Knowledge, Learning and the Evolution of Conservation Practice for Social-Ecological System Resilience

Article excerpt

Published online: 11 April 2006

There are two broadly conceptualized ways in which conservation knowledge may evolve: the depletion crisis model and the ecological understanding model. The first one argues that developing conservation thought and practice depends on learning that resources are depletable. Such learning typically follows a resource crisis. The second mechanism emphasizes the development of conservation practices following the incremental elaboration of environmental knowledge by a group of people. These mechanisms may work together. Following a perturbation, a society can self-organize, learn and adapt. The self-organizing process, facilitated by knowledge development and learning, has the potential to increase the resilience (capability to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change) of resource use systems. Hence, conservation knowledge can develop through a combination of long-term ecological understanding and learning from crises and mistakes. It has survival value, as it increases the resilience of integrated social-ecological systems to deal with change in ways that continue to sustain both peoples and their environments.

KEY WORDS: resource management; conservation; indigenous knowledge; traditional ecological knowledge; resilience; adaptive learning; common property; institutions.


There has been a resurgence of interest in community-based conservation and resource management systems using customary practices and local knowledge in many parts of the world, including Oceania (Johannes, 1998), New Zealand (Taiepa et al., 1997), Indonesia (Alcorn et al., 2003), Alaska (Hunn et al., 2003), the Amazon (Holt, 2005), and elsewhere (see the other papers in this issue). Considerable attention has been focused on the role of local and traditional knowledge in conservation. But we know little about how conservation knowledge develops among indigenous groups and small-scale rural communities. The question of the creation and development of knowledge is important in regard to the nature of community-based conservation and resource management. A debate has developed between two schools of thought on the question of whether local management is in fact conservation.

On one side of the debate, there are detailed descriptions of a great many indigenous knowledge and conservation systems (Berkes, 1999; Blackburn and Anderson, 1993; Boyd, 1999; Deur and Turner, 2005; Turner et al., 2003). There is an increasingly comprehensive appreciation of traditional ecological knowledge and ethnoecology as systems of local and indigenous conservation (Ford and Martinez, 2000; Turner et al., 2000). In many cases, knowledge is developed by feedback learning, as in adaptive management (Lee, 1993). Also available is a large literature base analyzing the conditions under which the 'tragedy of the commons' is avoided and local common property institutions may develop for resource management (Ostrom, 1990; Ostrom et al., 2002).

On the other side of the debate, a number of authors have questioned whether these systems could be considered to represent 'conservation' and, by extension, whether users of customary resources can be entrusted with management. In particular, some see conservation as an incidental by-product of what might be optimal foraging strategies (Alvard, 1993; Aswani, 1998). For example, Smith and Wishnie (2000) argue that the evidence on the effectiveness of indigenous conservation is weak if conservation is defined in terms of the two criteria of effect and design. That is, any action or practice 'should (a) prevent or mitigate resource depletion, species extirpation, or habitat degradation, and (b) be designed to do so' (Smith and Wishnie, 2000, p. 501).

Using similar criteria of effect and design, Johannes (2002) observed that some groups have conservation practices and some do not, but generalizations are difficult to make, and space and time considerations are important. …