Environmental Management

, Volume 51, Issue 3, pp 663–678 | Cite as

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

  • Sébastien BoillatEmail author
  • Elvira Serrano
  • Stephan Rist
  • Fikret Berkes


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 



We thank all members of the communities of Chorojo and Tirani for their collaboration and engagement in the research process. Fieldwork in Bolivia was carried out in collaboration with the Centre for Agroecology ( at the Mayor de San Simon University of Cochabamba. Boillat, Serrano and Rist’s work were supported by the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North–South: Research Partnerships for Mitigating Syndromes of Global Change. Additionally, Boillat’s fieldwork was supported by the Swiss Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries ( and his stay at the University of Manitoba is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation’s Prospective Researchers Program (Grant PBBEP1_135314). Berkes’ work was supported by the Canada Research Chairs Program (

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

267_2012_9969_MOESM1_ESM.eps (7.2 mb)
Online Resource 1 Toponymic map of the community of Chorojo (EPS 7380 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sébastien Boillat
    • 1
    • 4
    Email author
  • Elvira Serrano
    • 2
  • Stephan Rist
    • 3
  • Fikret Berkes
    • 1
  1. 1.Natural Resources InstituteUniversity of ManitobaWinnipegCanada
  2. 2.Facultad de Ciencias Agrícolas y PecuariasUniversidad Mayor de San SimónCochabambaBolivia
  3. 3.Centre for Development and EnvironmentUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland
  4. 4.CochabambaBolivia

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