Unit B5 - Overview of Traditional Environmental Management


Unit B5


The original inhabitants of most countries lived close to the land, water and the sea and depended on them for survival. They observed nature closely, and over generations came to understand many things about the natural world and how it worked. Most villages had their wise old men and women to whom others would turn for advice and who would decide when and where to plant, herd, hunt or fish. Many traditional practices were developed where necessary to ensure adequate food for the people and to protect resources from overuse. In general these systems worked well until the arrival of the Europeans brought new techniques and new economic pressures. The old knowledge and values were often discredited as sorcery or superstition, and children went off to school instead of learning from their elders. Much of this practical knowledge has been lost as old people have died without passing it on to the next generation. Often only fragments are still remembered, or have been recorded by outside observers. Yet much of this information would be useful to the wise management of resources today. It is important to try to save what is left of this traditional knowledge and the value system of respect for nature on which it was based, so that it can be reinterpreted in the light of modern scientific understanding, and reapplied as necessary to manage resources better.

Traditional knowledge of the environment covered a wide range of subjects, often in great detail related to specific local circumstances. Such knowledge can be much more useful than general scientific knowledge based on observations made elsewhere. The following list gives some of the kinds of traditional knowledge that are important to environmental management.


The many different varieties of crop plants and their utilization.

The best places, conditions and times for planting, caring for and harvesting crops.

Food storage techniques.

Control of crop sicknesses, insects and other pests.

Management of agricultural land, both seasonally and from year to year; planting sequences or rotations; periods of fallow to allow the land to recover; techniques for soil improvement.

Control of erosion and wind damage.

Identification or classification of soils.

Water management and irrigation, including complex systems of aqueducts and irrigated terraces.

Controls on land use and access to land.


Fishing methods and materials.

Knowledge of fish species, their behaviour, migration, and reproduction.

Best fishing locations, times and techniques for each species.

Controls on fishing: limited access to fishing areas, taboo areas or seasons, catch restrictions.

Changes in fishing resources, effects of overfishing, "how things used to be".

Animals and Hunting

Best times and places to graze animals.

How to move the animals with the seasons to ensure enough food and to avoid over-grazing and damage to pastures.

Behaviour of wild species of animals and hunting or trapping methods.

Controls or limitations on hunting: taboo areas, special times for hunting, restrictions to special occasions or special ranks.

Plants and the Forest

Useful trees and the qualities and uses of their woods.

Techniques for cutting and hauling trees from the forest.

Edible plants and plant parts (nuts, leaves, bark, roots, etc.).

Medicinal plants and their uses.

Genetic resources, varieties or special features of plants, loss of varieties.

Changes in the forest, loss of forest cover (where the forest used to be).


Traditional names for and classifications of species and communities.

Calendars related to the weather, to celestial bodies (solar and lunar cycles, appearance or movement of stars), or to association with natural events such as the flowering or fruiting of trees or the migration of birds.

Weather patterns and prediction, cycles of rain and drought, changes in climate.

Natural catastrophes, cyclones, tsunamis, floods; signs and warnings; effects and areas affected.

Changes in the environment, past extent of the forest and agricultural areas, former locations and populations of villages.

Environmental knowledge: who possessed it, how it was used and transmitted.

Every culture possessed a body of knowledge like the above that was added to and passed on from generation to generation, in much the same way that scientific knowledge is used in western societies. However the intellectual and cultural context was different, with the knowledge being closely associated with traditional religions or magic, often held in secret and passed on within the family. Within its context it had as much value as modern science, and in some areas it was well in advance of present scientific understanding. Those who had such knowledge were the equivalent of scientific experts, and through their help traditional peoples were able to live successfully in what were often difficult and limited environments. Modern societies are far from achieving a similar equilibrium with their resources, and have much to learn from those who succeeded before them.



Can you think of examples of each kind of traditional knowledge from your own experience?

Do you know of other people in your family or community who have such knowledge?

Is the knowledge the same or are there differences from family to family and village to village?

Can you think of other kinds of knowledge to add to the list?

Instructions for trainers in the use of this unit

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Last updated 14 November 2006