Lo-TEK: Reclaiming Indigenous Techniques to Work with Nature

"Indigenous technologies are not lost or forgotten, only hidden by the shadow of progress in the most remote places on Earth". In her book Lo-TEK: design by radical indigenism, Julia Watson proposes to revalue the techniques of construction, production, cultivation and extraction carried out by diverse remote populations who, generation after generation, have managed to keep alive ancestral cultural practices integrated with nature, with a low environmental cost and simple execution. While modern societies tried to conquer nature in the name of progress, these indigenous cultures worked in collaboration with nature, understanding ecosystems and species cycles to articulate their architecture into an integrated and symbiotically interconnected whole.

While society values and proudly preserves the architectural artefacts and artefacts of cultures that no longer exist - such as the pyramids of Giza that are over four thousand years old - the practices of the living are displaced, however ancient they may be. Few people know, for example, about the technology behind the construction of the floating islands of the Ma'dan people in the wetlands of southern Iraq, even though they are more than 6,000 years old. Julia dedicates her editorial work "to the next seven generations" and hopes to illuminate a new path where these practices are revalued and, by adapting to contemporary needs, can promote a future where the notions of technology and nature are worked in an integrated way.

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Islas flotantes de AI-Tahla - Pueblo Ma'dan (Irak). Image © Agata Skowronek

The term Lo-TEK, composed by the author Julia Watson, brings together, through a play on words, the abbreviation "Low-Tech" (globally used to refer to low-tech systems) and the acronym TEK, which stands for "Traditional Ecological Knowledge". On the one hand, this concept seeks to revalue technologies that, overshadowed by mechanised and highly complex systems, are considered simple, unsophisticated and primitive. However, for the author, the destructive and global approach of high technology, which takes all territories as if they were homogenous and uniform, is not enough to respond to the natural complexity of each particular ecosystem. "While in this New Age we are drowning in information, we are starving for wisdom".  On the other hand, it seeks to promote the dissemination of Traditional Ecological Knowledge developed by native populations in direct contact with nature. This wealth of information has allowed, in each place, the generation of designs in balance with the ecosystem, instead of exploiting its resources indiscriminately, fostering symbiosis between species by making nature the basic element used to build technologies.

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Represas de pesca - Pueblo Enawené-nawé de Mato Grosso (Brasil) . Image © Deep Forest Foundation

On the other hand, coined by Princeton professor and Cherokee Nation member Eva Marie Garoutte, the concept of radical indigenism takes its name from the Latin derivation of the word "radical": radix, meaning "root". Design by radical indigenism seeks to reconstruct and understand indigenous philosophies in relation to design, construction and production in order to generate sustainable and resilient infrastructures adapted to each particular ecosystem. This movement bridges the gap between innovation, architecture, urbanism, conservation and indigenism.  Once hybridised and scaled, these indigenous technologies could offer a new path for our contemporary societies, exponentially reducing humanity's ecological footprint and mitigating the predicted collapse.

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Puentes de raíces vivientes - Pueblo Khasis (India). Image © Pete Oxford

The book tells how indigenous cultural practices are closely linked to their myths and rituals, which, passed down as songs or stories, have managed to cross generations to the present day. For the peoples of the Andes, for example, the land is alive, and every feature of the landscape, every hill, mountain, stream and forest has a name and is imbued with meaning and ritual. The sacred stories and myths surrounding nature have given a great deal of spirituality to the actions by which these people transform and work their land. This sense of belonging and reciprocity with nature, this spirit of place, this interconnection between men, women and landscape, has given rise to the development of construction, cultivation and extraction techniques based on respect for the environment and the search for a natural balance.

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Islas flotantes de AI-Tahla - Pueblo Ma'dan (Irak). Image © Jassim Alasadi

In this sense, Lo-TEK is presented as a catalogue of these native practices associated with local myths and rituals, a compendium of more than one hundred indigenous innovations in four ecosystems around the world: mountains, forests, deserts and wetlands. In each sector, indigenous, low-cost and easy-to-build infrastructure and technologies that have accompanied native populations for centuries are examined and integrated with traditional ecological knowledge. In the mountain sector, the construction, cultivation and production techniques of the Incas of Peru, the Khasis of northern India, the Ifugao of the Philippines and the Subak of Bali are examined.

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Puentes de raíces vivientes - Pueblo Khasis (India). Image Cortesía de Julia Watson

In forests, the innovations of the Mayans of Mexico, the Chagga of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the Malayali people in India, the Enawené-nawé of Mato Grosso, Brazil and the Kayapó people of the Amazon Basin in Brazil are discussed. Deserts include the techniques and technologies developed by the Zuni of New Mexico, the Maasai of Kenya, the Persian people of Iran and the Ngisonyaka Turkana of Kenya.  In the Wetlands sector, the innovations of the Uros of Peru, the Ma'dan of Southern Iraq, the Bengalis of the East Calcutta wetlands of India, the Tofinu of Benin, and the Javanese of Indonesia are explored.

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Represas de pesca - Pueblo Enawené-nawé de Mato Grosso (Brasil) . Image Cortesía de Julia Watson

The book also includes a foreword by anthropologist, ethnobotanist, writer and photographer Wade Davis, who has worked all his life in studies and explorations tangentially related to Julia's research project, delving into the practices and customs of native and indigenous cultures in different parts of the world. Also complementing the analysis of some geographical sectors are interviews with architects, engineers, environmentalists and members of foundations promoting biodiversity conservation, social equity and education who, in some cases, are also first-person protagonists and inheritors of local culture and indigenous practices. Among them are Jassim AI-Asadi (Director General of Nature Iraq in Chibayish), Maximin K. Djondo (Director of BEES, Benin Environment and Education Society), J. Stephen Lansing (Co-Director of the Institute of Complexity at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore), Prabhat Dey Sawyan (Architect) and Dr. Dhrabajyoti Ghosh (Engineer and environmentalist).

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Acuicultura en humedales de Bheri - Pueblo bengalí (India) . Image © Brett Cole

  • You can find out more details about the book Lo-TEK: design by radical indigenism by Julia Watson at the following link.

Julia Watson is a designer, activist, teacher and writer. Born in Australia, she teaches Urban Project at Harvard GSD and Columbia GSAPP.  She runs "Julia Watson Studio", an experimental urban design and landscape practice and "A Future Studio", a collective of designers focused on positively transforming our ecosystems through more sustainable and conscious practices, of which she is also a co-founder. After graduating from Harvard with the highest recognition for her work in conservation and spiritual landscapes, she has co-authored the UNESCO World Heritage Spiritual Guide to Bali with Dr. J. Stephen Lansing. She has also been widely published in Nakhara Journal, Water Urbanisms East, World Heritage Sites and Living Culture of Indonesia.

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Cite: Maiztegui, Belén. "Lo-TEK: Reclaiming Indigenous Techniques to Work with Nature" [Lo-TEK: Diseño de Indigenismo Radical (Recuperando técnicas indígenas para trabajar junto a la naturaleza)] 07 Jun 2022. ArchDaily. (Trans. Pérez Bravo, Amelia) Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/982652/lo-tek-reclaiming-indigenous-techniques-to-work-with-nature> ISSN 0719-8884

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