Traditional ecological knowledge and its role in environmental impact assessment

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is knowledge of the environment, how to use the environment, and values related to the environment (Usher, 1996). Peoples with TEK who live closely with the land are acutely aware of ecosystem function, resource distribution, and the relationship between environment and culture (Stevenson, 1996). TEK is now a policy requirement for environmental impact assessments (EIA) in northern Canada as part of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (Usher, 1996). Where an affected group of people depend upon the environment for subsistence, EIA needs to take traditional knowledge into consideration to be effective for these people (Ford and Pearce, 2010). Still, there is a lot of uncertainty as to what TEK actually is and how it can be incorporated into EIA and decision-making (Usher, 1996).

TEK will be increasingly important as an uncertain, changing global climate is limiting the effectiveness of previous science and future predictions. Where data may be unavailable, traditional ecological knowledge provides useful information about the environment on a very localized scale, and it is less likely to become outdated than broad studies.

TEK in Canada’s North

How do we begin? At its core, TEK appears to be the perfect complement to the knowledge brought to the table by proponents, consultants and government. Peoples with TEK are those who know the world around them and observe the interactions within it. If this knowledge can help to manage an area holistically, then it should be included in the EIA. Recognizing the validity and benefit of knowledge that falls outside of the traditional view of science is a good start.

Allowing the public and those with valuable knowledge of an area should have involvement in an EIA from the start. At the scoping and screening stages of EIA, TEK can be used to identify VECs, including sacred lands and areas with populations of rare flora and fauna. Identifying these species can be crucial to determining whether an EIA is undergone or what type of assessment is required (Pynn, 2012). Because researchers cannot be expected to know the intimate surroundings of every ecosystem, it is necessary to rely on the local populations for their first-hand knowledge.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge in action

Even incorporating TEK into mitigation measures and monitoring can also be very useful. Scientists with The Nature Conservancy are currently using knowledge from local fishers in the Gulf of Maine to monitor fish movement and adapt fishing methods for improved conservation (Maine). For a company that is not familiar with the territory they will be working in, performing an EIA without the aid of TEK is like trying to assess the depth of of the sea simply by peering over the edge of the boat.

EIAs can be greatly improved by the collaboration with local populations and the recognition that the knowledge they possess, while difficult to quantify scientifically, is incredibly valuable and not available anywhere else. As long as there is an effort made by the proponent to tap into this knowledge, EIA will stand to benefit.

Bell, J. 2011. How Better Design Can Heal the Fishing Industry. Triple Pundit. Dec. 30, 2011. Accessed     Jan. 21, 2012:    better-design/

Ford, J.D. and Pearce, T. 2010. What we know, do not know, and need to know about climate change     vulnerability in the western Canadian Arctic: a systematic literature review. Environmental     Research Letters (9pp).

Pynn, L. 2012. Extinct Dracula monkey found in Borneo. Vancouver Sun. Jan. 23, 2012. Accessed Jan.     25, 2012:

Stevenson, M. G. 1996. Indigenous Knowledge in Environmental Assessment. Arctic. 49(3): 278-291.

Usher, P. J. 2000. Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Environmental Assessment and Management.     Arctic. 53(2): 183-193.


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