Natalie Ceperley

Human Ecology and Adaption

Theory Article Summary

Ethnoecology- Feb 5 2001


"A Place That's Good, Gitksan Landscape Perception and Ethnoecology."

Leslie Main Johnson studied the ethnoecology of the Gitksan people of a densely forested part of British Columbia as part of long-term research of Gitksan traditional healing, ethnobotany, and ethnoecology (Johnson, 2000b). Her research spanned from 1985 to 1998 and included interviews with over sixty people. Her methodology is based on Johnson (1997, 2000a).

Over the course of her research she came to understand the distinctions between Western ecological view and the Gitsksan perspectives of the same land. Her background in Western ecology and botany allowed her to synthesize the wilderness the Gitsksan people call home. She identified the geomorphic features of the land and the plant communities, categorizing them by their prominent species. She mapped the land, highlighting common communities such as the location of white pine stands and sphagnum bogs. However, when she began to investigate the ethnoecology, how the people perceived their environment, she was confronted with an entirely different system.

The Gitskan do not separate the world into human spaces and wilderness, instead, all is one. People have a long-term, mutualistic relationship with the land; each helps the other. The land provides the food, the shelter, and records the history of the people, and in return the people care for and respect the land. These fundamental beliefs and relationships are reflected in the language and vocabulary of the Gitskan. Landscapes are described by both the topographic features and the presence or absence of standing water and trees. The forest (with trees) communities are not differentiated by species but rather by individual location where different events took place. Treeless areas (without trees) include prairies, burned areas, and even landslides or avalanches. Location and orientation are in reference to the river or the mountain; upstream, downstream, toward the river, away from the river, up the mountain, halfway up the mountain, or down the mountains. Locations are specified with their name, which demonstrates to whose house (matrilineal family group headed by a chief) it belongs (who owns the land), the resources available at that point, or events that took place in that spot. For example a bend in the river may be called place-to-catch-good-fish, thus recording the importance of the site. The river is central in most references since it is the life-blood of the people, providing the salmon that sustains the people.

The findings of this study reflect patterns in ethnoecology. Beaucage found that the Sierra Nahua of Pueblo Mexico used many of the same topographic categories, suggesting that in fact there exists a cosmological and symbolic opposition between mountain and water. Upcoast, downcoast, toward mountain and away from mountain are common terms in the Kwakiutl studied by Boas. The idea that history is written on the land is common among illiterate groups. Although this study excludes spiritually significant sites from direct study, other ethnoecologies have thoroughly examined them. Toponymes, or how the places are named, is another ethnoecological area open for further exploration.

Ethnoecology reveals the complex and intricate relationship of people with their land in addition to offering another lens through which to examine the world. It can be very useful when two cultures clash. Currently, ethnoecology is practical as a cultural broker, or a translator/bridge, during development projects. Conservation and agricultural efforts have especially relied on ethnoecology to help local people understand and integrate new technology and practices into their lifestyles.


Beaucage, P., and Taller de Tradicion Oral del CEPEC (1997). Integrating innovation: The traditional Nahua coffe-orchard (Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico). Journal of Ethnobiology 17 (1):45-47.

Boas, F. (1934). Geographical Names of the Kwakiutl Indians, Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. XX. Columbia University Press, New York.

Johnson, L. M. (1997). Health Wholeness, and the Land: Gitskan Traditional Plant Use and Healing. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Alberta, Edmonton.

Johnson, L. M. (2000a). Gitsan plant classification. Journal of Ethnobiology (in press).

Johnson, L.M. (2000b). "A Place That's Good," Gitksan Landscape Perception and Ethnoecology." Human Ecology, 28 (2):301-325.

Ania Mikos

The Power of Environmental Knowledge: Ethnoecology and

Environmental Conflicts in Mexican Conservation

Nora Haenn

In this article, Nora Haenn examines the way in which local ethnoecological constructs of forests in Mexico's Calakmul Biosphere Reserve interfere with governmental conservation efforts. The Reserve, located on the southern end of the Yucatan peninsula, encompasses over one million acres of tropical rainforest. Local farmers rely on rainfed agriculture and suffer from low productivity during periods of drought.

