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The Key to Addressing Climate Change – Indigenous Knowledge

We have the knowledge that can contribute to finding solutions to the crisis of climate change. But if you’re not prepared to listen, how can we communicate this to you? — Marcos Terena, Xané leader, Brazil. The precipitous rise in the world’s human population and humankind’s ever-increasing dependence on fossil fuel-based ways of living have...

We have the knowledge that can contribute to finding solutions to the crisis of climate change. But if you’re not prepared to listen, how can we communicate this to you? — Marcos Terena, Xané leader, Brazil.

The precipitous rise in the world’s human population and humankind’s ever-increasing dependence on fossil fuel-based ways of living have played a significant role in raising the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHG). As a result, global temperatures are increasing, the sea level is rising, and patterns of precipitation are changing. At the same time, storm surges, floods, droughts and heat waves are becoming more frequent and severe. The consequent decline in agricultural production, increasing freshwater scarcity, and spread of infectious diseases, are degrading local livelihoods and diminishing human wellbeing around the world.

Indigenous peoples are the ones affected by the climate change the most, although they have contributed little to its causes. This is largely a result of their historic dependence on local biological diversity, ecosystem services and cultural landscapes as a source of their sustenance, wellbeing, and resilience.

Photo: Posakei Pongap in Lawes village, Papua New Guinea
Photo by Nicolas Villaume/CWE

Posakei Pongap | Lawes village, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea

“This place was beautiful, but no more,” says community elder Posakei Pongap. Thirty years ago, a grove of sago trees stood here, home to an abundant population of tree-dwelling opossums. Saltwater encroachment has since poisoned the trees’ roots, and low tide now reveals a barren, cemetery-like landscape. 

The very identity of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their lands, which are often located at the social-ecological margins of human habitation —small islands, tropical forests, high-altitude zones, coasts, desert margins, and the circumpolar Arctic. At these margins of the dominant society’s encroachment on global biocultural heritage, the consequences of climate change include effects on agriculture, pastoralism, fishing, hunting and gathering, and other traditional activities, including access to water.

Photo: Tsewang Regzin in Kumik, Zanskar, India
Photo by Nicolas Villaume/CWE

Tsewang Regzin | Kumik, Zanskar, India

As a Himalayan glacier melts above them, pragmatic Zanskari farmers and pastoralists have decided to uproot their 1,000-year-old village beside a now-drying stream. In the absence of drastic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, their decision may foretell the fate of millions of people dependent on high-mountain water everywhere, from Pakistan to California. To those populations, the villagers offer striking lessons: acknowledge your vulnerability, act decisively, keep the spirits of the old place with you, rebuild with cheerful resignation (and passive solar houses) —and above all, take responsibility for the impact of your way of life, before more damage is done.

Indigenous peoples are not mere victims

Indigenous peoples, however, are not mere victims of climate change. Comprising only four per cent of the world’s population (between 250 to 300 million people), they utilize 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. In doing so, they maintain 80% of the planet’s biodiversity in, or adjacent to, 85% of the world’s protected areas. Indigenous lands also hold hundreds of gigatons of carbon — a recognition that is gradually dawning on industrialized countries that seek to secure significant carbon stocks in an effort to mitigate climate change.

Indigenous peoples are excellent observers and interpreters of change on the land, sea, and sky. Their community-based and collectively held traditional knowledge accumulated and maintained through practice over countless generations, offers valuable insights into the state of the environment. Indigenous knowledge possesses chronological and landscape-specific precision and detail that is often lacking from scientific models developed by scientists at much broader spatial and temporal scale, including those used to understand the magnitude of climate change consequences. Moreover, indigenous knowledge provides a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation and mitigation actions that can sustain resilience of social-ecological systems at the interdependent local, regional, and global scales.

Ritual Visit To Our Father Huaytapallana.

Quechua villagers carry out an ancient tradition of seeking guidance from an Apu, or sacred Mountain, in the Andes of Peru. Produced by the villagers, this video has become enormously symbolic for the Quechua, leading many villagers to once again take up their traditions of nurturing Mother Earth. (Video by Cochas Grande, Mantaro Valley, Junin/CWE).

The climate change and its direct and indirect consequences increasingly compromise the very survival of indigenous peoples. Still, they continue to be denied seats at the global decision and policymaking tables, such as official UN climate negotiations, where their future is “on the menu.” The consequences of such discrimination are that many globally sanctioned programs aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change — for instance, mega-dam projects constructed under the banner of Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM)— exacerbate the direct impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples, undermining their livelihoods even more. In addition, poorly designed and implemented climate change adaptation initiatives, such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD/REDD+), often weaken the customary rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and natural resources, undermining their community resilience. Moreover, indigenous peoples are facing these escalating pressures at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already exposed to the relentless assault from various “izations”―  colon-ization, industrial-ization, global-ization, sedentar-ization – which stretch the already frayed fabric of interdependent and mutually reinforcing strands of biological, cultural, linguistic diversities, the foundation of indigenous resilience.

