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Indigenous People Sound the Alarm on Climate Change

The air in the auditorium smelled faintly of burnt herbs. Josefina Lema Aguilar, a Kichwa elder from the mountains of Ecuador, lit a tiny sacred fire to bless last week’s conference on “Seeking Balance: Indigenous Knowledge, Western Science and Climate Change.” Dressed in traditional garb from the Andes, Aguilar gave the event’s opening prayer at...

The air in the auditorium smelled faintly of burnt herbs. Josefina Lema Aguilar, a Kichwa elder from the mountains of Ecuador, lit a tiny sacred fire to bless last week’s conference on “Seeking Balance: Indigenous Knowledge, Western Science and Climate Change.”

Dressed in traditional garb from the Andes, Aguilar gave the event’s opening prayer at the (now LEED-certified) National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

“At home we would light a big fire, but here in this developed country, where we are more uptight, we are in an enclosed area, so don’t worry, I will light only a little fire,” Aguilar joked in Spanish (and through a translator). “It’s the custom and tradition of all indigenous peoples to give thanks to Mother Earth, Mother Air, Mother Water and Father Sun for giving us life and having us as part of their family,” she continued.


Josefina Lema Aguilar, a Kichwa elder from Ecuador, opens the Conversations with the Earth conference in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy Conversations with the Earth


And according to the delegates at the conference, representing more than a dozen Native cultures from around the world, the message is clear: Mother Earth is in trouble. But fortunately, many of the assembled elders were also quick to point out that there is much the Western world can learn from indigenous people to address some of the problems, and to more effectively deal with the impending changes.

Delegate Alejandro Argumedo, a Quechuan agronomist from Peru, said, “Living in fragile ecosystems, indigenous peoples are at the frontlines of climate change.” Argumedo is the director of the Quechua-Aymara Association for Sustainable Livelihoods (ANDES), which works to protect indigenous knowledge and resources, as well as the founder of the Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Network.

Argumedo argued that climate change is not just a global issue or a future issue, it is already having real impacts on local ecosystems and people, today. He added, “With our traditional knowledge, we are able to detect these changes, many of which are quite dramatic.”

In fact, a major goal of Conversations with the Earth, one of the conference’s co-sponsors, is documenting the effects of climate change as they are seen by indigenous people around the world.

Native Resilience

Brian Keane, the co-founder and director of the indigenous rights group Land is Life, said, “There are 370 million indigenous people today, in roughly 5,000 nations, and these people are tough as diamonds. They are where the hope lies for the future of this planet.”

Keane explained that there is more biodiversity on indigenous lands then on all parks and zoos combined, and that Native knowledge of food crops passed down over the centuries “holds the keys to global food security.” Keane said that once a culture disappears, the loss of knowledge and wisdom is incalculable.

“New technology will play a role, but the most important thing we can do is respect indigenous people, who will help maintain the ecological stability of the planet,” said Keane.

Argumedo added, “Our vast heritage of biological and cultural diversity is intrinsically linked to our practices and way of life: it’s holistic to our spirituality.” He continued, “Practicing our traditional knowledge systems allows us to achieve what scientists call resilience to climate change.”


Photograph: Sarah James
Sarah James, a Gwich’in leader from Arctic Alaska, won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002 for her defense of ANWR. Now she warns of rapid climate change in the far North, which threatens upheavel for Native people. Photo courtesy Conversations with the Earth

As an example, Argumedo said indigenous people in the Andes have learned to adapt to changing climate from El Nino events. “We move our crops to different altitudes,” he said.  “Communities are not waiting for top-down responses. Livelihoods are being adapted in creative ways.”

Jemimah Kerenge, a Maasai filmmaker from Kenya, stressed that her people have flourished off the land for millennia, and have learned to adapt to climate changes before. Still, she expressed concern that a recent drought has brought much hardship, and warned, “Many of us pastoralists hang on precariously.”

Kerenge works with the Conversations with the Earth Project to train indigenous people to tell their own stories through video; examples of those stories were on display in the museum. Among the cultures represented, a common theme was pride expressed by Native peoples in their longstanding ability to adapt to change and survive in harsh environments. However, there was also a pervasive sense that recent climate change is faster and more perilous than anything that has been experienced in generations.

Merging Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science


In a hopeful moment, Sarah James, a Gwich’in leader from Arctic Alaska who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002, said of indigenous people, “We aren’t perfect and they [the Western world] aren’t perfect. We have to take the good of both cultures and combine them.”

