Where time and space meet: historical ecology and conservation

Historical ecology goes beyond the records of history. It goes deep into various faculties such as biophysical systems, paleoecology, ethnography, archaeology, and more on both temporal and spatial scales.

Where time and space meet: historical ecology and conservation

Tuesday January 24, 2023,

4 min Read

Nature conservation has taken the central stage in addressing humanity's challenges. These challenges are not just linked to economic activities but also affect the wellbeing of people and life of all species.

Ecology underpins the economy, making understanding linkages important before making any interventions. Thus, it is imperative to understand several factors that govern the species and the nature of their interactions and interconnectedness over a period of time.

This has led to the development of the study field called 'historical ecology,' which loosely can be said as the practical framework of concepts and methods to study past and future relationships between people and the environment. The study of historical ecology provides critical input to species recovery and ensuring human wellbeing.

Historical ecology goes beyond the records of history. It goes deep into various faculties such as biophysical systems, paleoecology, ethnography, archaeology, and more on both temporal and spatial scales. In a nutshell, it gives us the history of earth systems and our species' social and physical past. It is a potent tool and provides us with evidence-based models to help us achieve our Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It also offers a nuanced understanding for restoring degraded ecosystems. 

Anthropogenic activities have led to climate change, loss of biodiversity, and changes in the atmosphere and the oceans, which are dramatically altering landscapes worldwide. Another outcome of human actions is that many species are being pushed to the brink of extinction, which can result in the sixth mass extinction. There is no longer a debate on the urgency to intervene. Unless positive interventions are made, species will go extinct and eventually lead to the destruction of natural processes and human wellbeing. 

Designing interventions is critical; thankfully, advancements in the knowledge base, science, technology, and computing power have made it more evidence-based. One critical input comes from 'historical ecology' as it helps to get a long-term perspective by understanding patterns, drivers of change, and challenges that the change brings.

A historical ecology is an interdisciplinary approach that primarily looks at interactions between humans (including cultures) and nature or, broadly, the environment. Many believe that historical ecology stems from the materialistic interpretation of the relationship between humans and the environment. 

Some institutions have used historical ecology for public dialogue. They have used historical ecology to define the critical problem statement, potential interventions, public engagement in solutions, and more. Conservationists and managers have used historical ecology to manage ecosystems; one example of historical ecology is fire management, from reducing available fuel to natural fire reintroduction.

Interannual lags have been studied in light of the dry and wet cycles caused by El Nino Southern Oscillations. Some scientists, such as McClenachan and Cooper, argue that "Historical sources have revealed surprising results that can challenge established scientific ideas about species or ecosystems, providing opportunities for new hypotheses and ultimately new understandings of ecological dynamics. Such surprising results can have immediate conservation implications across various species and ecosystems". 

While historical ecology provides insights, one has to be very careful in analysing historical data as the interpretations are based on the context in which those documents were created and, more importantly, to understand what was probably not recorded. Also, one has to be careful about the biases such as observational bias, sampling effort, recording bias, and preservation bias.

When coupled with cultural and historical contexts these datasets may have, one has to be mindful with interpreting the data, as it can lead to interventions that may not yield desired results or, worse, have adverse outcomes. One of the ways by which scientists deal with such issues is they use multiple lines of evidence with the understanding of the limitations of each set. 

At the Habitats Trust, we work on historical ecology to develop a holistic understanding of grasslands in India, the conservation of lowland forests of northeast India, and the marine ecosystems of India. We use satellite imagery and primary and secondary data on various ecological and community data, which are analysed using multiple quantitative and qualitative analytical tools such as machine learning, AI algorithms, grounded theory, and thematic analysis. 

A critical purpose served by historical ecology is that of a window on systems with the sufficient temporal breadth to make it possible to determine the nature of given environmental processes. If India has to meet its aspirations while ensuring sustainability. It is essential to include historical ecology and focus on how we interpret the past as producing the present and leading to the future. Historical ecology has provided scientists and practitioners with tools for more informed decision-making.  

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan