Author in Yaxhuná, Yucatan Peninsula, integrating Yucatec kosmos-corpus-practice insights with community members.

What is Ethnoecology?

Ethnoecology is an interdisciplinary field of study that enables a human group with a land-based culture to share how they conceive the ecosystem they inhabit. The root ‘ethno’ points to the native character of the human group; however, ethnoecology is also pertinent to those who are indigenous to a place, meaning those who have been interacting in harmonious and reciprocal ways for decades or generations, such as forest or desert dwellers, or small farmers, herders or fishermen. In all instances, what characterizes the human groups is the way in which they perceive the web of life and conceive their participation in it. They have come to understand, from accumulated experience, that dynamic processes are constantly shaping the way they see and interact with the natural world. The resulting outcome of such interaction is a bioculture, and, even if it retains identifiable and distinguishable features over time, the bioculture is always susceptible to acquiring, modifying or losing some identity traits.

Ethnoecology encourages people from a common bioregion to come together and integrate a descriptive picture’ of how they have been living with the natural world that they call home. There is both a theoretical and a methodological framework that facilitates the integration of such picture. It is a description that includes detailed mappings of skyscapes, landscapes and underworlds—or subsurface territories— where both tangible and intangible aspects are equally relevant. The full picture is achieved by integrating three main dimensions which we call: kosmos, corpus and praxis.

 

 

Figure 1. An example of integration of the kosmos-corpus-praxis of a community presented by Pauli et al. on a worldview review of farmer’s knowledge systems.

Kosmos refers to the belief and value systems that give sense to the mysterious aspects of the world. Belief systems produce societal cohesion, and the human groups that are immersed in the natural world and are connected to its unfolding get to experience biocultural cohesion. Among indigenous peoples who have intentionally remained in the margins of colonizing paradigms, the natural world enables the development of a spiritual reverence to, and respect for, the seen and the unseen. This is easily ascertained by those who, when collaboratively integrating this kind of information, do so from a neutral place in terms of religious dogma. All in all, the kosmos dimension highlights the symbolic and spiritual world of these peoples.

Corpus refers to the knowledge acquired about the natural world by minds that periodically come together and integrate information perceived through the senses and apprehended and assimilated in different ways. In general, indigenous minds have been culturally induced/educated/motivated to discern what information from the natural world is relevant in order to maintain or recover collective harmony—and never to secure immediate individual satisfaction. In favorable conditions, indigenous people become skilled in paying attention to how healthy ecosystemsand all withinact and interact. Whilst keeping track of predictable and cyclic unfoldings, they are also mindful that nature is always experimenting; thus, surprising emergences, creative responses and innovation of complex living systems are carefully observed. Wisdom goes beyond the capacity of the mind to rationally process information at different scales of time and space. It requires a prayerful and meditative way of being in the world and the capacity to connect to dreams and to the realm of the intangible world. The corpus of knowledge and wisdom enables human groups to contribute in a creative way to the overall purpose set by their anteceding generations: one of building endurance and resilience with the ecosystem they inhabit, so to become a single entity which we call a socioecosystem.

Praxis refers to the practical and technological systems that enable the physical, hands-on interaction with both the tangible and intangible aspects of the natural world. There are many skills that people develop in order to grow crops, farm animals, cultivate bees, forage edible plants, fruits, mushrooms and medicinal plants, fish or hunt. These skills go hand in hand with knowledge that has been accumulated, affirmed and complemented for generations. Complementary to skills are the ritual acts that are performed to ensure good communication with the spirit world. Asking for permission to sow seeds, to set up a beehive or to fish, and asking the spirits when and how much can be grown or fished, or when and how much it will rain, is all achieved through rituals; and it is only after listening to the spirits, that the tangible aspect of praxis may be carried out. Technological systems developed in these socioecosystems avoid being invasive or disruptive to natural cyclessmall or largebecause there is an understanding that their thresholds cannot be surpassed. There are all kinds of creation stories, songs, traditional dances, elder-youth dialogues, initiation rites, planting and harvesting feasts and healing practices that keep community members in a harmonious connection with the complex and mysterious living systems. Such is the way in which, in ideal conditions, these societies have put in place an observance system so to prevent human interference with natural processes.

Ethnoecology is based on a post normal science approach. Conventional science requires a subject-object approach to indigenous and small farming communities, whereas post normal science, as proposed by Functowitz and Ravez, dissolves those categories and recognizes expertise in every member of a society, especially in times of crisis. Ethnoecology uses tools from disciplines as varied as cultural geography, new ecology and environmental humanities. All of these share in common a postmodern perspective, challenging to deconstruct conceptsstarting with the human conceptand questioning long-standing statements about the ‘human condition. In the past few decades humanities have thus been addressing the ontological exceptionality of the human, and more particularly, of the Westernized and colonized person. In this regard, the sense of superiority of the Western scientist over nature and over communities linked to nature, is also dissolved, eliminating—or, at least, minimizing—the possibility of reductionism, misinterpretations and the detrimental outcomes.

It is comforting to see the emergence of indigenous thinkers and scientists like Vine Deloria, Leroy Littlebear or Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Oren Lyons, for they offer the foundational basis of native thought to begin dialogue with those who are ready to go beyond the boundaries of anthropocentrism and its paradigms. In these times of civilizational crisis in tandem with planetary crisis, we are offering the ethnoecological framework to enrich such a needed dialogue. This framework has been mainly cultivated by my Mexican mentors Victor Toledo and Narciso Barrera-Bassols, founders of the Thematic Network of Biocultural Heritage, and it has shaped participatory research in land-based communities in many continents in empowering ways. Hopefully it will become adopted by indigenous communities and their younger members. Regardless of whether they are attending or not formal education, they might find benefit in Ethnoecology to communicate, in a holistic way, their way of thinking and living in community with all their relations.