The last decade has shown an increasing interest in Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) as a source of information for environmental policy and management. In particular, the newly established Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) intends to complement scientific knowledge by consideration of the rich diversity of local and traditional ecological knowledge around the world to inform policy processes in more meaningful ways. Many empirical studies have been carried out in indigenous communities in developing countries, exhibiting specific traits of culture, history and exposure to the environment. In contrast, evidence on TEK in developed countries with more homogenous populations and fewer indigenous communities is scant, which presents a major barrier to the consideration of TEK in environmental policy processes.

In Europe, the little existing research on TEK has long focused on mere descriptions of ethnobotanical knowledge. It was only after the launch of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 that studies reflecting on the potential of TEK to inform management and policy have emerged. Within Europe studies of TEK studies are clustered in certain areas, particularly in marginal areas of Northern Scandinavia and of the Mediterranean, where customary practices have attracted the attention of researchers. For example, the transmission of traditional knowledge has been recently studied among livestock herders in the Conquense Drove Road, Spain (Oteros-Rozas et al., submitted). While a rich body of TEK related to transhumance (seasonal movement of herders with their livestock between summer and winter pastures) was identified, a marked loss was observed among youngsters that are no longer involved in livestock husbandry. The study highlights that the maintenance of transhumance is the most important factor influencing TEK preservation. The authors suggest that the study of TEK in developed areas can improve our understanding about adaptation of agrarian societies to global environmental change.

In contrast, ecological knowledge embedded in the more temperate and contemporary farming, forestry, and fishery systems of Europe has been largely overlooked. Also, professionals such as mainstay farmers are complemented by up to 100 million recreational land users, amongst others hunters, anglers, and birdwatchers. As European members of SULi have highlighted in various initiatives (compare, these groups provide important contributions to the management of biodiversity and ecosystem services and to long-term monitoring of species and ecosystem dynamics, but their enormous localised ecological knowledge is rarely capitalised on. This may be due to the apparent misunderstanding of TEK as something that can only be possessed by societal groups who differ substantially from mainstream populations in terms of cultural heritage, lifestyle and tradition.

The value of TEK for global biodiversity conservation and in particular for protected areas management has long been acknowledged. But although a number of pilot studies on this subject have been conducted for example in Portugal and France (Crosnier, 2006; Carvalho and Frazão-Moreira, 2011), it remains mostly unclear what role TEK can play in the design and implementation of protected areas management or the development of co-management strategies in Europe. This becomes particularly important, if one considers the fact that the establishment of a nature reserve often entails the disregard of local stakeholders and the abandonment or prohibition of traditional land-use practices by the local community in the protected area.

Considering the potential of TEK for many aspects of environmental management, the fact that many studies (e.g. Gómez-Baggethun et al., 2010; Glasenapp and Thornton, 2011) report a loss of TEK in recent decades becomes utterly important. The current body of literature states the transition to a market economy, the industrialisation of land-use practices, the inflexibility of regulations, but also neglect of TEK in European-wide environmental and agrarian policy responses, such as Natura 2000 or the Common Agricultural Policy, as the main reasons for the loss in TEK. Therefore, IPBES with its focus on incorporating traditional knowledge could become an important starting point for a different environmental policy in Europe.

However, in order to engage the IPBES framework and its aspects on local and traditional ecological knowledge appropriately, much more research is needed to assess the evolution and trends of European TEK, to involve local experts in the design of nature conservation initiatives and to incorporate traditional knowledge in the decision making process. This firstly requires the dispersion of the prevailing myth that TEK is something intangible and static that belongs to remote and ‘exotic’ environments and that is not apparent among contemporary rural people managing ‘ordinary’ landscapes or ecosystems. Bridging the gap between science, policy and practice has become the most sought-after paradigm for fostering TEK, as it could turn out to be one of the major contributors to conservation and sustainable development in Europe.

Janis Hoberg, research intern at the Ecosystem Services Research Group, Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Germany, and student of environmental finance and sustainable investment.
Elisa Oteros Rozas, Ph.D. researcher at the Social-ecological Systems Laboratory (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain) interested in human-nature relations and in nomadic pastoralism in particular.
Tobias Plieninger, Head of the Ecosystem Services Research Group at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Germany, and member of CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group.

Carvalho, A.M. and Frazão-Moreira, A. 2011. Importance of local knowledge in plant resources management and conservation in two protected areas from Trás-os-Montes, Portugal. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 7: 36.
Crosnier, C. 2006. Biodiversity and relevance of local practices in the Cevennes Biosphere Reserve. International Social Science Journal 58: 151-160.
Glasenapp, M. and Thornton, T. F., 2011. Traditional ecological knowledge of Swiss Alpine farmers and their resilience to socioecological change. Human Ecology 39, 769-781.
Gómez-Baggethun, E., S. Mingorria, V. Reyes-García, L. Calvet and C. Montes. 2010. Traditional ecological knowledge trends in the transition to a market economy: Empirical study in the Doñana natural areas. Conservation Biology 24: 721-729.
Oteros-Rozas, E., Ontillera-Sánchez, R., Sanosa, P., Gómez-Baggethun, E., Reyes-García, V. and González, J.A., submitted. Traditional Ecological Knowledge among transhumant pastoralists in Mediterranean Spain: learning for adaptation to global change.

Photo: Transhumance. Credit: Berta Martín-López.