Haenn's interviews with Calakmul farmers indicate that they think of the forest as a powerful entity and as a place of work. They think of the environment as a force so powerful that it lies outside of the human domain, and they therefore do not recognize human responsibility to protect it. The farmers also view the forest as a barrier to productive farming activities, and they therefore express the need to constantly fell it. They view their felling of the forest as a limit to its power, but at the same time they recognize that the trees will grow back.

The environment is also conceived of as a place of work. Farmers categorize the forest in terms of work that went on in the past and possibilities for future work. They evaluate forest height and tree diameter in order to determine when the forest was last felled. Forests felled within the last couple of years would exact less labor to clear and are therefore preferred sites for future farming. Forests that have never been felled would be very difficult to clear.

Conceptions of the environment held by policy-makers stand in sharp contrast to those held by farmers. The policy-makers think of the ideal environment as one that is not disturbed by human presence, and they therefore seek to set aside land preserves. Furthermore, policy-makers view short-term engineered change, such as felling of forests, as detrimental to the environment. On the other hand, the farmers support short term change if it makes economic sense for them, and they do not understand land preservation because they need access to as many resources as possible. These differing conceptions lead to tension between farmers and policy-makers with regard to conservation measures taken by the government.

The author argues that farmers publicly exhibit support of conservation measures in order to attain the increased economic aid made available to them while they privately resist the application of these measures. Their local ethnoecologies conflict with conservation measures in two ways. First, their conception of the forest as a powerful force existing outside of the human realm eliminates the need for human-driven conservation efforts. Second, because they conceive of the land as a place of work, they assume that the government has some goal in mind in setting aside land. General distrust of the government dictates that the goals of the government involve some illicit activity.

The author indicates that both farmers and policy-makers are well aware of the ways in which local perception of the environment affects action. Policy-makers aim their programs at changing the way people think of the environment, hoping that these new conceptions of the environment would encourage environmental protection. Farmers in turn promote their notion of the environment as a place of work to counter preservationist ideas of setting land aside.

The author concludes the article by calling for a more localized environmentalism built on the ethnoecological information she gathered. She proposes small-scale sustainable development projects, which are not carried out by the mistrusted government agents. This project should stress environmentalism built on the local notions of work and political autonomy while respecting the power of the environment.

Haenn, Nora. "The Power of Environmental Knowledge: Ethnoecology and

Environmental Conflicts in Mexican Conservation." Human Ecology, Vol. 27,

1999, 477-491.


Jordan Serin 2/5/01

Human Ecology and Adaptation Bentley-Condit

Ethnoecology- Group #3

Human Organization, vol. 57 n.2 1998

"Defining Indicators Which Make Sense to Local People: Intra-Cultural

Variations in Perceptions of Natural Resources".

by Virginia Nazarea, Robert Rhoades, Erla Bontoyan, and Gabriela Flora Since the decision to intervene with development policies in particular social and environmental settings can lead to unpredictable circumstances,scientists and planners must have a point of reference to measure the appropriateness and impact of these decisions. An ethnoecological approach allows "beneficiaries" to determine the complex array of goals and concerns that should be addressed if scientists and planners wish for individuals from a local economic and cultural standpoint to agree with the direction of change. Quantitative values that measure the success of outside intervention fail to consider the goals of local populations when policy planning occurs outside the context of a proposed site of development. Ethnoecology resolves these problems by offering its informants questions with undetermined answers. A range of individuals from the native population therefore provides outsiders with a breadth of culturally defined indicators for determining whether or not the outcome of certain resource management techniques will suit all groups' concerns. Ethnoecologists must recognize the social (eg. class) and biological (eg. age, gender) differences within the native group in order to interpret intra-cultural variations in perceptions of natural resources.

