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Palestinians and Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

This Week in Palestine

December 2005

By Sami Backleh

For a while it seems to be a complex term. One may ask, what brings tradition to ecology, especially since the two are far from each other? Or what type of linkage combines the two terms to knowledge? In some ways, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is an unfortunate term. Talking about traditions within this perspective, some may consider TEK as something that looks old or outdated, and might be distinguished as a term that contrasts with modern, contemporary science. Within this context, many aspects of a given tradition may seem to be unrelated to ecology, especially if we will be dealing with that branch of biology.

Nevertheless, it had been mentioned that people in a certain community who are closely connected to the local surroundings are often the first to notice environmental change. This is because their knowledge is derived from long-term observational data maintained through an oral tradition. Traditions may include a great amount of knowledge about the local environment, about its plants and animal species, about it soil and weather, etc.

Although known to be an unused or unfamiliar expression, TEK had been identified at the earth summit in the Rio Declarations. Furthermore, in 1991, UNESCO recognised TEK as an important tool in planning and decision-making for sustainable development. Such conventions helped in integrating a clear description of TEK where it has been defined as “…the knowledge base acquired by indigenous and local people over many hundreds of years through direct contact with the environment. It includes considerable and detailed knowledge of plants, animals, and natural phenomena, the development and use of appropriate technologies for hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry and a holistic knowledge, or ‘worldview’ which parallels the scientific disciplines of ecology.”

As for TEK in Palestine, it is obvious that this knowledge can be unique to the culture and society, especially that Palestinians are – indirectly – dependent on it for various achievements. It is embedded in the community’s practices, institutions, relationships and rituals. It is the total sum of the knowledge and skills that people in different geographical areas in Palestine may possess which enable them to get the most out of their natural environment.

Most of the traditional knowledge in arid and semi arid lands – such as the eastern slopes in the West Bank, for instance – concentrates on soil and water conservation techniques in agriculture.

The material selected here, instead, considers how traditional management systems can directly alter the habitat and increase the productivity of the environment. A common technique used by traditional people (mostly villagers and Bedouins) in that area is the use of wires, blocks or terrace walls as a water harvesting technique to slow the run-off and foster the deposition of upland sediments. In this way eroded slopes are rehabilitated.

Vines and olive tree terraces that are dominant in the central highlands of Palestine play the same role in conserving the land and combating soil erosion while conserving the biological diversity of plant and animal species that are found within such a structure. Traditional knowledge in some plant species, which are used for medicinal, industrial or economical purposes, is a main source of income for certain people.

Traditional festivals that accompany some crops are a testimony that traditional people in Palestine have accumulated vast amounts of ecological knowledge in their long history of managing the environment – knowledge that can be beneficial for nature conservation and the sustainable use of nature resources. Many examples abound of the great value of traditional ecological knowledge in Palestine which has to be taken in consideration as a significant tool for scientific research and a vital method for enhancing our appreciation of our cultural and natural heritage that holds this knowledge.

Sami Backleh is a freelance wildlife researcher.

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