Conceptualizing Local Environmental Knowledge in Asia and beyond

17. Dec 2009

Frida Hastrup, post.doc, Department of Anthropology,

University of Copenhagen


Given the current tides in the political as well as the scientific world it seems difficult for researchers of any discipline to entirely avoid considering climate. Within anthropology, a range of studies have recently appeared, exploring the impact of global climate change on local communities around the globe as observed during ethnographic fieldwork. Often these studies focus explicitly on local communities’ experiences of environmental change and on their attendant practices of adaptation, and a common feature is an appeal that science ought to pay heed to these local understandings, which usually go by the name of ‘local knowledge’ or ‘indigenous knowledge’. Such local environmental knowledge can contribute to science quite simply because the locals in each their set of physical surroundings often have an intimate insight into their environment, enabling them to report any changes to outsiders. As anthropologist Susan Crate, co-editor of the book Anthropology and Climate Change. From Encounters to Actions (2009), writes in her chapter on perceptions of climate change among the Sakha in Siberia:

“We asked a simple set of questions about what elders observed, how their lives were affected, what the causes were, and what they thought their future would bring. The elders impressed upon us that they possess ecological knowledge about how the climate was and how it has changed. In lieu of availability of comprehensive local climatic data, village elders’ knowledge is vital” (Crate 2009:140).

While I certainly appreciate the recording of environmental knowledge of any kind, including that of non-specialists, and support the implicit acceptance of a diversity of forms of knowledge, there is still reason to be cautious of the conceptualization of local knowledge, which is expressed in the quote above. Sympathetic as the approach is, by seeing local knowledge as mere observations that can be tapped into as a contribution to “comprehensive climatic data”, I think we run the risk of reducing local knowledge to being a kind of 1:1 photographical representation of the surroundings. Local knowledge, when seen as sheer observations, remains quite literally a down-to-earth kind of knowledge without any potential theoretical content. Such a concept of local knowledge contradicts what I have come across during fieldwork in a fishing village in Tamil Nadu, South India. The main focus of my research was analyzing the ways in which people recovered after the blow of the Asian tsunami that hit coastal regions all around the Indian Ocean in December 2004. What struck me during my fieldworks was that the local villagers kept communicating views of their environment, which combined a range of features into an implicit theory about the world. Thus, the fishermen repeatedly made statements that connected the experience of shifting weather conditions and recurring seasonal patterns with global climate change, which again was connected with the unique tsunami disaster that had engulfed most of the village. “After the tsunami, the climate is different. We catch less fish”, Soresh would say, and Raj would add that the rough season – the local term for the recurring monsoon season at the end of the year – could now appear at unexpected times, leaving the fishermen with limited ability to plan ahead.

In these and numerous other statements, the villagers pooled whatever occurrences and conditions nature threw at them into a composite whole; a compound set of surroundings, which they tried to navigate in practically and relate to analytically. For the villagers whose houses were threatened by erosion, it was a matter of moving to safer grounds. Among tsunami survivors, who had already been relocated by the authorities, there was talk of establishing a small port for the fishing boats at the mouth of the nearby river for future protection of the boats. For yet others, what was at stake was to seek new opportunities outside of the increasingly unpredictable fishing trade, either as industrial workers in Singapore or Malaysia, or by way of formal education, all with the aim of improving future possibilities in a long-term perspective. In other words, tsunamis, untimely monsoon rains, depletion of fish in the ocean, waves encroaching on people’s living space, and global climate change – often communicated through mass media – made up the compound reality, to which the local villagers reacted.

            As I see it, these reactions have at least two features in common. First of all, it is clear that the villagers act in accordance with an inbuilt view to their future; they react to a distressing future scenario, which they attempt to replace with a less distressing one. This implies that the local practices extend beyond the time, at which they are enacted. Secondly, people’s actions also point beyond their specific locality; the villagers have a clear idea of being part of larger world, which for better or worse, directly or indirectly, splash their local setting. Accordingly, in both temporal and spatial terms, what the villagers do locally and the ideas that they have about their world transcend the near at hand and what is immediately ascertainable. The villagers’ practices are entangled in a wider world, which, of course, as any world, is seen from a particular point of view, but which is built on ideas and knowledge that clearly explode the category of the empirically local.

In other words, what the fishermen articulated was not just a down-to-earth kind of knowledge. While they might have based their statements on observations of the surroundings, they inscribed these observations in an implicit theory about their world, for instance a theory about the connection between climate change, the tsunami and lesser catches of fish. These remarks are not mere observations, which science can pick and choose from; they form part of a whole world-building process, which is locally based, as all world-buildings are, but which clearly extends beyond the empirically immediate.     

To conclude: If we do in fact mean it seriously that we want to incorporate local knowledge in our studies of climate change and see it as a valuable contribution to science, we need to acknowledge its theoretical character. By theoretical character I simply mean to imply that even if local knowledge builds on spatially specific experiences and ideas, it is not restricted to represent these in a simple referential relation as a 1:1 model of nature. To the contrary, like all other theories, local knowledge proposes a way of understanding connections in the world; in other words, theorization is not opposed to the local, and it is not an exclusive property of scientists. Knowledge production, whether that of scientists or of locals, always takes place somewhere; in this light, we all produce local knowledge.

More generally, I think this has a bearing on the way in which we understand the relation between the local, the regional and the global. Very often, we tend to think of these in terms of proportions; the local is seen as a smaller perspective than the regional, which again is seen as an excerpt of the global. Analytically, I think we must discard such proportional thinking; surely words like local, regional and global can say something about the empirical scale of our field of interest (as in this blog’s focus on Asia), but they do not tell us anything the potential theoretical scope pertaining to each, and they are not to be seen as descriptive of a hierarchy of knowledge forms. In any event, and in whatever way we construe our field analytically, we need to acknowledge people’s capacity to imagine and think beyond their local setting – which, I should add, is not any less local for it. However insurmountable the challenges of climate change seem to be, from an anthropological perspective, we need to see p
eople everywhere – scientists included – as “locals” who from each their position engage in a world-building process, and whose environmental knowledge is at once experiential and spatially situated and theoretical and abstracted from a specific context.