In fact, collaboration between Native peoples and Western science has been rocky at best, and for centuries was marred by arrogant dismissiveness and blatant exploitation on the part of Westerners. Several delegates pointed out that it is difficult for members of their communities to trust Western scientists, when their elders remember that promises were broken, or their traditional knowledge and natural resources were plundered and patented.

“When scientists speak of reducing emissions and growing forests, these are solutions that use patents and intellectual property rights. There is not much support for proven local people’s solutions, which is the basis of our resilience,” Argumedo argued.

In a moment of frustration, an indigenous man from Panama told the crowd, “Scientists propose a lot of false solutions, such as, ‘You guys keep this tree so we can continue to pollute more.'”

Still, there is some evidence of successful partnerships between indigenous groups and Western scientists and conservationists. Sarah James has been heralded by the environmental community for her work in blocking drilling of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. John Parrotta, a scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, pointed out that Australia has found success with a program that pays and outfits Aboriginal people to manage their lands the traditional way.  Their work includes traditional controlled burns, which take away the fuel that otherwise leads to out-of-control wildfires, and which help renew the ecosystem.

Nancy Maynard, a NASA scientist who studies climate change in the Arctic, explained how she has been working with indigenous Sami reindeer herders. “Our goal is to combine satellite technology with knowledge of the herders, to see if we can co-produce something,” she explained.

As one example, Maynard pointed out that the Sami language includes clues to specific microclimate conditions in the far north that Western scientists had otherwise overlooked. “I like the term indigenuity, which is indigenous plus ingenuity,” Maynard said.

For his part, Argumedo said, “Bridges with Western science are necessary but must be done with awareness of indigenous knowledge.” He pointed out that he has been working with the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment (IPCCA), the United Nations and others to help understand the ways indigenous people have been adapting to their changing environments, and to help them meet new challenges with local methods and resources.

Igor Krupnik, an ecologist and anthropologist from the Smithsonian, said indigenous people and Western scientists can best work together by first learning to understand each other’s ways of looking at knowledge. “Be at the table early, and treat each other with respect,” he said.


Photograph: Wondimu Utto Tanga and Shagre Shano Shale
Wondimu Utto Tanga and Shagre Shano Shale (left to right) spoke of threats to their native highlands in Ethiopia. Their story is among those featured in the Conversations with the Earth exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian. Photo courtesy Conversations with the Earth


A Passionate Plea for Action

Underlying the conference was a sense of how serious the threat of climate change is becoming, and how many indigenous people are unfairly caught in its whirlwind. Argumedo said, “Indigenous peoples have contributed the least to climate change and they are facing the most severe threats due to their direct relationship with natural systems and historic and ongoing discrimination.”

At 16 years old, the youngest delegate was also among the most heartfelt. Diaguidili De Leon, a Kuna from Panama, said, “Climate change is affecting the whole world, but most severely affecting indigenous peoples, but white people don’t seem to notice.”

Tearing up, De Leon said it is her generation that is going to inherit a troubled planet. “So listen to us. In my community everything is dying, because it’s too hot. Indigenous peoples’ voices are very powerful, but we hope you will understand our message.”

Ngenge Sasa, from the island of Manus off Papua New Guinea, warned that his people’s culture is under assault, since they are being forced to relocate to the mainland. Rising sea level has inundated their gardens and washed away their beaches.

Pamela Anne Hakongak Gross, a young Inuk woman from northern Canada, said, “We are seeing detrimental changes to our home, our ice, our snow, our animals, our people.” She also said her community may have to move farther inland, if sea level keeps rising.


Photograph: Christiana Saiti Louwa
Christiana Saiti Louwa, a leader of the El-Molo people of Kenya, asked the world to listen to indigenous wisdom. Photo courtesy Conversations with the Earth


Christiana Saiti Louwa, a leader of the El-Molo people of northern Kenya, summed it up when she said, “We indigenous people would like to remind everyone else that we only have one planet. Climate talks have gone on and on, but we view them as largely money-driven, not life driven.”

The conference was jointly hosted by Conversations with the Earth, the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment (IPCCA), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and United Nations University’s Traditional Knowledge Initiative. It was supported by the Christensen Fund. Check out Conversations with the Earth on Twitter and Facebook.


Brian Clark Howard is a writer and editor with He was formerly an editor at The Daily Green and E/The Environmental Magazine and has contributed to many publications, including,,,, Yahoo!, MSN and elsewhere. His latest book, with Kevin Shea, is Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.

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