Politics of Environmentalism and Ecological Knowledge at the Intersection of Local and Global Processes

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This article scrutinizes the intersection of globalized and localized environmentalism in Lajes do Pico, Azores, Portugal, at the historical juncture when whale-watching superseded whale hunting in this village. In so doing, the article explains how localized environmentalism-including the ecological knowledges and practices of local inhabitants-was reproduced, learned, and transformed within the context of globalized environmental concerns, and vice versa. Using ethnographic materials I collected in Lajes do Pico between 1998 and 2000, I suggest that, rather than constituting two clearly distinct types of knowledge, through comparison and dialogical articulation local and scientific knowledge are typically locked in a process of mutual knowledge formation. This entailed the emergence of 'glo-cal' meta-knowledge context for environmental dilemmas. Ultimately, both former whalers and environmentalist scientists overcame some of their differences through mutual learning-an issue that has not often been explored within the scholarly literature on the relation between indigenous and scientific knowledge.


Anthropologists have long been concerned with dismantling dichotomies between scientific and local-traditional knowledge instead of taking their dualistic connotation for granted. Lévi-Strauss (1966:3-5), for instance, pointed out that non-westerners frequently comprehend and relate to the world in ways that approximate those that are characteristic of western scientists (see also Saaristo 1998). Agrawal (1995a, 1995b) crystallized the critique of distinction between native (local specific) and scientific (abstract-general) knowledge to unveil the fallacy of these distinctions. It became clear that, whether by portraying the former as the manifestation of a harmonious pristine relation with nature, or by reifying the later as a product of efficacious intervention and control, processes of knowing were being objectified into knowledge typologies (Berlung 1998; Edgerton 1992; Ingold 2000:13-18, 27-34, 43-47). It is more accurate and predictive to assert that traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge processes will display varying degrees of similarity, difference and potential overlap-depending on context and comparison criteria-and that these relations will change through time.

While traditional and scientific knowledge are distinguishable, they are not opposites. As Berkes (1999:9-10) points out, indigenous ecological knowledge is inextricably related to the cultural, social, political, and material context from which it emerges. Unlike scientific knowledge, traditional ecological knowledge seems incoherent when presented abstractly (Berkes 1999). Nevertheless, even though abstract science is quite comprehensible universally, it too can be better understood once situated in the socio-cultural-historical settings of its production (e.g., Bourdieu 1988:21-35; Gould 2003:13-25, 113-129; Kuhn 1970:4-7, 23-25; Latour 1993:1-9, 130-132). After all, as Tsing has recently shown, universals are produced at specific historical, spatial and cultural junctures. Subsequently, these universals move across these junctures thus mobilizing new constituencies and ideas (Tsing 2005:7).

Political and economic elites often do objectify scientific knowledge to dislodge and disempower place-specific processes of environmental knowing and practices (e.g., Beck 1992:19-89,1995:109,128-130, 138-139; Brush 1993; Gare 2002; Giddens 1990:8389; Habermans 2005:36-49; Ingold 2000:314-315, 329; Shiva 1997:1-11). On the other hand, as the literature on indigenous people and conservation initiatives demonstrates, aspects of local knowledge and ecological embeddedness are often selectively mobilized towards the attainment of specific political and/or conservationist goals within increasingly globalized contexts (e.g., Igoe 2005:378; Niezen 2003:181-191). Such studies suggest that we must try to account for that productive moment of friction where universals and particulars meet to produce effects with which we live (Tsing 2005:4). …