Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Market Integration and the Distribution of Ecological Knowledge within an Ecuadorian Fishing Community

Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Market Integration and the Distribution of Ecological Knowledge within an Ecuadorian Fishing Community

Article excerpt


Scholars typically depict traditional ecological knowledge as a vanishing resource, negatively correlated with the capitalization of a community. The default view also tends to conceptualize such knowledge as one cohesive system, unitarily responsive to external forces. Using data from an artisanal shrimping community in Ecuador, this paper argues that current views are not sufficient to capture the complexity of socially distributed knowledge and need to be expanded. In particular, I show that integration into a market economy does not necessarily erode local knowledge about the natural world, but can actually foster the development of a new body of ecological knowledge. This finding brings into question current conceptions of traditional ecological knowledge and suggests that various types of such knowledge likely exist that are differentially subject to evolutionary forces and trajectories.

The relationship between ethnoecological knowledge and incorporation into the global economy is generally depicted by anthropologists as antagonistic, and the process of modernization as eroding a disappearing resource in need of preservation (Zent 1999, Ruddle 1994, Hunn 1999, Dove 1999). However, market incorporation is not by default the harbinger of destruction of local knowledge in subsistence communities. In this report I will demonstrate, using consensus analysis data from fishers of Palestina, Ecuador, that engagement with the market economy can accelerate the acquisition of ethnoecological knowledge. This finding is significant because it is the first study describing a pattern that is counter to prevailing models of local ecological knowledge as a necessarily dwindling and endangered resource (Zent 1999, Dove 1999, Plotkin and Famolare 1992, Posey 1990, Ruddle 1994, Hunn 1999, Berkes 1993, Ohmagari and Berkes 1997). This study also brings into question how traditional ecological knowledge is defined and conceptualized in the current literature.

In recent years, anthropologists have increasingly recognized the importance of local ecological knowledge in advancing theory (Gragson and Blount 1999), improving natural resource management (Rhoades and Harlan 1999, Berkes 1999, Nazarea et al. 1998), empowering local communities (Posey 1999), and resolving conflicts (Haenn 1999). Authors also identify understanding knowledge systems in local populations as a first step in these endeavors (Gragson and Blount 1999, Atran 1999). Here, I examine which factors promote knowledge about the local ecosystem. I specifically test for the role of age, sex, length of residence, and formal education in acquiring knowledge, and compare these variables with the degree of experience in commercial shrimp fishing, an activity recently introduced to the area as a result of integration into national and international economies. These variables were chosen because previous studies have implicated them in the acquisition and social distribution of ecological knowledge (Boster and Johnson 1989; Boster 1986, 1991; Acheson and Steneck 1998; Zent 1999; Ohmagari and Berkes 1997; Chipeniuk 1995).

While the data presented below support many of the premises in the above studies, it demonstrates that while what is considered "traditional" ecological knowledge may degrade as a community changes, new local knowledge is created and socially distributed in the process. The data also suggest that such new knowledge is locally distinct and can be acquired within a relatively short time frame.

Research Setting

Palestina is a fishing community of approximately 2000 people, situated at the mouth of the Rio Verde river on the coast of northern Ecuador (Figure 1). Until two decades ago it had been relatively isolated from the rest of the country and external markets (Phelan 1967, Whitten 1965). Poor infrastructure prevented the outflow of products, and discouraged economic development or population growth in the area. Local livelihoods centered primarily on subsistence, comprised of fishing, hunting, and limited horticulture (Thomsen 1969, Guest 1999). …

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