding across knowledge systems per Goldman, promote more sustainable practices, and enhance the resilience of socio-ecological systems in the face of ongoing change.


"First Fun Thanksgiving, after J.L.G. Ferris" by Mike Licht, is licensed with CC BY 2.0.”



Kirk, This blog is the closest thing to a replay of our free-ranging discussion stimulated by Jen Shaffer's readings and lecture material. You captured all of the topics that we covered and provided a nice summary of the different knowledge systems: indigenous knowledge (IK), local ecological knowledge (LEK), and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). I enjoyed the visuals selected to illustrate various points, including the Tanzania landscape, the Royal garden, the color wheel, the carbon atlas and the "First Fun Thanksgiving". Your Thanksgiving cultural reference was so timely and relevant, serving as an important reminder of our cultural history involved with this uniquely American holiday. I also appreciate the references that you provided in addition to the assigned readings, including several of Jen Shaffer's papers. Thanks for such a thorough blog and for the thoughtful additional insights extended beyond the readings and discussion. Well done, Bill

Thank you Kirk for the nice recap! I think it is supper relevant and timely! One thing that impressed me the most from last week's lecture was the brief discussion related to biopiracy, intellectual property rights, and free prior information consent. In general this bit of discussion really made me think what my research on Eastern Africa forest and forest management really mean to the local stakeholders, for instance, the locals who are attached to the landscape, the local academics, and the resource management personals. With the past two weeks engaging in heavy amount of emailing to request spatial datasets from East African collaborators, and with hitting some roadblocks such as responded email towards the data sharing requests or mismatched in data shared versus requested, I think our class discussion last week certainly helps me understand why these roadblocks occur and how should I change my perception of the process and understand the stakeholders have their agenda and limitation. Today the Department of Geographical Sciences, there has been a lightning talk from a professor on GIS standards for conservation data, and I think perhaps as forest conservation becomes more and more relevant, such protocol on GIS/spatial data could certainly help researchers and students like me.

One item from our discussion that stuck with me is that perhaps cultures that have lived sustainably on their land for so long are doing something right, and we have something to learn from them. As you point out, many indigenous culture have a lot to lose under current trends of global environmental change. There is a bleak irony in that some of the indigenous people who have lived most sustainably on this earth will be most affected by humanity's least sustainable choices. However, I do think some of these cultures may be capable of adaptation. While certainly there will be loss of traditions and livelihoods as lands are lost to sea level rise or certain crops no longer grow where they once did, I think some indigenous groups will find a way through to a new way of life. In many ways, adapting to natural surroundings and phenomena is deeply engrained in indigenous cultures, as we observed in the readings and discussion. The case studies from both Hawaii and Tanzania seem to offer some hope. While there will be tragic loss, I think indigenous knowledge about how to adapt to a changing environment may be invaluable in the coming decades. While I do not have enough background to point to specific cultures, I hope anthropologists will dig into how we can learn adaptability in sustainability from some of those who stand to lose so much but also have such a deep knowledge of how to inhabit this planet.

Exquisite as always! You explained the importance of LEK to today's knowledge system, the role of LEK for local people, and the role of absorbing LEK for interdisciplinary cooperation. But this reminds me of 'cultural warfare' or 'cultural invasion'. The influence of the culture of developed countries on developing countries. A prominent example is India. Due to the input of multiple cultures (such as TV, Mcdonalds, etc.), local companies have to change their original strategies to compete with foreign companies and it alter eating behavior of locals. This, in some extent, destroys the local culture and changes their originality which make them 'more vulnerable' in some ways. No matter how flat you make your pancakes, it still has two sides. I always find that some habits or customs around us are constantly changing. Forgetting some traditional things (Not highly competitive), and the world gradually becomes single. This is a bad thing, so we need to emphasize that protection and operation toward LEK while fusing LEK, not to 'survival of the fittest'. Haoyu

24kkelly's picture

I enjoy your process, Kirk. I always learn a great deal from your work. Recognizing, for example, the linkages between biocultural diversity and biodiversity, noting its declines in the past few decades. We are discovering, as a human species, that these homogenizing effects are not without consequences. We need only look at how commercial crop cultivation has had knock-on effects throughout the environmental system; resilience, habitat, species, and soil health are all improved through the interplay of balanced cycles between these natural variables. In the human world, loss of cultural practices and traditions can mean not only linguistic but social systems that, through the practice of their identities provide value that may only become recognized when it is no longer available. I can think of a very small, simple cultural norm that seems to be fading in American society, at least in the cities...the "thank you" wave when someone allows you to merge into traffic. It's a small thing, a little expression of appreciation, but it is a holdover from a cultural tradition of neighborliness" that when removed in greater contexts, could become more significant. The Native American impulse to assist the settlers with survival likely also arose from a cultural practice that was germane to their cultural identities. Imagine how the settlers may have fared had this not been practiced. --Katrina

You did a great job recapping last week's discussion in class! I love how you brought thanksgiving into the mix as so many people have different traditions in celebrating. This year we are going to have bring own Covid-tradition to Thanksgiving. This change might be making us feel slightly stressed or upset about it but it is an adaptation to what we are currently being faced with right now. This change makes me think of the other cultures that are at risk due to climate change, their way of life is changing rapidly and they are having to adapt quickly. However, people in the US are having a hard time coping with the small adjustments to their holiday.. when things are put into perspective.. it is a hiccup in a rapidly changing planet. -Lizzy

This was a really great blog that summarized and explained the importance of local ecological knowledge, traditional ecological knowledge, and indigenous ecological knowledge. It is so crazy to think how the US for example has such a high impact on climate change, affecting those who live sustainably within their own land. This was such a good connection to the upcoming holiday because that is a great example of how we have worked with more knowledgeable indigenous in the past. It is incredibly unfortunate that history played out the way it did because we completely lost our connection with the land. Hopefully we can find our way back to that soon on a widespread scale. The best way does seem to be reintroducing indigenous people back into positions of power so we may share knowledge and preserve their culture.