Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) describes aboriginal, indigenous, or other forms of traditional knowledges regarding sustainability of local resources. TEK has become a field of study in anthropology, and refers to "a cumulative body of knowledge, belief, and practice, evolving by accumulation of TEK and handed down through generations through traditional songs, stories and beliefs. [It concerns] the relationship of living beings (including human) with their traditional groups and with their environment."  Such knowledge is commonly used in natural resource management as a substitute for baseline environmental data to measure changes over time in remote regions that have little recorded scientific data.
The use of traditional knowledge in this field in management and science is controversial since methods of acquiring and accumulating the knowledge, although often including forms of empirical research and experimentation, differ from those used to create and validate scientific ecological knowledge . Non-tribal government agencies, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency have established integration programs with some tribal governments in order to utilize TEK in environmental plans and climate change tracking.
There is a debate whether Indigenous populations retain an intellectual property right over traditional knowledge and whether use of this knowledge requires prior permission and license. This is especially complicated because TEK is most frequently preserved as oral tradition and as such may lack objectively confirmed documentation. Ironically, those same methods that might resolve the issue of documentation compromise the very nature of traditional knowledge.
Traditional knowledge is often used to sustain local populations and maintain resources necessary for survival. However, it can be weakened or invalidated in the context of rapid climate change, environmental impact, or other situations in which significant alterations of ecosystems render it weak or obsolete.
TEK can also be referred to as traditional environmental knowledge which emphasizes the different components and interactions of the environment. More specifically it contains the knowledge of species of both animals and plants, and biophysical characteristics of the environment through space and time.
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The earliest systematic studies of traditional ecological knowledge were conducted in anthropology. Ecological knowledge was studied through the lens of ethnoecology, "an approach that focuses on the conceptions of ecological relationships held by a people or a culture," in understanding how systems of knowledge were developed by a given culture. Harold Colyer Conklin, an American anthropologist who pioneered the study of ethnoscience, took the lead in documenting indigenous ways of understanding the natural world. Conklin and others documented how traditional peoples, such as Philippine horticulturists, displayed remarkable and exceptionally detailed knowledge about the natural history of places where they resided. Direct involvement in gathering, fashioning products from, and using local plants and animals created a scheme in which the biological world and the cultural world were tightly intertwined. Although the field of TEK began with documentation of lists of species used by different indigenous groups and their "taxonomies of plants, animals, and later, of other environmental features such as soils," the shift from documentation to consideration of functional relationships and mechanisms gave rise to the field as it is recognized today. In emphasizing the study of adaptive processes, which argues that social organization itself is an ecological adaptational response by a group to its local environment, human-nature relations and the practical techniques on which these relationships and culture depended, the field of TEK could analyze a broad range of questions related to cultural ecology and ecological anthropology, .
By the mid 1980s a growing body of literature on traditional ecological knowledge documented both the environmental knowledge held by diverse indigenous peoples and their ecological relations. The studies included examining "cultivation and biodiversity conservation in tropical ecosystems, and traditional knowledge and management systems in coastal fisheries and lagoons, semi-arid areas, and the Arctic." What these studies illustrated was that a variety of "traditional peoples had their own understandings of ecological relationships and distinct traditions of resource management."  The rise of traditional ecological knowledge at this time led to international recognition of its potential applications in resource management practices and sustainable development. The 1987 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development reflects the consensus at the time. The report points out that the successes of the 20th century (decreases in infant mortality, increases in life expectancy, increases in literacy, and global food production) have given rise to trends that have caused environmental decay "in an ever more polluted world among ever decreasing resources." Hope, however, existed for traditional lifestyles. The report declared that tribal and indigenous peoples had lifestyles that could provide modern societies with lessons in the management of resources in complex forest, mountain, and dryland ecosystems.
Fulvio Mazzocchi of the Italian National Research Council's Institute of Atmospheric Pollution contrasts traditional knowledge from scientific knowledge as follows:
Traditional knowledge has developed a concept of the environment that emphasizes the symbiotic character of humans and nature. It offers an approach to local development that is based on co‐evolution with the environment, and on respecting the carrying capacity of ecosystems. This knowledge—based on long‐term empirical observations adapted to local conditions—ensures a sound use and control of the environment, and enables indigenous people to adapt to environmental changes. Moreover, it supplies much of the world's population with the principal means to fulfil their basic needs, and forms the basis for decisions and strategies in many practical aspects, including interpretation of meteorological phenomena, medical treatment, water management, production of clothing, navigation, agriculture and husbandry, hunting and fishing, and biological classification systems.... Beyond its obvious benefit for the people who rely on this knowledge, it might provide humanity as a whole with new biological and ecological insights; it has potential value for the management of natural resources, and might be useful in conservation education as well as in development planning and environmental assessment....Western science is positivist and materialist in contrast to traditional knowledge, which is spiritual and does not make distinctions between empirical and sacred. Western science is objective and quantitative as opposed to traditional knowledge, which is mainly subjective and qualitative. Western science is based on an academic and literate transmission, while traditional knowledge is often passed on orally from one generation to the next by the elders.
