Why Traditional Knowledge Holds the Key to Climate Change

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Article
  • 2011•12•13

    Gleb Raygorodetsky

    Why traditional knowledge holds the key to climate change

    Photo: James Gordon

    The rapid rise in the world’s population and our ever-growing dependence on fossil fuel-based modes of production has played a considerable role in the growing concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere. As a result, global temperatures are increasing, the sea level is rising and precipitation patterns are changing, while storm surges, floods, droughts and heat waves are becoming more frequent and severe. Subsequently, agricultural production is decreasing, freshwater is becoming more scarce, infectious diseases are on the rise, local livelihoods are being degraded and human well-being is diminishing.

    Although indigenous peoples’ “low-carbon” traditional ways of life have contributed little to climate change, indigenous peoples are the most adversely affected by it. This is largely a result of their historic dependence on local biological diversity, ecosystem services and cultural landscapes as a source of sustenance and well-being.

    The very identity of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their lands, which are located predominantly at the social-ecological margins of human habitation — such as small islands, tropical forests, high-altitude zones, coasts, desert margins and the circumpolar Arctic. Here at these margins, the consequences of climate change include effects on agriculture, pastoralism, fishing, hunting and gathering and other subsistence activities, including access to water.

    Indigenous peoples are not mere victims

    Indigenous peoples, however, are not mere victims of climate change. Comprising only four per cent of the worlds population (between 250 to 300 million people), they utilize 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. In doing so, they maintain 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity in, or adjacent to, 85 per cent of the world’s protected areas. Indigenous lands also contain 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.

    With collective knowledge of the land, sky and sea, these peoples are excellent observers and interpreters of change in the environment. The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data with chronological and landscape-specific precision and detail that is critical for verifying climate models and evaluating climate change scenarios developed by scientists at much broader spatial and temporal scale. Moreover, indigenous knowledge provides a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation and mitigation actions that sustain resilience of social-ecological systems at the interconnected local, regional and global scales.

    While unmitigated climate change poses a growing threat to the survival of indigenous peoples, more often than not they continue to be excluded from the global processes of decision and policymaking, such as official UN climate negotiations, that are defining their future.

    The consequences of such marginalization are that many globally sanctioned programmes aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change — such as mega-dam projects constructed under the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) framework — further exacerbate the direct impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples, undermining their livelihoods even more.

    In addition, poorly designed and implemented climate change adaptation programmes, for example, Reducing Emissions form Deforestation and Degradation (REDD/REDD+) initiatives, often weaken the customary rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and natural resources, impairing their resilience. Indigenous peoples are facing these escalating pressures at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already exposed to the significant stress of accelerated natural resource development in their traditional territories, due to trade liberalization and globalization.

    Alexander Dibesov, a warden of a mountaineering camp at the foot of Aktru glacier in the Altai Republic, Russia, scans the scree slopes of the canyon through his binoculars for signs of mountain sheep. “In the summer, when I was a kid, my family would come to Aktru from our home in the valley,” says Alexander. “We loved going sledding on the glacier.” Just 60 years ago, the glacier came down all the way to where Alexander is kneeling. Today, the glaciers are receding, barely visible up the slope in the distance. Photo: Gleb Raygorodetsky/UNU.

    Traditional knowledge needs a role in global climate discourse

    One significant manifestation of the marginalization of indigenous peoples from the climate change policy and decision-making is the paucity of references in the global climate change discourse to the existing traditional knowledge on climate change. Such international discourse has often failed to consider the valuable insights on direct and indirect impacts, as well as mitigation and adaptation approaches, held by indigenous peoples worldwide. This is particularly evident in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) Assessment Reports released every few years.

    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, published in 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 address 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, the United Nations University’s Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU-TKI) and the IPCC have partnered. Building on UNU-TKI’s previous work, such as the book Advance Guard, UNU-TKI and the IPCC have been working to organize a series of workshops to ensure that the experience of indigenous and traditional peoples of climate change impacts and their adaptation and mitigation strategies are fully integrated in the next IPCC Assessment Report (AR5, to be published in 2014) and are widely available to the global community.

    The collaboration of IPCC with UNU-TKI is significant at many levels, including:

    • advancing understanding of climate change vulnerability, adaptation and mitigation related to indigenous peoples;
    • collating regional and local data relevant for understanding local-scale climate change impacts, adaptation and mitigation involving local and indigenous knowledge holders, and making it available to the IPPC AR5;
    • engaging indigenous peoples in international climate dialogues and debates; and,
    • providing policymakers with relevant information on the vulnerabilities, knowledge and adaptive capacity of indigenous peoples.

