Learning From Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change

For Sapara people in Ecuador, being able to move around their traditional territory is essential to climate change adaptation. Photo by Gleb Raygorodetsky

Many of the people likely to be on the front lines of a changing climate are indigenous. Already assaulted by centuries of colonialism and exploitation, many indigenous people must also now adapt to rising seas, warming temperatures, and other disruptions to natural systems.

Conservation biologist Gleb Raygorodetsky has been traveling the world to document stories of resilience among indigenous people in the face of these challenges, from the Arctic to the Amazon. He is compiling the stories into a book, Archipelago of Hope: Encounters at the Edge of the Changing World.

Raygorodetsky is trying to raise funds to finish the project through the crowd-funded site Indiegogo. We spoke with him about his work.

What’s the journey that led you to this topic?

I am a conservation biologist by training. But when I grew up in Russia I had learned from people who lived off the land. So, eventually, I came to realize that Western science doesn’t have all the answers. It tends to be more surgical and less holistic. Indigenous people have closer intimate relationships to the land.

In the 1990s, when I was working for Gwich’in people in Northwest Territory of Canada, I began to focus on climate change. I have been learning from local people because they know a lot about all the changes on their land. They often talk about it in more holistic ways that are more profound than just parts per million [of CO2] in the atmosphere. They talk about the relationships between living things and between the people and the land.

Why is it important to listen to an indigenous worldview?

We should look at such environmental issues as climate change through the prism of indigenous people’s knowledge because they view the world in a holistic/multidimensional way, based on a view of the Earth, air, mountains, seas (and all their creatures) as living conscious beings. It is imbued with spirit. Our conventional approaches, on the other hand, are all two-dimensional and fail to grasp the true nature of life and living, and therefore adapting.

Spring snowmobile travel throughout the Skolt Sami Traditional Territory is becoming more perilous, as the river and lake ice thaws earlier every year.
Spring snowmobile travel throughout the Skolt Sami Traditional Territory (shown here in Finland) is becoming more perilous, as the river and lake ice thaws earlier every year. Photo by Gleb Raygorodetsky

What are some of the things indigenous people know that science hasn’t figured out?

We forget that we inherited the Earth from people who looked after it for millennia. They were not just passive hunter-gatherers, they actively managed the land.

As an example, one of their tools was fire management. In North America today we see increased frequency and intensity of fires, in large part because we have suppressed small fires and traditional burns. But in parts of Australia, land management has been turned back over to traditional people who have used fire as a tool for thousands of years. The land has gotten healthier as a result, with higher biodiversity.

What are some of the specific things you’ve learned from indigenous people?

The lessons aren’t necessarily about, “Here are the ingredients and this is the result you get,” it is more about how to conduct ourselves in relation to each other and the planet. It’s about reciprocity, respect, and reverence. When you have those things you realize that it’s not about extracting resources, the way we’ve been doing.

One practical observation I’ve made is how traditional societies always include elements of long-term thinking. The catch phrase is being aware how every decision will affect the next seven generations, but it’s really longer than that, it’s about thinking how everything will affect the planet and what people sometimes call their “future ancestors.” In contrast, our decision makers tend to work on a very short time frame, not even a single generation.

What can we learn from elders in traditional societies?

Elders play an enormously significant role in traditional societies, which is something we’ve largely lost in our culture. There are often specific roles for young people, too. Another common traditional belief is that the people who will live with the consequences of their actions are the ones who should make the decisions. It establishes a feedback loop.

That’s not really how our political systems work. Today, when we shop or drive or do any number of things we don’t really immediately see the impact of of our actions on the environment.

Indigenous people sometimes feel that they have the most to lose from climate change, yet they were least responsible for it in the first place. Have you seen that tension?

Absolutely. Most indigenous people live in developing countries that are not the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. And even those who live in countries that are rapidly increasing their emissions, like India and China, are not the ones mostly contributing to the emissions.

But the impact of changing climate is disproportionately strong on them because they are directly dependent on the land. They are the ones first impacted by floods, droughts, sea level shifts, extreme weather, and so on. They often don’t have the resources to put themselves out of the harms way. So that means it’s a matter of environmental and climate justice.

Ilchamus pastoralists had to abandon their traditional pastures and adapt to a more settled agriculture-based way of life along the southern shore of Lake Baringo, Kenya.
Ilchamus pastoralists had to abandon their traditional pastures and adapt to a more settled agriculture-based way of life along the southern shore of Lake Baringo, Kenya. Photo by Gleb Raygorodetsky

What ways are indigenous people adapting to a changing climate now?

Many feel that as climate becomes less stable they will be able to count on resources coming in from the outside world less, so they are trying to revive their self-reliance, for example through maintaining traditional varieties of crops and livestock that are more climate resilient. Going with that is their desire to gain more say about what’s happening on their land. Here in Canada, on the west coast of British Columbia, Tla-o-qui-aht people are trying to make decisions on their traditional territory based on all the traditional values that land provides and not just what corporations (like logging companies or salmon farms) can get out of it.

There is also a shift away from fossil fuels and toward more traditional methods of transportation, such as canoes or sled dogs. It’s not about forgetting what science has to offer, it’s about using the best of what their cultures and our culture have created. For example, solar energy and rainwater collection facilities are being deployed in remote herding camps in the Arctic. It’s about reviving their culture and maintaining their connection to the land.

What impact do you hope to make with the book?

My hope is to share what I have learned from the people who have a proven track record for living on the land without messing it up. We don’t have that track record. Indigenous people look after 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity in their traditional territories and they want to continue to look after that land, from the coast to the tundra. We’re all in this together but we don’t often hear the voices of our indigenous brothers and sisters.

Human Journey