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The Problem of Scale in Indigenous Knowledge: a Perspective from Northern Australia

Marc Wohling, Charles Darwin University


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Over the last decade, indigenous knowledge has been widely touted by researchers and natural resource managers as a valuable contributor to natural resource management and biodiversity conservation. In Australia, the concept of indigenous knowledge has gained such rapid currency that it has tended toward an essentialized and universal truth rather than remaining a diverse range of highly localized and contested knowledge.

In this paper, I undertake a critical analysis of some of the current issues around the interpretation and application of indigenous knowledge and its relationship with natural resource management in northern Australia. Through a focus on how indigenous knowledge operates at a range of scales, I argue that indigenous knowledge is not adapted to the scales and kinds of disturbances that contemporary society is exerting on natural systems. Rather than being realistic about the limitations of indigenous knowledge, I argue that nonindigenous interpretations of indigenous knowledge have propelled us toward reified meanings, abstracted concepts, and an information-based taxonomy of place. The result can be the diminishing and ossifying of a dynamic living practice and the failure to recognize expressions of indigeneity in contemporary forms.

Key words

decision making; ecological scale; ecology; ethnoecology; indigenous knowledge; natural resource management; northern Australia.
Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087