The aspects of traditional ecological knowledge provide different typologies in how it is utilized and understood. These are good indicators in how it is used from different perspectives and how they are interconnected, providing more emphasis on "cooperative management to better identify areas of difference and convergence when attempting to bring two ways of thinking and knowing together."
The first aspect of traditional ecological knowledge incorporates the factual, specific observations generated by recognition, naming, and classification of discrete components of the environment. This aspect is about understanding the interrelationship with species and their surrounding environment. It is also a set of both empirical observations and information emphasizing the aspects of animals and their behavior, and habitat, and the physical characteristics of species, and animal abundance. This type of "empirical knowledge consists of a set of generalized observations conducted over a long period of time and reinforced by accounts of other TEK holders."
The second aspect refers to the ethical and sustainable use of resources in regards to management systems. This is achieved through strategic planning to ensure resource conservation. More specifically this face involves dealing with pest management, resource conversion, multiple cropping patterns, and methods for estimating the state of resources. A lot of ignorance toward traditional ecological knowledge is at the fault of management, these people are used to growing up in a more modern advanced system, they tend to ignore it.
The third face refers to time dimension aspect of traditional ecological knowledge, focusing on the past and current uses of the environment transmitted through oral history. Oral history is also used to transmit cultural heritage through generation to generation to maintain the sense of family and community.
The fourth face refers to value statements and connections between the belief system and the organization of facts. In regards to TEK it refers to environmental ethics that keeps exploitative abilities in check. This face also refers to the expression of values concerning the relationship with the habitats of species and their surrounding environment - the human-relationship environment.
The fifth face refers to the role of language and images of the past giving life to culture. The relationship between Aboriginals (original inhabitants) and their environment are vital to sustaining the cultural components that define them. This face reflects the stories, values, and social relations that reside in places as contributing to the survival, reproduction, and evolution of aboriginal cultures, and identities. It also stresses "the restorative benefits of cultural landscapes as places for renewal"
This aspect is a culturally based cosmology that is the foundation of the other aspects. The combination relates to the assumptions and beliefs about how things work, and explains the way in which things are connected, and gives principles that regulate human-animal relations and the role of humans in the world. From an anthropological perspective, cosmology attempts to understand the human-animal relationship and how these directly influence social relationships, obligations toward community members, and management practices.
Ecosystem management is a multifaceted and holistic approach to natural resource management. It incorporates both science and traditional ecological knowledge to collect data from long term measures that science cannot. This is achieved by scientists and researchers collaborating with Indigenous peoples through a consensus decision-making process while meeting the socioeconomic, political and cultural needs of current and future generations.
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was one of the first federal agencies to develop formal policies detailing how it would collaborate with tribal governments and acknowledge tribal interests in enacting its programs "to protect human health and the environment." In recognizing tribal peoples connection to the environment the EPA has sought to develop environmental programs that integrate traditional ecological knowledge into the "agency's environmental science, policy, and decision-making processes."
Although TEK is not currently recognized as an important component of mainstream environmental decision making, scientists are working on developing core science competency programs that align with TEK and promote self-sufficiency and determination.
In November 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13175, which required federal departments and agencies to consult with Indian Tribal governments in the development of policies that would have Tribal implications. Tribal Implications are defined by the EPA as having "substantial direct effects on one or more Indian tribes, on the relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes, or on the distribution of power and responsibilities between the federal government and Indian tribes." As a Federal agency of the U.S. government, the EPA was required to establish a set of standards for the consultation process. As its initial response, the agency developed a set of standards that would allow for meaningful communication and coordination between the agency and tribal officials prior to the agency taking actions or implementing decisions that may affect tribes. The standards also designated EPA consultation contacts to promote consistency and coordination of the consultation process, and established management oversight and reporting to ensure accountability and transparency.
One form of consultation has been EPA Tribal Councils. In 2000, the EPA's Office of Research and Development formed the EPA Tribal Science Council. The council, made up of representatives from tribes across the nation, is meant to provide a structure for tribal involvement in EPA's science efforts, and serve as a vehicle through which EPA may gain an understanding of the scientific issues that are of highest priority to tribes at a national level. The Council also offers tribes an opportunity to influence EPA’s scientific agenda by raising these priority issues to an EPA-wide group.
