The loss of natural habitats is negatively impacting wildlife diversity (McKinney) and the increasing demands of a growing global population pose additional strains on the planet’s ecological system in part due to growing agricultural demands (Tilman). These and other phenomena taking place as a result of industrial expansion and consolidation of populations in growing urban centers are contributing to global climate change, which in turn makes issues of food production and wildlife diversity more precarious as a result of more devastating natural disasters, ocean acidification, overall warming across global ecosystems (Kolbert).

The need to address problems of wildlife diversity, loss of natural habitats, food production, and resiliency of local populations to the effects of climate change is now pivotal. While the efforts of industrialized nations have attempted to begin addressing these issues, many have been ineffective or even counterproductive because of their historical basis in viewing natural landscapes as sacred spaces absent of any human existence (Cronon) and the tendency to focus on efforts to conserve ecosystems at the cost of indigenous inhabitants who have generations of experience living within – and depending on – these environments. This version of conservation is a strategy of accumulation for the purposes of saving potentially valuable resources that may be found within natural ecosystems, which benefits international corporations rather than local communities (Katz).

There has been exceptional work done to identify and utilize traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of environments to help sustain, develop, and make resilient environments such as fisheries (Aswani and Lauer; Hall et al.) while acknowledging the human occupants, land rights politics, and the ongoing global climate crisis as fundamental factors to these environments (Charnley et al.). TEK is complex and unique to particular social groups in their respective habitats, and is the product of a long history of knowledge that is based in the traditions grounded in the local environment (Bethel et al.). There are numerous hurdles associated with gaining insight into TEK for the purposes of it being used by individuals and organizations foreign to the environment and the social group that is the source of the knowledge. One of these hurdles is the problem of conflicting conceptual and political structures related to natural environments and systems of knowledge that exist between indigenous communities and the western population that holds significant power over global ecosystems.

The problem of translating complex structures of ecological spaces from indigenous to foreign persons is apparent in the field of Geographic Information System (GIS) and its role in mapping of environments to provide visual representations of both the natural landscape and the multi-layered details that may be relevant to sustainable development and resource management. GIS typically uses two dimensional maps and data about relevant attributes to make complex systems and relationships (e.g., natural wildlife density, patterns of migration, rates of change, hunting territories) visible. However, the flattening of environments into simple maps and the reductionist approach to complex systems of relationships that exist within those environments is incompatible with TEK that may be based in perceptions of an ecosystem that cannot be reduced in this way (Mackenzie et al.; Posner). While data visualization is fundamentally based in data that can be represented as single points on a map or table, indigenous knowledge is based in cultural and personal perceptions of space and time that make the data ambiguous, and thus incompatible with typical GIS methods (Mackenzie et al.).

In order to identify some possible solutions to visualizing ambiguous data based in disparate perceptions of natural space, this paper will examine the current available literature about techniques for appropriately representing ambiguity and what Johanna Drucker calls capta (as opposed to data) found within the TEK of indigenous people. The paper will first outline the benefits of using TEK and why TEK should be incorporated into plans for the development of sustainable land use, promoting local stakeholder participation, and for promoting resiliency. It will then explore examples of how TEK can be identified and used to create visual representations of ecologies as well as the problems that occur within these examples. Focusing specifically on maps created through GIS, the paper will identify techniques for how to resolve the difficulties associated with representing TEK through an interdisciplinary approach to data visualization. Finally, the paper will consider interdisciplinary visual representation of ecological systems and TEK within the context of a theoretical framework for representing relationships within hierarchies of power relations across systems.

Value of Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Cost-Effective Information and Stakeholder Involvement

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) can provide critical insights into environmental conservation (Gadgil), and about the complex relationships that exist between the various ecological constituents such as the flora, fauna, human behavior, and weather. This insight can be used to fill gaps of existing knowledge and may offer a low-cost alternative to environmental studies that may require expensive or long-term analysis (Teixeira; Bethel). Furthermore, it increases the participation and acceptance by local stakeholders of the study as well as the changes it subsequently introduces (Teixeira; Bethel). Local stakeholder involvement is essential to the success of management and planning of restoration or new development because it provides the local community a sense of ownership, commitment, and overall interest in the project by incorporating the community’s interests and shapes development to meet the needs of the community (Lundquist).

