Integrating traditional knowledge to Adaptive Management

Increasing awareness of the long-reaching and intricate impacts of environmental issues has resulted in a dynamic challenge for environmental decision making systems.  Adaptive Management has emerged as an avenue for natural resource management that accepts there are gaps in the knowledge of these systems, but enacts a constant feedback mechanism. Illustrated in figure 1, this learning and decision making cycle allows for the decision maker to continue to learn more about the systems for subsequent situations (Allen et al, 2011). Screen Shot 2016-09-14 at 10.20.30 PM.png

Figure 1. Adaptive Management Cycle. (Source: Allen et al 2011)

Adaptive Management is also described as “learning by doing”. This may be conflicting in many contexts as it basically opposes the Precautionary Principle. Here is where Indigenous knowledge comes into play. Local people have been learning by doing for centuries. Without scientific research, low resources and no computers to gather and store data, the only way of acquiring and transmitting knowledge was by literally doing something, seeing how it goes, and communicating its success or failure. This trial and error system was repeated innumerable times by ancient communities, who slowly became masters of their natural surroundings. So what is proposed for the future of Adaptive Management is that before we “learn by doing” we should “learn from the ones who learnt by doing”.

“…traditional systems have certain similarities to adaptive management
with its emphasis on feedback learning, and its treatment of uncertainty and unpredictability intrinsic to all ecosystems.”
Berkes et al (2000)

Berkes, Colding and Folke (2000) studied how indigenous groups have applied Adaptive Management in the past. The results of various surveys showed how Aboriginals monitored, responded to and managed vast ecosystems in a similar way to what is contemporary Adaptive Management. Some of these practices included “species management, species rotation, succession management, landscape patchiness management and other ways of responding to and managing pulses and ecological surprises” (Berkes et al, 2000).


Figure 2. Indigenous knowledge is communicated in many ways. We must learn to interpret it as it may aid future environmental decision making. Torres Strait Dancing Ceremony. (Source: Celeste Mitchel, 2013)

Another case of Traditional Ecological Knowledge linking to adaptive management was recently presented by Dr. Lewis. In his area of study, traditional burning techniques for prescribed burns are far preferred over the CFS’s (Country Fire Service) burns. These traditional burns display the high importance indigenous groups gave to biodiversity care and resilience, as both aspects are attended, without compromising the goal of avoiding bushfires.


Figure 3. Traditional burns protecting sacred trees. (Source: CFA, 2014)

There are no doubts Indigenous groups burnt huge forests and killed many species before learning how to manage their environment. But the knowledge was eventually acquired and perfected for many years and is still available for us to use. Now a day we can’t afford trial and error practices in the large scale, so we must learn from the ones who did it back in the day before its too late and the knowledge dies with the people.


Allen, C., Fontaine, J., Pope, K., and Garmestani , A.(2011). Adaptive management for a turbulent future. Journal of Environmental Management 92, pp. 1339-1345.

Berkes, F., Colding, J., & Folke, C. (2000). Rediscovery of traditional ecological knowledge as adaptive management. Ecological applications10(5), 1251-1262.

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