Of importance for tribal members at the initial gathering of the EPA Tribal Science Council was the inherent differences in tribal traditional lifeways and western science. These lifeways include "spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental connections to the environment; connections which are based on intrinsic, immeasurable values"; and an understanding that the earth’s resources will provide everything necessary for human survival.
The EPA's Tribal Science Council, however, was meant to act as a meeting place where both groups could "share information that may contribute to environmental protection for all peoples with neither culture relinquishing its identity." In an effort to protect TTL the Council identified subsitence as a critical area for investigation. The EPA-Tribal Science Council defined subsistence as: the "relationships between people and their surrounding environment, a way of living. Subsistence involves an intrinsic spiritual connection to the earth, and includes an understanding that the earth’s resources will provide everything necessary for human survival. People who subsist from the earth’s basic resources remain connected to those resources, living within the circle of life. Subsistence is about living in a way that will ensure the integrity of the earth’s resources for the beneficial use of generations to come." Because TTL or TEK is specific to a location and includes the relationships between plants and animals, and the relationship of living beings to the environment, acknowledgment of subsitence as a priority allows for the knowledge and practices of TTL to be protected. For example, as part of their deliberation regarding subsistence, the Council agreed to identify resource contamination as “the most critical tribal science issue at this time.” Because tribal people with subsistence lifestyles rely the environment for traditional techniques of farming, hunting. fishing, forestry, and medicines, and ceremonies, contaminants disproportionately impact tribal peoples and jeopardizes their TTL. As the EPA Council stated, "Tribal subsistence consumption rates are typically many times higher than those of the general population, making the direct impact of resource contamination a much more immediate concern." As native peoples struggle with tainted resources, the Council has made progress in investigating its impacts.
Despite such efforts, there are still barriers to progress within the EPA-Tribal Science Council. For example, one obstacle has been the nature of TTL. Tribal Traditional Lifeways are passed down orally, from person to person, generation to generation, whereas western science relies on the written word, communicated through academic and literate transmission. Endeavors to bring together western scientists and tribal people have also been hindered by Native American's perceptions that scientific analysis are put in a metaphorical “black box” that shuts out tribal input. Regardless, the EPA has recognized the ability of indigenous knowledge to advance scientific understanding and provide new information and perspectives that may benefit the environment and human health.
The integration of TTL into the EPA's risk assessment paradigm is one example of how the EPA-Tribal Science Council has been able to enact change in EPA culture. The risk assessment paradigm is an "organizing framework for the scientific analysis of the potential for harmful impacts to human health and the environment as a result of exposure to contaminants or other environmental stressors." Risk assessment has been used by the EPA to establish "clean-up levels at hazardous waste sites, water quality and air quality criteria, fish advisories, and bans or restricted uses for pesticides and other toxic chemicals." Tribal people are concerned, however, that current risk assessment methodologies do not afford complete value to tribal culture, values, and/or life ways. The Tribal Science Council seeks to incorporate TTL into exposure assumptions existent in the EPA risk assessment model. A long-term goal for the EPA’s Tribal Science Council, however, is a complete shift in decision-making assessments from risk to preserving a healthy people and environment. As stated above, tribal people do not accept a separation of the human and ecological condition when they characterize risk. Through EPA initiated seminar, workshops, and projects, tribes have been able to engage in dialogue about the integration of Tribal Traditional Lifeways into EPA risk assessment and decision-making. This has occurred in a number of ways: inclusion of unique tribal cultural activities such as native basketry, the importance of salmon and other fishes, native plant medicine, consumption of large amounts of fish and game, and sweat lodges as exposures for estimating potential risk to people or to communities. Although these types of tribal specific activities may be included in EPA's risk assessment, there is no assurance that they will be included nor is there consistency in how they may be applied at different sites across the country.
In July 2014, the EPA announced its “Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples," setting forth its principles for programs related to federally recognized tribes and indigenous peoples in order to "support the fair and effective implementation of federal environmental laws, and provide protection from disproportionate impacts and significant risks to human health and the environment." Among the 17 principles were #3 ("The EPA works to understand definitions of human health and the environment from the perspective of federally recognized tribes, indigenous peoples throughout the United States, and others living in Indian country"); #6 ("The EPA encourages, as appropriate and to the extent practicable and permitted by law, the integration of traditional ecological knowledge into the agency’s environmental science, policy, and decision-making processes, to understand and address environmental justice concerns and facilitate program implementation"); and #7 ("The EPA considers confidentiality concerns regarding information on sacred sites, cultural resources, and other traditional knowledge, as permitted by law."). While this policy identifies guidelines and procedures for the EPA in regards to environmental justice principles as they relate to tribes and indigenous peoples, the agency noted that they are in no way applicable as rules or regulations. They cannot be applied to particular situations nor change or substitute any law, regulation, or any other legally-binding requirement and is not legally enforceable.
