Environmental Management

, Volume 51, Issue 3, pp 663-678

First online:

The Importance of Place Names in the Search for Ecosystem-Like Concepts in Indigenous Societies: An Example from the Bolivian Andes

  • Sébastien BoillatAffiliated withNatural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba Email author 
  • , Elvira SerranoAffiliated withFacultad de Ciencias Agrícolas y Pecuarias, Universidad Mayor de San Simón
  • , Stephan RistAffiliated withCentre for Development and Environment, University of Bern
  • , Fikret BerkesAffiliated withNatural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba

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This paper aims to deepen the search for ecosystem-like concepts in indigenous societies by highlighting the importance of place names used by Quechua indigenous farmers from the central Bolivian Andes. Villagers from two communities in the Tunari Mountain Range were asked to list, describe, map and categorize the places they knew on their community’s territory. Results show that place names capture spatially explicit units which integrate biotic and abiotic nature and humans, and that there is an emphasis on topographic terms, highlighting the importance of geodiversity. Farmers’ perspectives differ from the classical view of ecosystems because they ‘humanize’ places, considering them as living beings with agency. Consequently, they do not make a distinction between natural and cultural heritage. Their perspective of the environment is that of a personalized, dynamic relationship with the elements of the natural world that are perceived as living entities. A practical implication of the findings for sustainable development is that since places names make the links between people and the elements of the landscape, toponymy is a tool for ecosystem management rooted in indigenous knowledge. Because place names refer to holistic units linked with people’s experience and spatially explicit, they can be used as an entry point to implement an intercultural dialogue for more sustainable land management.


Toponyms Ecosystem Traditional knowledge Land use Sense of place Bolivia Andes