For many people around the world, the majority of life’s lessons are learned outside of schools. Experience with local plants, animals and ecology can increase health and well being in ways that formal education cannot. Hunted meat is often the only source of protein in a household. Medicinal plants provide available and affordable healing properties (often sought by Western pharmaceutical companies) to 80 percent of the world’s population.  Weather shocks, pest infestations, the selection of cultivars, nutritional status and access to natural resources can all be managed with traditional knowledge.  And yet, local ecological knowledge (LEK) is being lost at fantastic rates, greater than even the disappearance of language diversity according to Victoria Reyes-García of the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, an international expert on the topic.

Local ecological knowledge is also referred to as traditional environmental knowledge in some contexts and describes a body of information about local ecologies that is passed down between generations. Anthropologists who are interested in the interactions between humans and their environments study LEK since this knowledge strongly affects how people interact with local ecological systems. Numerous factors contribute to the loss of LEK from indigenous populations: integration to market economies, appropriation of land and devaluing indigenous cultures, migration to towns and cities for wage labor employment. But researchers have suggested that schooling is one of the main causes for the loss of LEK in indigenous populations

honey collectors

Kathryn Demps photo
Shivana and Papana collect thudevejenu honey from Apis cerana, a bee very similar to the western honey bee that makes it’s hives in tree trunks and termite mounds.

Attending school affects how children spend their days. If you are sitting in a classroom, you cannot also be working in a forest garden with your mother, fishing with your father, or practicing climbing trees with your friends. As institutionalized schooling reaches small-scale societies around the world, indigenous students and their parents must decide how they want to trade-off benefits from acquiring formal schooling vs. LEK.

Affirmative action programs in India reserve scholarships and government employment positions for individuals from Scheduled Tribes – officially recognized indigenous populations. I worked and lived with a forest-dwelling tribe in Southern India for a year to study how LEK is passed down between generations. Jenu Kuruba students who have completed high school and some post-secondary education have gone on to become nurses, local politicians and members of the department of forestry. Jenu Kuruba without secondary and post-secondary education generally combine wage labor, the collection of forest products and household cultivation for subsistence. A very real trade-off between high status jobs and local knowledge and traditions exists for parents and children regarding schooling.

Working within a cluster five Jenu Kuruba villages settled in a forest preserve, I created a questionnaire to test LEK related to honey collecting — a Jenu Kuruba speciality (Jenu means honey in the local dialect). In addition to practical skills like climbing trees and making smoky torches, the Jenu Kuruba know how to find the bees, which trees they prefer to live in, what they eat and other ecological and behavioral characteristics. I verbally tested children aged 6 to 15 on these questions and other local knowledge about bees and honey. I also collected attendance data and exam results from the local primary school. For more on culture and honey collecting see Demps, “The Selective Persistence of Local Ecological Knowledge: Honey Collecting with the Jenu Kuruba in South India“.

Children on average missed six days of school a month. Attending school is partially a result of personal preference. Many children play truant to spend time in the forest surrounding the school and the villages with their friends. Parents vary in how strongly they encourage school attendance by their children. Variation in days missed per month ranged from 0 to 31. Among the Jenu Kuruba, kids with more absences from school have greater amounts of LEK in general. Interestingly, the increase in LEK from school absences leveled off after missing 5 to 6 days of school in a month.

However, I also found that not all types of LEK are equally affected by schooling. Skills that can be practiced with peers, like tree climbing, actually show a slight positive relationship with schooling among the Jenu Kuruba. This is because children play tree-climbing games with one another during and after school. Some types of knowledge, like identifying honey, can be learned in the household outside of school hours and have a neutral relationship with schooling. Activities that occur during school hours away from the classroom or apprenticeships for traditional skills are most likely to be neglected when schooling occurs.

India is aware of this trade-off and is currently expanding educational programs that incorporate local language, skills and knowledge into the curriculum. These types of programs have been shown elsewhere to increase performance in school and maintain certain types of LEK. Jenu Kuruba children excel at their environmental studies curriculums due to their personal experience. But policy makers must consider options for acquiring LEK and other types of traditional knowledge that cannot be incorporated into formalized schooling systems.

One compromise would be to allow time off from school to participate in traditional activities. In this case, one week away from school per month could be sufficient to increase LEK, without requiring children to totally leave school. Since childhood is a particularly sensitive time for acquiring LEK, this would allow children to engage in sequential skill building, accompany adults in situational learning experiences, be privy to secret or private knowledge and otherwise engage in activities that cannot be contextualized in or around the classroom.

Elsewhere, indigenous communities have structured curricula and learning opportunities to incorporate local knowledge. The “Strong like Two Peoples” campaign in Canada has been successful in incorporating indigenous identity and knowledge into formal education systems. This system encourages young people, like Tlicho children, to “embrace the contemporary world while holding on to their cultural heritage and traditions.”

There is no magic bullet for removing trade-offs between schooling and LEK for indigenous populations. Policy makers must think hard to meet local needs for acquiring LEK while providing the access to formalized education that individuals require to interact with governing institutions in the contemporary world. As programs like “Strong like Two People” age, we will be better able to evaluate their effectiveness and make further changes to institutionalized educational systems. Losses in LEK affect not only current generations, but also future generations to whom that knowledge will not be transmitted.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.