Using research of social science – especially social science grounded in political ecology – in combination with standard natural research can benefit the researchers, the local population, and larger political/social institutions. For example, Turner (2003) contributed to a larger nutrient cycling and management study by incorporating social change to produce a more complete representation of grazing in Western Niger. Looking at food security in Thailand, Phungpracha (2016) found that a community exhibiting stronger TEK of food subsistence farming had greater food security than a community with less TEK. Aswani and Lauer (2006) used GIS to incorporate TEK of marine seascapes by local fishermen to generate Marine Protected Areas (MPA) and promote stakeholder participation. These examples of using social science grounded in political ecology, identifying the value of TEK in food security, and implementing TEK into GIS while attempting to accurately represent both the layered systems of an ecological environment and the spatial/temporal qualities of traditional knowledge, respectively, showcase the immense value that local knowledge and participation can provide researchers.

From Cognitive Maps to Mental Mapping: How to Turn TEK Into Visual Resources

Gathering TEK can be done through direct communication with local or indigenous people about their daily lives, hunts, and subsistence techniques with their natural environment using a range of methodologies, including surveys and questionnaires (Aswani and Lauer), which can be collected over the course of several weeks or several years. For a model of an environment to be wholly inclusive of the human agents living or working in it – and for the model to be grounded in a political ecology that includes political and socio-cultural dynamics – the motivations and concerns of the local peoples must be investigated and coupled with geographic and ecological data. Decision Making/Mental Models and Cognitive Maps are two examples of such a model; Decision Making\Mental Models aim to understand the decision-making process of a stakeholder, which, in the case of Mental Models, is done through descriptive models of stakeholders’ perception of their circumstances (Elsawah) while Cognitive Mapping attempts to create a visual representation using nodes and chains of connecting factors in determining an agent’s perception and decision making process around a particular issue or event (Ibid.).

While Cognitive Maps are attempting to transform social and ecological relations in a causal map of concepts, events, relationships, and motivations, Local Ecological Knowledge Mapping is another means of visualizing these human-ecological relationships but within the context of the local geographic and ecological environments (Mclain). This consists of generating geographical maps that depict information about the environment that was provided by the local population in a way that can be represented as attributes (and changes of those attributes) of the environment, the wildlife, the vegetation, or any other relevant component. Mapping can be used by local groups as well as researchers – e.g. groups such as the Treaty 8 Tribal Association (T8TA) have invested in gaining GIS capabilities using original data combined with data from government and industry sources to assist in negotiations (Blazevic). In the case of T8TA, the software being used was made for simple topographic representations of borders and geographic attributes despite the most common reason for adopting a mapping program is to support “[t]raditional use studies or use and occupancy studies,” with 86.4% of responders listing it as a reason (Ibid.).

Creating a geographic map based on a combination of scientific and indigenous knowledge/expertise can be a welcome shift from a field concentrated with applied scientific expertise to one that includes the views and perspectives of local communities. However, because of the unique structure of how nature and ecological systems are perceived by aboriginal communities, the entirety of their TEK cannot be utilized within a software built upon western representations of geographic space. Not only can TEK not be fully encapsulated in these programs, but the relationship with historical hegemony of space and resources, which is inseparable from western identity, is also inseparable from the way in which space is represented – i.e., making maps is both reflective of and constitutive of the creator’s reality (Posner). Additionally, digital tools built to visualize data composed of individual points or numerical figures inherently homogenizes data while also losing the ability to fully represent ambiguity (Ibid.).

The Problem of Spacio-Temporal Difference in Representations of Ecological Systems

The breadth of issues that may arise when attempting to generate topographic maps to represent TEK is wide. One such issue is that of how perceptions of space and time are accounted for in the context of ecological systems such as agriculture, migratory patterns, and land-based politics. As mentioned in the previous section, western structures of data and data visualization of TEK will not be an optimal approach due to the potential for decontextualization. Mackenzie et al. highlight the potential for decontextualization at the very beginning of the data gathering process that may inevitably alter the authenticity of the data being presented:

The process of documentation itself can be problematic, due to the need for particularisation, and generalisation that also comes hand in hand with the documentation of [indigenous knowledge] systems into a westernised framework. These inevitably lead to a decontextualisation of knowledge systems. Depictions cannot be a replacement of traditional knowledge systems, but may function as an augmentation of the narratives a given Indigenous group may be wishing to portray and share with a wider audience. (2017)

No culturally-based knowledge system can be wholly encapsulated in the computer-generated visualization based in decontextualized data and a lack of a capacity to represent ambiguity. Ambiguity is, in a sense, an antithesis to data, which is numerically specific. Percentages of accuracy or likelihood are insufficient means of including ambiguity in data because the likelihood of data being correct still maintains a focus on a hypothetical point of absolute reality.

