Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (7.29 MB)

Variation, Transmission, and Maintenance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge on Malekula Island, Vanuatu

Download (7.29 MB)
posted on 2021-11-12, 11:16 authored by McCarter, Joe

The traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of local and indigenous people supports the resilience of social-ecological systems and is an important aspect of global biocultural diversity. However, TEK is at risk of erosion amid social and ecological change, and may be threatened by homogenising influences such as formal school systems. Loss of TEK is of particular concern in countries such as Vanuatu, a culturally diverse nation where TEK is a critical component of resource management, medicinal practice, and adaptive capacity. This thesis aims to fill four key literature gaps surrounding the variation, transmission, and maintenance of TEK, and is situated in four rural communities on Malekula Island, Vanuatu. This research employs an interdisciplinary mixed-methods approach across four core chapters. The first uses multi-model inferencing to show that systems of TEK are dynamic and complex, and that change is variable across domains of knowledge and segments of the population. Data in this chapter indicate that ethnomedical knowledge is at risk of erosion in younger age cohorts. The second core chapter shows that the cultural transmission of TEK is predominantly vertical in nature (i.e. passed from parent to child), is initiated during the early teens, and that some skills (such as the carving of ceremonial items) appear to be less salient to younger age cohorts. This chapter also notes a changing developmental niche for TEK transmission, and suggests that changes in both the setting and strategies for knowledge transmission are key mechanisms that drive TEK variation. The third and fourth core chapters discuss aspects of TEK maintenance: first, by examining top-down strategies for TEK revitalisation by eliciting local perceptions of the value of TEK to formal school systems; and second, by identifying the triggers and barriers to bottom-up, in situ TEK maintenance in local organisations known as 'kastom schools'. Both approaches have potential to conserve aspects of TEK, however in situ approaches may be best for encouraging the maintenance of knowledge and practice within an appropriate cultural context. There are, however, significant epistemological barriers to both top-down and bottom-up approaches to TEK maintenance, which may ultimately limit their effectiveness. This research fills several key literature gaps and employs a diverse and novel range of analytical tools. The data presented here highlight the depth, diversity and importance of TEK in Vanuatu, and emphasise the need for careful and considered approaches to its maintenance. However, these findings also show the dynamic and complex nature of cultural change, and suggest that attempts at TEK measurement and maintenance must be cognisant of temporal and spatial variation in the drivers and impact of TEK change. Moreover, this research emphasises that TEK systems are inextricably bound in wider issues of power, heterogeneity, and political ecology, and that TEK maintenance is fundamentally linked to self-determination and the lived value of tradition in contemporary social contexts.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Environmental Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Description

Long fulap ples long world, kastom save blong envaeroment (KSBE) hemi stap lus. Ol jenis ia bambae i mekem i hard blong ol man blong lukaotem ol risos blong hem, mo bambae i mekem i hard blong ol jeneresen long fiuja blong stap strong taem envaeromen i jenis. Vanuatu hemi wan ples we i gat fulap difren kalja mo difren kaen envaeromen, mo kastom mo tredisen oli gat fulap importance long laef long ol man. I gat fulap rison we from wanem KSBE hemi important long Vanuatu: sam example olsem saed long lukaotem ol risos, saed long givim meresin long ol man, mo saed long givhan long ol man blong stap strong taem envaeromen i jenis. Be long Vanuatu, i gat wan problem, from we KSBE mo kastom i save lus, from we fulap niufala samting i kam insaed, ol envaeromen i jenis, mo ol youngfala oli no lanem gud ol save blong ol bubu blong olgeta. Risej ia i stap givhan blong saed long lanem save hao nao KSBE i stap lus, mo hao nao yumi save lukaotem hem mo mekem se i stap oltaem. Mi bin work long fofala komuniti long Malekula Island, mo mi bin traem save trifala samting. Namba wan samting, mi stap traem luk sipos KSBE hemi stap lus, mo wanem kaen samting i stap mekem se KSBE i lus. Mi bin yusum wan kaen interviu wetem 177 man mo woman long West Coast Malekula, mo mi askem evri wan blong telemaot fulap samting, olsem ol lif blong meresin. Ol risal oli telem se ol youngfala oli gat fulap KSBE, be olgeta oli no gat save olsem ol oldfala. Ol oldfala nomo oli gat save blong medel bus, be ol youngfala oli no stap lanem ol samting ia. Save ia i stap lus bigwan wetem ol man we oli go long market fulap mo we oli no laekem blong toktok lanwis tumas. Namba tu samting, mi stap traem luk hao nao ol man mo woman oli stap lanem ol save blong olgeta. Mi faendem se fulap long ol man mo woman oli lanem long mama mo papa blong olgeta, be mi luk save se ol fasin blong tijim ol difren kaen KSBE hemi stap jenis. Namba tri samting, mi stap luk long saed long hao nao yumi save lukaotem ol KSBE mo mekem se i stap ol taem. Mi bin storian wetem fulap man mo woman long saed long wanem oli stap tingting nao saed long lukaotem KSBE. Mi bin faendem se i gat sam kaen KSBE we yumi save putum i go long skul, olsem save blong mekem garen. Be i gat fulap samting we yumi no save putum insaed skul, minim se yumi mas faendem wan nara fasin blong lukaotem KSBE. Ol 'kastom skul' blong Malekula bambae oli gud smol: oli gat fulap problem, be oli save lukaotem fulap difren kaen kastom we yumi no save putum insaed skul. Risej ia hemi soemaot importance blong KSBE long Vanuatu, mo hemi telem se i important we bambae yumi lukaotem KSBE blong mekem se i no lus. Be risej ia I telem tu se ol jenis we i stap kam long saed long kastom long komuniti, bambae oli hard lelebit blong lukaotem KSBE long evri ples blong evri man. Ol fasin blong jenis long KSBE bambae oli jenis evri yia, mo bambae oli difren long evri ples long Malekula mo long Vanuatu. Mo tu, risej ia i telem se ol rison we KSBE i lus hemi fastem taet long ol fasin blong power mo long difrens bitim ol difren ples. Wan ples we samting ia i important hemi saed long skul long vilaj mo komuniti. Blong finisem risej ia, mi mekem sam recommendation blong policy saed long lukaotem KSBE blong Malekula.

Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Gavin, Michael; McGregor, Andrew; Weaver, Sean