Science and tradition - pushing the envelope

27 February 2006

How do you take indigenous environmental knowledge, passed down through generations and fragmented by histories, and reconcile it with scientific approaches to understanding nature?

This question intrigued Dr Lesley Fordred-Green while conducting research among Palikur Indians in northern Brazil.

A senior lecturer in social anthropology at UCT, she has now developed a new first-semester course, Tradition, Environment and Science, to explore this debate in African and Latin American contexts.

The graduate course examines the difference between traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) and the sciences, and proposes ways in which different knowledge systems could be better understood and integrated.

"In recent years there has been an increasing recognition of the value of traditional knowledge and there is a need to include this in education, biodiversity conservation and development," says Green. "However, the tools for working with indigenous knowledge are inadequate and have a lot to do with a paradigm that closes off traditional knowledge from science."

According to Green, there is a reductionist approach in the way scholarship works and a tendency to compartmentalise different points of knowledge, such as time (into history) and space (into geography), whereas many indigenous knowledge systems do not make the same distinctions.

One method on which the course focuses is the use of maps and geographic information systems (GIS).

"Although maps are the preferred scientific device for collecting local environmental knowledge, they do not necessarily gather the ways of world-making that underpin systems of local or traditional knowledge," says Green.

She defines "world-making" as the way in which people give meaning to the elements of an environment, such as the seasons, nature, and topography. Gathering environmental data with local people should therefore involve a wider range of knowledge, such as astronomy, geography and history.

The course aims to develop a wider range of approaches to collecting local environmental information, and to studying the social production of both scientific and traditional knowledge.

The course will be conducted in workshop format and will examine methods such as storytelling and knowledge of seasons as ways of transferring knowledge.

For more information contact Green at

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.