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Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) describes aboriginal, indigenous, or other forms of traditional knowledges regarding sustainability of local resources. TEK refers to "a cumulative body of knowledge, belief, and practice, evolving by accumulation of TEK and handed down through generations through traditional songs, stories and beliefs. [It concerns] the relationship of living beings (including human) with their traditional groups and with their environment." TEK is commonly used in natural resource management as a substitute for baseline environmental data to measure changes over time in remote regions that have little recorded scientific data.
The use of TEK in management and science is controversial since methods of acquiring and accumulating TEK, although often including forms of empirical research and experimentation, differ from those used to create and validate Western scientific ecological knowledge (SEK). Non-tribal government agencies, such a the United States Environmental Protection Agency have established integration programs with some tribal governments in order to utilize TEK in environmental plans and climate change tracking.
There is a debate whether holders of TEK (i.e., Indigenous populations) retain an intellectual property right over traditional knowledge and whether use of this knowledge requires prior permission and license. This is especially complicated because TEK is most frequently preserved as oral tradition and as such may lack objectively confirmed documentation. Ironically, those same methods that might resolve the issue of documentation compromise the very nature of traditional knowledge.
TEK is often used to sustain local populations and maintain resources necessary for survival. However, it can be weakened or invalidated in the context of rapid climate change, environmental impact, or other situations in which significant alterations of ecosystems render TEK weak or obsolete. Environmental justice issues such as water pollution and environmental degradation also threaten TEK, as environmental resources are integral to the sustainability of indigenous health, knowledge, and management practices.
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