There are numerous examples of how ambiguity can be found in TEK many of which exist due to the relative nature of that which is being represented. For instance, indigenous cultures that are reliant on maize will be closely in tune to the cyclical nature of the plant – cycles that are relative to a variety of factors – and these cycles will be turned into knowledge systems by those cultures using their own methods of depicting cyclical time (Mackenzie et al.). Another example is that some phenomenon being represented may be episodic or contingent on other events that are not immediately consistent with either a linear or cyclical calendar (Ibid.).

These episodic events may even be based in mythology such as with the dhulan by the Yolngu aboriginal Australians. The dhulan are paintings on bark that connect the local landscapes with origin myths in a way that directly links the tribe to the local environment through cultural metaphor and practical knowledge (Watson). These paintings thus make culturally vital connections between

the landscape, knowledge, story, song, graphic representation and social relation […] forming one cohesive knowledge network. In this sense, given that knowledge and landscape structure and constitute each other, the map metaphor is entirely apposite. The landscape and knowledge are one as maps, all are constituted through spatial connectivity. (Ibid.)

The dhulan maps are not merely maps but are reflective and constitutive of the Yolngu and their knowledge system within their particular environment much the same way that GIS systems are also reflective and constitutive of western perceptions of natural landscapes spatially and temporally. The type of information being conveyed in the dhulan cannot be turned into numerical data or points on a map – they tell a story that is both representative of an environment as well as the experience of existing in a unique relationship with that landscape.

Approaches for Visualizing Ambiguity and Experience Found Within TEK

In attempting to resolve the issue of visualizing ambiguity, Johanna Drucker proposes a distinction between data, which is observer-independent and descriptive observation that behaves as though it is equivalent to the thing it represents, and capta, which is active, rather than passive, interpretation of subjective expression of perceived phenomena (2011). While Drucker is arguing for the value of using capta in the humanities, its value is certainly apparent in mapping of ecological systems based in TEK of indigenous groups whose knowledge systems are deeply based in culturally inherited interpretations of environmental phenomena. Drucker outlines two main areas where capta can prove to be superior over data: in representations of space and of temporality (Ibid.), which is consistent with the argument put forward by Mackenzie et al. for developing ways of displaying ambiguity and nontraditional forms of spatio-temporal values in order to better represent TEK and the interests of indigenous people (2017).

These two scholars provide a selection of examples for how ambiguity, meant either to better represent or to obfuscate critical TEK, can be visualized in charts and/or maps: Rather than creating single static maps of points, plots, or lines, maps can, instead, utilize visuals that range in density, color, or some other signifier connoting a lack of specificity (Marx); Information that is connected to time can be represented over multiple maps or through animation with the potential for an interactive component – allowing the viewer to adjust qualifiers that may impact the results of the information being generated; Rather than presenting information about environmental or ecological systems solely through maps, supplementary visual information can complement maps in order to contextualize spatial information with emotional capta from the perspective of the data source; Maps can be morphed based on weighing of importance or to accurately represent the internalized mental map of the landscape from the TEK owner.

These suggestions call for more than single, static maps for representing complex ecological information through complimentary media, interactive media, and new ways of modeling both the environments and the activities that take place within those environments. Translating TEK into these complicated media-based representations can be accomplished in ways not altogether different from how traditional GIS maps representing ecological knowledge from local populations has been done. Rantanen and Kahila use an approach they called “SoftGIS” that aims to develop urban planning that uses qualitative and vague knowledge that local stakeholders may have about their environment through public-participatory GIS (PPGIS) (2006). Affirming the need for an interdisciplinary framework that combines humanistic and scientific approaches to urban development, SoftGIS sources access personal knowledge of an area through an online survey of the local community and then create “commentary” maps – traditional maps that represent local knowledge combined with personal testimonies by the residents about the locations depicted (Rantanen and Kahila).