Located in the northeastern sector of the Phillipines' second largest island, Mindanao, the Manupali Watershed has become the home of three ethnic groups who have "transferred and reworked environmental and agricultural knowledge in a shared landscape" (161). Although this article focuses on the response of different ethnic, gender, and age groups to a set of twenty photographs taken around the Manupali watershed, additional ethnoecological methods involved eliciting oral life histories, collecting human activity grids, and cognitive mapping. All of these methods give researchers an idea of the relative significance of environmental features and "lifescape" scenarios according to different categories of informants. An equal number of informants from each gender, ethnic group, and age group (40-49, 50-59, 60+) were asked to "tell a story" in their native dialect about scenes depicting "various production strategies, ecologically sound and not-too-sound practices, gradients from monoculture to diverse plots, and human relations with plants and with each other" (162).

A spectrum of 32 different themes was constructed from responses to these 20 photographs. Some themes included beauty of the environment, diversity of plants, and social stratification. This overall sample of informants was more concerned with the direct usefulness of resources rather than potential commercial ventures that certain resources indicate. Next, four major categories of themes were identified. These categories support this article's attempt to show that particular, heterogeneous concepts of local knowledge and perceptions of the environment guide the way different people look for different indications of sustainable development and quality of life. These ethnoecologists extract the most value from their research by disaggregating dominant concerns by ethnicity, gender, and age within the local landscape of a native population. For instance, unlike the other two ethnic groups, the Talaandig were too burdened with economic and political circumstances to pay a lot of attention to either the beauty or commercialization potential.

Ethnoecology can help to bridge objective indicators of successful development with local perceptions of resource management; in addition, sensitivity toward intra-cultural variations in perceptions of natural resources present the greatest challenge for ethnoecologists and development planners who wish to see intra-group cooperation in projects toward a local, sustainable future.

The Ethno-ecology of Maize Variety Management: A Case Study from Mexico.

by Mauricio R. Bellon

Article Summery.

Ethnoecology is an approach to environmental Anthropology, which examines how people perceive their environment. Traditionally, anthropologists using this approach would examine the language and taxonomy, which a society uses to describe and categorize the environment. In recent years critics claimed that Ethnoecology only provides lists and taxonomies and fails to give significant understanding about people's behavior in their environment. Bellon's paper demonstrates how this criticism of Ethno-ecology is inaccurate. Bellon examines the Mexican farmer's knowledge of Maize varieties, and characteristics and how this widespread knowledge base directly relates to their selection and management of maize crops. Recently, development projects have been introducing new higher yield varieties of maize to small Mexican farmers. Concern has arisen about how the introduction of new varieties will effect folk knowledge and traditional farming. This article emphasizes how farmer's responses to changes in the types of maize are reflected in their descriptions and categorization of maize. By studying how farmers perceive maize varieties we learn how they respond to newly introduced changes to their traditional system.

The methods used in this research demonstrate a traditional Ethnoecological approach; ask the people being studied questions. In this case, farmers of a range of socio-economic status were asked about past and present planting of maize varieties and what they considered to be positive and negative characteristics of the varieties. To determine if individual farmers knowledge could be describes as a common base knowledge, those performing the experiment calculated what percentage of farmers listed a certain trait of a variety, whether that trait was a positive or negative quality and which traits they attributed to each variety.

The results of the surveys demonstrate that farmers indeed share a common knowledge, both in identifying important factors in Maize selection and in how each variety faires under those factors. Farmers were concerned with Ecology, technology and use of varieties. Ecological concerns included growing cycle length, drought resistance, plant height, resistance to wind, stalk strength, weed resistance, growth ability in poor soil, and intercropablitity with squash. Technology concerns include amount of attention required, amount of care required and sturdiness. Use factors are weight by yield and weight by volume, sustenance, marketability, storability, and taste. Although these factors were looked at independently many off them were intimately related such as drought resistance and growing cycle, and stature and wind resistance.

The study shows that Mexican farmers experiment with new maize varieties. They take outside technology and through adaptation, innovation and collaboration with one another they integrate new varieties into their existing environment. Farmers took the new seeds planted and compared, they discovered how the new varieties compared with the old varieties, the results of mixing the two and then planted new varieties and old varieties as fitting for their situations. This study dispelled concern that folk knowledge might be destroyed by knew technology and proved that knowledge and behavior exhibit an intimately dynamic relationship each constantly changing in response to the other.