Traditional knowledge must be an integral part of the global climate discourse

One important sign of the indigenous peoples being largely absent from the climate change policy and decision-making processes is the virtual lack of references to the existing traditional knowledge on climate change in the global, national, and local climate change discussions. To date, valuable insights held by indigenous peoples worldwide about direct and indirect impacts of, as well as mitigation and adaptation approaches to climate change, remain largely unrecognized. This is particularly apparent in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) Assessment Reports released every few years.

Photo: Charley Swaney hunting at Arctic Village, Alaska
Photo by Nicolas Villaume/CWE

Charley Swaney | Arctic village, Alaska, USA.

“We may not have much,” Swaney said, “but what we have is out there.” Gwich’in hunters are concerned about new patterns in caribou migration and declining herd numbers. They constantly monitor the landscape and its animals and their movements.  

The most authoritative and influential reference on climate change in the world, the IPCC Assessment Reports guide governments, policy- and decision-making communities, and non-governmental organizations in planning and implementing their actions. The last IPCC Assessment (AR4, 2007) noted that indigenous knowledge is “an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change.” This was reaffirmed at the 32nd Session of the IPCC in 2010: “indigenous or traditional knowledge may prove useful for understanding the potential of certain adaptation strategies that are cost-effective, participatory and sustainable.”

Previous IPCC Assessments, however, were unable to access this type of information because, for the most part, traditional knowledge either appears in grey literature outside of peer-reviewed academic forums, or remains in oral form, thereby falling outside the scope of IPCC process.

Bridging the gaps between traditional knowledge and climate science

To fill-in the gaps in available information on traditional knowledge (TK) and climate change adaptation and mitigation, and to promote respect for TK and the role of indigenous peoples in policy development, a partnership has been formed between the United Nations University-Institute for Advanced Studies’ Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU-IAS TKI) and the IPCC. Building on the UNU-IAS TKI’s previous work, such as the book Advance Guard, the partners have been working together to organize a series of workshops that would enable the expertise of indigenous and traditional peoples with climate change become an integral part of the next IPCC Assessment Report (AR5, to be published in 2014) widely available to the global community.

The collaboration of UNU-IAS TKI & IPCC is significant at many levels. Among other things, it:

  • advances understanding of climate change vulnerability, adaptation and mitigation related to indigenous peoples;
  • collates, and makes it available to the global community, information important for understanding local-scale climate change impacts, adaptation and mitigation involving local and indigenous knowledge holders;
  • engages indigenous peoples in international climate dialogues and debates; and,
  • provides policymakers with relevant information on the vulnerabilities, knowledge and adaptive capacity of indigenous peoples.
Photo: Alexander Dibesov at Aktru Glacier| Altai, Russia
Photo by Gleb Raygorodetsky

Alexander Dibesov | Aktru Glacier| Altai, Russia

“In the summer, when I was a kid, my family would come to Aktru from our home in the valley,” says Alexander, a warden of a mountaineering camp at the foot of Aktru glacier in the Altai Republic, Russia. “We loved going sledding on the glacier.” As Alexander scans the scree slopes of the canyon through his binoculars for signs of mountain sheep, he knows that the glacier has receded. Just 60 years ago, the glacier came down all the way to where Alexander is kneeling. 

An important goal of the collaborative workshops — which also include contributions of several other partners (UNDP, UNESCO, and CBD) — is to promote respect for the local and traditional knowledge at the national and local levels and to empower indigenous peoples to have a greater stake in developing global, regional, and local policies to address climate change that are supportive of their knowledge, culture, and self-determined development.

For indigenous peoples, such workshops provide opportunities not only to present their experiences and knowledge about climate change in their communities, but to participate with scientists in the process of co-creation of valuable understandings of global climate change that is affecting their communities. Moreover, at such gatherings indigenous peoples learn about climate change experience of other indigenous peoples from around the world, while scientists gain opportunities to ground-truth (field check) their climate models assumptions and scenarios.

First Step – 2011 Mexico Workshop

Photo: Mexico indigenous people workshop
Photo by Citt Williams

Opening addresses at the Mexico Workshop.

At the table (left to right) Doug Nakashima (UNESCO), Sam Johnston (UNU), Vincente Barros (WGII, IPCC), Julia Martinez (National Institute of Ecology, Mexican Government), Terence Hay-Edie (UNDP), and Jaime Webbe (CBD). 

The first of these collaborative workshops was held in Mexico City, Mexico, from 26 to 28 July 2011, and was focused on traditional knowledge, indigenous peoples and climate change vulnerability and adaptation. It brought together over 80 indigenous and non-indigenous presenters from around the world. One of many outputs of the workshop is a technical report currently being finalized for the IPCC.

Eng’eno Eishoi Ng’ejuk (Knowledge for the Young Generation)

“Climate change is affecting our culture. Cattle, in particular, have an importance that goes beyond meat production. Cattle are traditionally used for paying dowries and blessings.” (Video by the Kenya Hub/CWE).

