Overcoming Barriers to Using Local Knowledge in Natural Resource Management
Many academics and practitioners argue that the dominant model of natural resource management— top-down and “scientific”—wrongly discounts the value of local ecological knowledge (LEK), a system of knowledge developed over time through observation and interaction with the natural environment. Although advocates have expounded the benefits of using local knowledge, in practice, LEK is rarely integrated into the scientific assessments that drive management decisions.
Proponents of integrating LEK into management’s knowledge base have offered a three-fold argument. They suggest that it can 1) improve the understanding of local ecological and social conditions, producing management decisions and policies that are more responsive to these conditions, 2) offer models of adaptive, sustainable resource use, and 3) quell the conflict and mistrust that arises when local expertise is ignored or discredited as “anecdotal.” While there is considerable practical evidence to support these views, why scientists rarely tap local knowledge bases is not well understood. This study confirms academics and practitioners’ claims that a major barrier to incorporating LEK is a “language” divide: LEK is rarely presented in scientific terms and thus it is difficult for scientists to understand its relevance or confirm its accuracy. Furthermore, scientific studies are often too complex for untrained locals to understand and thus engage.
This study also reveals a less acknowledged barrier: conflicting interests. Such conflicts are to be expected between those who extract resources—and have some of the most extensive LEK—and the scientists responsible for advising managers on how that extraction should occur. Whereas resource users tend to hold utilitarian values and resist any attempts to limit their access to the resources they extract, natural resource scientists have become increasingly precautionary and conservation-minded over the past several decades. Such contradictory interests make knowledge sharing a risk-incurring exercise for both scientists and resources users. And unlike those associated with bridging the language divide, these risks or potential costs are not related to the effort required to undertake translation; rather the risks are embedded in the very act of working together and sharing knowledge. Scientists fear that by involving adversarial resource users they will politicize and compromise their science. Resource users fear that if they divulge LEK, it will be used to limit their access to resources, or somehow compromise their livelihood. Although individuals who are able “translate” between the local and scientific communities can overcome the language divide, interest conflicts are rarely overcome by similar translation. Instead, this analysis suggests that incentives must be created to encourage the sharing and eliciting of LEK and alter the perception of risk. Collaborative research programs in the New England fishery provide useful examples.