Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young anthropologist working in northern Siberia , the native fishermen and trappers I encountered often made ritual stops to offer something to the tundra. These were usually coins, buttons or matches. Modest offerings but considered essential.
Before each new departure on a hunting or fishing expedition, I was asked if I had any change in my coat. And if that wasn't the case, someone would give me some then so that I always had some on hand. Other gifts were also left in our path, such as wild reindeer fat used to fuel the fire.
I was intrigued. Why were they doing this? The responses that came out were usually something like:
“We are the children of the tundra . »
“We make these sacrifices so that the tundra will give us more animals to hunt the following year. »
Recently, media around the world have been fascinated by other types of offerings and rituals performed some 12,000 kilometers north of Siberia. In the Colombian jungle, four children from the Huitoto community who survived an air crash were searched for forty days and then found by members of their indigenous community. This long period of tracking in the dense and remote Colombian jungle was punctuated by rituals and offerings made by the oldest members of the community.
All these actions were intended to invoke entities considered to be the spirits of the forest, its flora and fauna. They also maintained mutual trust between members of the community, in particular by allowing them not to lose hope.
The Huitoto children knew that the adults in their community were looking for them, summoned the spirits of the forest to find them safe and sound, the adults knew that the children were waiting for them.
Beyond simplistic stereotypes: real expertise
These practices are part of what we anthropologists call traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) or traditional ecological knowledge in French. These beliefs and traditions about the natural world are central to many Indigenous cultures around the world, encompassing what industrialized cultures consider science, medicine, philosophy and religion.
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Many academic studies have questioned whether Indigenous economies and societies are predisposed to ecosystem conservation or ecology. Certainly, the common stereotypes idealizing the relationship between indigenous groups and the environment, with which they are one, are often simplistic and potentially harmful for the groups themselves.
But recent studies nevertheless point out that conservationists can learn a lot from traditional knowledge, especially for the effective management of natural resources. Some experts also argue that traditional knowledge must play a role in global climate planning because it promotes cost-effective, participatory and sustainable strategies.
The success of this traditional knowledge is partly due to the way it fosters trust in different forms: trust between community members, trust between man and nature, trust between generations.
Defining traditional ecological knowledge
If we take a closer look at the different words that make up the expression traditional ecological knowledge , the first, traditional (traditional in French), evokes what is learned from the ancestors, what is transmitted.
The term ecological refers to the relationship between living organisms and their environment. It comes from the ancient Greek word oikos which means "house" or "dwelling".
To these two notions is finally added the English word knowledge (translated here as savoirs in French). In these early usages, the noun knowledge meant both recognition or possession of something, recognition of the existence of an object, and sometimes even recognition of a person's position or title.
These meanings, now obsolete, emphasize relationships, an important aspect that modern usage often overlooks, but which is particularly important when studying the ecological traditions of indigenous peoples.
Combined together, these three terms provide a framework for understanding the purpose of indigenous traditional ecological knowledge: a strategy that promotes respect for ancestral ways of interacting with ecosystems. It is not necessarily about strict laws or doctrines or a simple observation of the environment.
A vision of the world that seeks to create links
Rather, traditional ecological knowledge draws up a vision of the world that allows a community to weave links between the land on which it lives, their behavior and the behavior of its various members. Indigenous land practices are thus based on generations of careful and insightful observations of the environment that help to define and promote virtuous behavior in it.
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As an American commuter in a remote community in Siberia, I was able to learn from them what they considered “right” or “wrong”. Many times, I was able to hear some of the inhabitants describe one of my behaviors, or that of a third person, as a “sin” with regard to traditional ecological knowledge. The death of a woman, for example, could be linked to the excessive number of wolves her nephew had killed the previous winter.
Similarly, after stopping to analyze the freshness of some reindeer tracks on the tundra, a hunter once told me
“We are going to let these local wild reindeer roam this winter so that they will come back next year and for future generations. »
Behind these examples of traditional ecological knowledge, it is the potential effects of human greed towards the environment, here, of excessive hunting, which are considered.
Such practices are not unique to Siberia. Much work has been done to examine the parallels between ancestral systems of deference in Siberia, the Amazon, North America, and other regions.
Trust and tradition
All of these examples illustrate how traditional ecological knowledge is a set of systems that foster trust by encouraging respect for ancestral ways of life around the world.
For moderating actions of self-interest requires such confidence. And confidence in nature providing – of caribou to hunt, for example, or snow partridge to trap – depends on the idea that people will treat the environment with respect.
For some of my research, I have focused on prosocial behaviors (caring-centered behaviors) in food sharing, childrearing, and hunting territory use practices in northern Siberia.
All these aspects of life are based on the idea that the “true” owners of natural resources are the ancestors capable of punishing or rewarding the behavior of the living. This worldview is encouraged by elders and leaders, who praise virtuous and pro-social behavior and associate negative actions with selfishness.
Trust is an essential component of reciprocity – exchanging for mutual benefit – and prosociality. Because without trust, taking risks in our relationships with others is meaningless. Without trust, it is impossible to cooperate or engage in non-exploitative behaviors, such as environmental protection. This is why it is advantageous for societies to monitor and punish those who do not cooperate.
In other words, minimizing the use of resources today to improve the future requires trust and mechanisms to enforce it. This is also true in wider social relations, even between nations. Groups must be confident that others will not use the resources they themselves have protected or that they will not overuse their own resources.
Lessons from traditional ecological knowledge
Today, many environmentalists want to incorporate these lessons learned from indigenous societies into climate policies. Not least because recent studies have shown that environmental objectives, such as protecting forest cover, for example, are better in indigenous protected areas. According to World Bank data, 80% of the world's remaining forest biodiversity is found on the territories of indigenous peoples (who, however, represent only 5% of the global population.)
There is also a growing awareness of the need to protect the rights and sovereignty of indigenous peoples . However, traditional ecological knowledge cannot be removed from its original context. Outsiders should therefore show deference to the holders of this knowledge and respectfully solicit their point of view.
One of the approaches that societies can take in their fight against climate change is the importance of trust, which can seem difficult to obtain these days.
The idea that it would be futile for a Western country to seek to reduce its carbon footprint if demographic giants like China do not do the same is, for example, listed by the University of Cambridge as the first of the twelve most frequent excuses for doing nothing in the face of climate change.
Many enthusiasts of outdoor activities and national parks write on their signs, backpacks or T-Shirts “Leave no trace. ( Leave no trace in English).
In reality, humans always leave traces, no matter how small. The natives of northern Siberia know it well, the slightest step compresses the ground under it and thus affects animal and plant life, no matter how careful we are.
To be more faithful to traditional ecological knowledge, but also more realistic, we should rather say
“Be responsible for the footprints you leave for future generations. »
This article is part of a project involving The Conversation France and AFP audio. It has benefited from the financial support of the European Center for Journalism, within the framework of the “Solutions Journalism Accelerator” program supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. AFP and The Conversation France maintained their editorial independence at each stage of the project.