Wisdom of Elders Better Than Science or the Internet: “They Still Know How to Cook Mammoth”

Petr Kaurgin, a Chukchi reindeer herder from Siberia. Photo: Citt Williams

“Our elders are the best source of information. Better than science or the internet,” said Petr Kaurgin, a Chukchi reindeer herder from the remote Turvaurgin nomadic tribal community in north-eastern Siberia.

Kaurgin delivered his message to climate scientists from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other Indigenous peoples at the closing of the Climate Change Mitigation with Local Communities and Indigenous peoples workshop here in Cairns, Australia.

“We need to listen to the wisdom of the elders. We can use everything in nature. But we must not break or destroy things, ” he said through a translator.

It was -45C when Kaurgin left his home to bring his people’s message to climate experts here in the hot, wet tropical part of Australia. The IPCC is the world authority on the science of climate change. And along with the United Nations University (UNU) organized the workshop to figure out how to incorporate Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge.

“When we love the land where we live only then we are happy,” he said.

Kaurgin’s people and other local Siberian communities have been experiencing the impacts of climate change such as melting permafrost for the last 20 years said Tero Mustonen, Head of the Village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland.

Tero Mustonen, head of the village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland. Photo by Citt Wiillams

As the hard permafrost melts it produces landslides and collapsing riverbanks, altering the entire landscape. That affects traditional reindeer migration routes, and alters where the animals can feed and travel. Seasons are shifting and river and lake ice is thawing sooner, making life less predictable, said Mustonen, who has a doctorate and is head of international affairs for the Snowchange Cooperative, a network of Indigenous peoples.

Kaurgin and his family manage a herd of 15,000 reindeer, but they can no longer migrate to the rich grasses on the Arctic coast in summer because the ground is now too soft. “They have to stay 80 to 150 kilometers inland,” said Mustonen.

The Chukchi and other Indigenous peoples living traditional lives put very little climate-altering carbon into the atmosphere. Helping them stay on the land means they can continue their low-emission ways of living. If they leave their land and go into towns and cities their emissions will inevitably increase.

The IPCC needs to integrate traditional knowledge into its scientific assessments as was done for the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Traditional people were also able to improve the content of that report,  said Mustonen.

“If traditional knowledge is preserved they will survive climate change. After all the Chukchi have words for mammoth. They have oral knowledge of how to hunt and cook mammoths,” he said.

“They’ve experienced major changes before. ”

Chukchi reindeer herd. Photo: Saija Lehtonen


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Human Journey

Meet the Author
An international environmental journalist for more than 20 years, Stephen Leahy has been published in dozens of publications around the world: National Geographic News, The Guardian (UK), Vice, New Scientist, Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS), Al Jazeera, Mo Magazine (Brussels), TerraGreen (India), Toronto Star, China Dialogue (UK), Earth Island Journal, The London Sunday Times, Wired News, BBC Wildlife. Stephen was a co-winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for reporting on Climate Change, and the author of Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products (Winner Best Science Book 2014)