Similarly, the use of structured modelling techniques of qualitative data such as Fuzzy Cognitive Maps (FCM) can also combine traditional ecological knowledge with expert knowledge to generate predictive models based around contingencies and complex relationships that exist within natural environments (Solana-Gutiérrez et al.). FCM’s are produced through surveys and interviews with representatives of local stakeholders, generating traditional Cognitive Maps, and then combining them into aggregate, or “social” maps (Ibid.). The questionnaires used to generate FCM’s are based on relative relationships (e.g., “what-if” questions rather than “what-is” questions) (Ibid.), which is consistent with the definition of capta as being “as a factor” of something else (e.g., gender as a factor of genetic expression and cultural expression) (Drucker). While building predictive models, even those based on semi or fully- qualitative data is likely to be reductive of the information used, a model such as FCM’s can do well to produce representations of experiential accounts while also generating insightful information about environments, human behavior, and other factors. If applied to ecological systems, GIS maps based in FCM models have the potential to create dynamic depictions of environment in conjunction with human interest while also providing vital information for the purposes of managing resources such as food, action plans for preserving natural resources for diversity, and developing future development all while drawing in local stakeholders interests.

Multi-Media Mapping of Traditional Ecological Knowledge as Political Ecology

In attempting to design interdisciplinary, multi-media based data visualizations meant to aid in sustainable and equitable conservation of natural resources, a political ecology that reflects numerous scales of social, ecological, and economic hierarchies stands as a central motivation in this endeavor. As mentioned in the introduction, conservation practices are historically guided towards a commodification of nature and subsequent production of fictitious capital through nature (Swyngedouw). A conservation that aims to support local communities in the global south or that aims to implement ecological knowledge of indigenous communities alongside modern approaches is doomed to fail if it does not account for the layers of relationships that exist in what Bratton called geometries of overlapping systems, which may not be immediately apparent (2015).

Bratton’s depiction of this geometry of systems as “the stack” – an overlapping representation of telecommunication systems as they expand in scale from individual user to global infrastructure. Using GIS mapping of TEK can not only aid in developing insight into sustainable use and conservation of natural resource but, when taken to its full potential, can act as a map for larger socio-ecological power hierarchies across systems of nature and production. Layering visual representation of cognitive maps and mental models, maps of resource use or hunting territories, and local community’s perceptions of these ecological systems alongside government or private plans for conservation or development can map political geographies and ecological geographies simultaneously.


Traditional knowledge systems are invariably complex and inseparable from the ecological systems within which they exist, and it is because of this close relationship with ecologies that TEK is of value for present and future generations. This value has been demonstrated in multiple contexts including wildlife preservation, stimulating diversity, and understanding food scarcity as well as the benefits of local stakeholder interests in projects related to these fields. The harm of conservation that excludes or misrepresents the interests and practices of indigenous peoples has, too, been demonstrated. That is why adopting TEK is paramount for future ecological, and, even, political and economic stability as natural systems become destabilized by unsustainable development.

The use of GIS mapping has become a key tool in how ecological systems can be analyzed, presented, taught, and used to create predictive models. This is because data visualization, especially as technology allows greater complexity and clarity to be represented, is not just for representation alone – data visualization can make forceful argument by identifying problems as well as solutions. This paper argues that GIS mapping is insufficient for using the full value of TEK because it is incapable of representing the ambiguous, conditional, and subjective systems of knowledge that can exist in indigenous cultures. It has also presented evidence that using complementary mediums of depicting experiential information alongside geo-spatial maps can be representative of traditional knowledge and less likely to impose western configurations of perception on indigenous culture. This is especially true of TEK conditions that are relative to ambiguity, conditionality, and spatial and temporal representations of ecological relationships. Lastly, not only is an interdisciplinary approach to representing TEK conducive to improvements in sustainability but it is also a means of achieving a political ecology that looks at how conservation is influenced by structures of power from outside the preserve.



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Aleksandr Segal received his B.A. Cum Laude in Philosophy from Brooklyn College and is now working in visual media production. Inspired by the work of visual artists and media theorists, he enrolled at the Graduate Center seeking to combine Digital Humanities and Sustainability Science and Education. The goal was to explore how technology (as both tool and object of study) can enable greater public awareness to the cultural loss of sustainable relationships to nature and other people. His photography of suburban and industrial landscapes explores these issues as well.