In addition to presenting essential baseline information and key sources of data, the technical report will highlight continuing areas of debate and emerging conclusions, including, among others:

  • Indigenous peoples and rural populations are keen observers of their natural environments.
  • Indigenous knowledge, although new to climate science, is a product of millennia of human co-evolution with environment. It has been long recognized as a key source of information and insight in disciplines such as agroforestry, traditional medicine, biodiversity conservation, customary resource management, environmental impact assessment, and natural disaster preparedness and response.
  • Indigenous observations and interpretations of weather and climate are at a fine scale, have considerable temporal depth and highlight elements that may be marginal or even new to scientists. They focus on elements of significance for local livelihoods, security and well-being, and are therefore essential for climate change adaptation.
  • Indigenous peoples’ observations contribute to advancing climate science by ensuring that assessments of climate change impacts and policies for climate change adaptation are meaningful and applicable at the local level.
  • Indigenous responses to climate variation typically involve changes to livelihood practices and other socio-economic adjustments. Strategies such as engaging in multiple livelihood activities and maintaining a diversity of plant varieties and animal races provide a low-risk buffer under uncertain weather and climate conditions. The ability to access multiple resources and rely on different ways of using the land, contributes to local capacities to manage for climate change.
  • Traditional systems of governance and social networks improve the ability of indigenous communities to collectively manage diversity and share resources, while dissipating shocks and reinforcing innovative capacities.

Ongoing respectful partnership between practitioners of indigenous knowledge and science is the key

Photo by Nicolas Villaume/CWE

Shagre Shano Shale, community leader | Doko village, Gamo Highland, Ethiopia

“In old times, there wouldn’t be rain during the dry season, and in the rainy seasons we had rain,” says Shagre Shano Shale, an elder in the village of Doko. “Those things have changed.” These changes have disrupted growth cycles. So Gamo Highlanders like Shagre must seek ways to guard their culture and find a new defense against famine. 

Resilience in the face of change is embedded in indigenous knowledge and know-how, diversified resources and livelihoods, social institutions and networks, and cultural values and attitudes. Policy responses to climate change should therefore support and enhance indigenous resilience. Regrettably, most government policies limit options and reduce choices, thereby constraining, restricting and undermining indigenous peoples’ efforts to adapt. This is reflected in counterproductive policies, including those leading to increased sedentarization, restricted access to traditional territories, land grabbing, substitution of traditional livelihoods, impoverished crop or herd diversity, reduced harvesting opportunities, and erosion of the transmission of indigenous knowledge, values, attitudes and worldviews.

Climate scientists’ contributions to climate change discourse must be locally meaningful. They should advance understandings of specific phenomena that are of significance to indigenous knowledge holders. Meaningful dialogues with indigenous knowledge holders are key to the success of this endeavor.

Next Step – 2012 Australia Workshop

Traditional Fire Abatement | Arnhemland, Australia

In Arnhem Land, traditional fire management practices have kept the country healthy for thousands of years. Aboriginal Wardakken people have been working with local scientists to adapt their traditional fire management to reduce greenhouse gas emissions whilst caring for the land. (Video by UNU Media Studio, Wardakken Inc and Australian National University in association with UNU-IAS Traditional knowledge Initiative).

The next UNU-IAS TKI and IPCC workshop, to be held in Cairns, Australia, next month (26-28 March 2012), will build on the outcomes of the 2011 Mexico workshop through a related focus on traditional knowledge and climate change mitigation and governance. The mitigation workshop is being developed in close collaboration with the Australian Government Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA).

As this cooperation demonstrates, indigenous knowledge holders and scientists are beginning to establish novel collaborative arrangements that are co-creating new knowledge that would not be generated through the efforts of either group alone.

Through initiatives like the UNU-IAS TKI and IPCC workshops, this co-produced knowledge is opening new and important pathways for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

The earlier version of this blog was published on the United Nations University blog.


UNU-IAS Traditional Knowledge Initiative

The United Nations University-Institute for Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) is in the process of establishing a Traditional Knowledge Institute (TK Institute) in Australia. The UNU-IAS TK Institute aims to promote and strengthen research on traditional knowledge (TK) of indigenous and local communities conducted from a global perspective, grounded in local experience.

Conversations With the Earth (CWE)

CWE is an indigenous-led multimedia initiative that is a respectful partnership of the NGOs Land is Life and InsightShare, and photographer Nicolas Villaume, to amplify voices of over a dozen indigenous communities around the world in the global discourse on ecological and cultural challenges facing the planet, including climate change.

For the most recent updates from Conversations with the Earth, please follow CWE on Facebook, YouTube Channel and Twitter @ConversEarth

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Gleb Raygorodetsky
Gleb Raygorodetsky is a Research Affiliate with the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria. Born and raised in a coastal village in Kamchatka, Russia, Gleb is a conservation biologist with expertise in resource co-management and traditional knowledge systems. He has lived and worked with the Evèn reindeer herders, the Aleut fur seal hunters, the Caboclos pirarucu fishermen and the Gwich’in caribou hunters. For his PhD, he looked at the resilience of social-ecological systems after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the Russian Far East, by researching furbearer use and conservation in Kamchatka. Between 2006-2010 he led the development of a new global grant-making strategy for the Christensen Fund on biocultural diversity and resilience. Gleb has contributed to such magazines as Cultural Survival, Wildlife Conservation, and National Geographic, writing about climate change, traditional knowledge, and Indigenous peoples.