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Commensurability of scientific and indigenous ecological knowledge in coastal Melanesia: implications for contemporary marine resource management strategies

CollectionsANU Resources, Environment & Development Group (RE&D)
Title: Commensurability of scientific and indigenous ecological knowledge in coastal Melanesia: implications for contemporary marine resource management strategies
Author(s): Foale, Simon
Keywords: indigenous ecological knowledge
coastal Melanasia
marine resources
management and conservation
indigenous knowledge systems
biodiversity conservation
Publisher: Canberra, ACT: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program (RMAP), Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School for Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University
Series/Report no.: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program (RMAP) Working Paper: No. 38
Fundamental ontological differences between scientific and indigenous ecological knowledge systems in coastal Melanesia have resulted in very different conclusions being drawn from similar sets of observations. The same inductive logic may lead both scientists and non-science-trained fishers to conclude that, say, square-tail trout aggregate at a certain phase of the moon in a certain reef passage, but different assumptions derived from disparate ontologies (in this case “traditional” Melanesian versus scientific) may lead to very different conclusions about why the fish are there. In some cases these differences have significant implications for the way marine resources are exploited, and managed (or not). Examples are presented here of non-scientific ontologies that underpin local beliefs about the biology or ecology of fished organisms that have led to poor management of stocks of these species. The potential for scientific education to “fill gaps” in indigenous knowledge systems (and vice versa) and thus lead to improved management is discussed in the light of some claims that scientific and traditional knowledge systems are incommensurable. The heuristic value of the purported absence of a (Cartesian) dualistic separation of nature and culture in traditional Melanesian cosmologies (relative to those of industrialised Western cultures) is explored with regard to indigenous conceptions of human agency over resource abundance, and the relevance this has for management and conservation. I also speculate about recent transformations of rural Melanesian ontological frameworks through Western/scientific influences, and the associated differences in knowledge systems between young and old members of society, again with respect to the implications these have for the work of proponents of resource management and biodiversity conservation in the region.


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