Academic journal article Human Ecology

Coming to Understanding: Developing Conservation through Incremental Learning in the Pacific Northwest

Academic journal article Human Ecology

Coming to Understanding: Developing Conservation through Incremental Learning in the Pacific Northwest

Article excerpt

Published online: 20 July 2006

[c] Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Abstract Lessons in conservation are often seen as resulting from cycles of overexploitation and subsequent depletion of resources, followed by catastrophic consequences of shortage and starvation, and finally, development of various strategies, including privatization of the commons, to conserve remaining resource stocks. While such scenarios have undoubtedly occurred on many occasions, we suggest that they are not the only means by which people develop conservation practices and concepts. There are other pathways leading to ecological understanding and conservation, which act at a range of scales and levels of complexity. These include: lessons from the past and from other places, perpetuated and strengthened through oral history and discourse; lessons from animals, learned through observation of migration and population cycles, predator effects, and social dynamics; monitoring resources and human effects on resources (positive and negative), building on experiences and expectations; observing changes in ecosystem cycles and natural disturbance events; trial and error experimentation and incremental modification of habitats and populations. Humans, we believe, are capable of building a sophisticated conservation ethic that transcends individual species and resources. A combination of conservation knowledge, practices, and beliefs can lead to increasingly greater sophistication of ecological understanding and the continued encoding of such knowledge in social institutions and worldview.

Key words Traditional ecological knowledge * conservation * indigenous peoples * ethnoecology.


Resource conserving practices of indigenous and local peoples drawn from their traditional knowledge systems have been described for many parts of the world and for many different cultures and environments (Blackburn and Anderson, 1993; Balee, 1994; Berkes, 1999; Berkes et al., 2000; Minnis and Elisens, 2000; Turner et al., 2000; Alcorn et al., 2003; Hunn et al., 2003). A wide variety of conservation strategies have been documented, ranging from cultural teachings against harvesting specific resources or harvesting at specific times or places, to selective or limited harvesting, to sanctions against waste (Berkes, 1999). In fact, traditional ecological knowledge systems are infused with practices and concepts, and modes of teaching and learning that can be related directly and indirectly to resource stewardship and conservation at various scales. However, despite considerable attention directed towards documentation of these systems and approaches to conservation, we still have a limited understanding about their development, evolution, and transmission over time and space.

It is sometimes assumed that the development of community-based conservation strategies, ethics, and teachings is a result of some realization or recognition of a catastrophic resource depletion situation (e.g., Johannes, 1998, 2002). Many authors have questioned whether such resource management systems can be considered to represent "conservation" at all, and, by extension, whether traditional resource managers can be effective conservationists. In part, the argument goes, a "real" conservationist both acts to prevent or mitigate resource depletion and has the intention to conserve (Smith and Wishnie, 2000). We do not wish to enter here into the debate on "conservation" and whether indigenous conservation is likely or even possible (Hunn et al., 2003). However, we refute the hypothesis that conservation is only authentic if it results from the intention to conserve, as have Wilson et al. (1994) and some others. The conservation biology or evolutionary ecology critique of indigenous conservation has its own logic, based on the notion that evolutionary theory more easily accounts for short-term and self-centered behaviors (Tucker, 2003). …

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