In some areas, environmental degradation has led to a decline in traditional ecological knowledge. For example, at the Aamjiwnaang community of Anishnaabe First Nations people in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, residents suffer from a "noticeable decrease in male birth ratio ..., which residents attribute to their proximity to petrochemical plants":
In addition to concerns about the physical reproduction of community members, indigenous people are concerned about how environmental contamination impacts the reproduction of cultural knowledge. In Aamjiwnaang, oral traditions once passed down from grandfathers during fishing or grandmothers during berry picking and medicine gathering are being lost as those activities are no longer practiced because of concerns about these foods being contaminated. Rocks once used for sweat lodges are no longer being collected from local streams because the streams have become contaminated. The cedar used for making tea, smudging, and washing babies contains vanadium at concentrations as high as 6 mg/kg..., reflecting local releases to air of > 611 tons of vanadium between 2001 and 2010.... At Akwesasne, community members report a loss of language and culture around subsistence activities like fishing, which have been largely abandoned because of fears of exposure to contaminants.
Traditional ecological knowledge provides information about climate change across generations and geography of the actual residents in the area. Traditional ecological knowledge emphasizes and makes the information about the health and interactions of the environment the center of the information it carries. Climate change affects traditional ecological knowledge in the forms of the indigenous people’s identity and the way they live their lives.
The rising temperature poses as threats for ecosystems because it harms the livelihoods of certain tree and plant species. The combination of the rise in temperatures and change in precipitation levels affects plant growth locations. Climate change has wiped out much of the salmonids and acorns which make up a significant portion of the Karuk people's food. The increase in temperatures has stunted the wild rice's ability to grow and that has a negative influence on the Anishinaabe people's lifestyle. The Ojibwe people are also affected by the rising temperature's effect on rice growth.
The warming also affects insects and animals. The change in temperatures can affect many aspects from the times that insects emerge throughout the year to the changes in the habitats of animals throughout seasonal changes. In Maine, the loss of certain habitats and the increase in temperatures, especially in the colder seasons, encourages the survival of ticks that harm the moose population.
As the temperature gets hotter, wild fires become more likely. Not only are different aspects of the environment are affected, but together, the health of the ecosystem is affected by climate change and so the environmental resources available to the indigenous people can change in the amount available and the quality of the resources.
The Navajo Nation peoples in the Southwestern United States are victims to the pollution in the air. Climate change increases chances for droughts which lead to the dangers of airborne dust to be picked up from the ground.
Water resources are also affected. In particular, about a third of the Navajo Nation people need to physically attain their own water. Damage to their water resources poses as dangers to overall health and crop failures. In Arizona, the Fort Apache reservation's children are victims to the rising temperatures in their water which allows more impurities to grow in the water and causes them to have diarrhea and stomach problems.
As sea ice levels decrease, Alaska Native peoples experience changes in their daily lives; fishing, transportation, social and economic aspects of their lives become more unsafe. The Native peoples residing on the Gulf and West Coasts are affected by the rising sea temperatures because that makes the fish and shellfish, that they rely on for food and cultural activities, more susceptible to contamination. The defrosting of soil has caused damages to buildings and roadways. Water contamination becomes exacerbated as clean water resources dwindle.
Climate changes undermine the daily lives of the Native peoples on many levels. For example, to immediately deal with these conditions, the indigenous people adjust when they harvest and what they harvest and also adjust their resource use. Climate change can change the accuracy of the information of traditional ecological knowledge. The indigenous people have relied deeply on indicators in nature to plan activities and even for short- term weather predictions. As a result of even more increasing unfavorable conditions, the indigenous people relocate to find other ways to survive. As a result, there is a loss of cultural ties to the lands they once resided on and there is also a loss to the traditional ecological knowledge they had with the land there. Climate change adaptations not properly structured or implemented can harm the indigenous people's rights.
The EPA has mentioned that it would take traditional ecological knowledge into consideration in planning adaptations to climate change. The National Resource Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture has used methods of the indigenous people to combat climate change conditions.
In one study, villagers of Savoonga and Shaktoolik, Alaska reported that over the last twenty years of their lives, the weather has become more difficult to predict, the colder season has shortened, there is more difficulty in predicting the amount of plants available for harvests, there are differences in animal migrations, there are more sightings of new species than before, and the activities of hunting and gathering have become not as predictable nor occur as often due to more limited availability to do so. The residents saw a noticeable change in their climate which also affected their livelihoods. The plants and animals are not as consistent with their availability which affects the residents' hunting and gathering because there is not as much to hunt or gather. The appearance of new species of plants and animals is also a physical and nutritional safety concern because they are not traditionally part of the land.