    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. The workshops aim to empower indigenous peoples to have a greater say 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 an opportunity not only to present their experiences and knowledge about climate change in their communities, but to gain valuable information on global climate processes that are affecting their communities. Moreover, indigenous peoples learn about other indigenous climate change-related experiences, while scientists gain opportunities to ground-truth (field check) climate models and scenarios.

    Mexico workshop paves the way

    The first of these collaborative workshops, which focused on climate change vulnerability and adaptation, was held in Mexico City, Mexico, from 26 to 28 July 2011, with 84 indigenous and non-indigenous participants from around the world. One of the outputs of the workshop is a technical report currently being finalized for the IPPC.

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

    • Indigenous knowledge, although new to climate science, has been long recognized as a key source of information and insight in domains such as agroforestry, traditional medicine, biodiversity conservation, customary resource management, impact assessment, and natural disaster preparedness and response. Indigenous peoples and rural populations are keen observers of their natural environments.
    • Indigenous observations and interpretations of meteorological phenomena are at a much finer 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 thus essential for adaptation.
    • Indigenous peoples’ observations contribute importantly 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 in uncertain weather environments. The ability to access multiple resources and rely on different modalities of land use contributes to their capacities to manage for local-level climate change.
    • Traditional systems of governance and social networks improve the ability to collectively manage diversity and share resources, while dissipating shocks and reinforcing innovative capacities.

    Meaningful dialogue holds the key

    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. It is unfortunate, however, that many 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, substitution of traditional livelihoods, impoverished crop or herd diversity, reduced harvesting opportunities, and erosion of the transmission of indigenous knowledge, values, attitudes and worldviews.

    As the technical report from the UNU-TKI and IPCC Mexico workshop will also highlight, climate scientists’ contributions to debate 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 endeavour.

    The next UNU-TKI and IPCC workshop, to be held in Cairns, Australia, in March 2012, will build on the outcomes of the Mexico workshop through a related focus on climate change mitigation and governance. The mitigation workshop is being developed in close collaboration with the IPCC Technical Support Group for Working Group III, and in partnership with CBD, UNESCO and UNDP, as well as UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue’s Secretariat, and North Australia Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.

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

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

     

  • Dr Siddhartha Sankar Dash

    Excellent article.The very question is how do we address the problem at the base of the pyramid and include them  as Decision takers and Decision makers. 

    Dr Siddhartha Sankar Dash

  • Egeru Anthony

    For long, they have been recipients of ‘knowledge and technologies’ from without. How do we ensure that they get heard, make decisions and priorities that are respected, they are simply not made stooges of the next decade. Here at University of Nairobi, the Center for Sustainable Dryland Ecosystems Management is trying to making the pastoral voices heard. This initiative by UNU is welcome and lets join efforts to uplift thir status.
    Egeru Anthony
    University of Nairobi
    Department of Land Resources Management and Agricultural Technology
    egeru81@educ.mak.ac.ug  

  • Dr. T V Muralivallabhan

    This is of course a new recognition of the old wisdom. From the past experience, it is clear that
    modern science and technology is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the effective policy formulation and governance in the field of environment in general and climate change in particular.Knowing various dimensions of traditional knowledge and wisdom and incorporating its spirit in modern policies will certainly enhance the chances of mitigating climate change.This because traditional knowledge directly influences the state of mind ,which influences the state of society and which in its turn influences the state of environment.

  • Mike Jones

    From a resilience building perspective, the value of the kind of dialogue reported here, is enormous. We need to do more of this, perhaps with a focus on food systems which sit at the nexus of many critical environmental problems.

    • Gleb Raygorodetsky

      Precisely!  This why one of the themes of the Cairns workshop is “Agroecosystems and mitigation” http://www.unutki.org/default.php?doc_id=214 to hopefully provide a useful platform to begin this important discussion.

  • http://makanaka.wordpress.com/ Rahul Goswami

    Dear Gleb, this is a connection that inter-governmental agencies really ought to pay a great deal more attention to. Several UN agencies, amongst them UNESCO and FAO, have done some sustained work on the subject. Their work, together with that of researchers and community leaders amongst indigenous peoples, has deserved a closer look for many years. Now, when ‘tipping points’ have been reached in several agro-ecological zones, it does seem gratuitous to look for ‘solutions’ (as they like to call it nowadays) from those who don’t see the world in terms of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’.

    “Although indigenous peoples’ ‘low-carbon’ traditional ways of life have contributed little to climate change, indigenous peoples are the most adversely affected by it. This is largely a result of their historic dependence on local biological diversity, ecosystem services and cultural landscapes as a source of sustenance and well-being.”

    It’s a good thing you’ve enclosed ‘low carbon’ in quotations here. Within these societies – indigenous, first peoples, tribal – this label has little meaning – as unhelpful as calling certain communities ‘low-hydrological’ (if the ecosystem they inhabit is a semi-arid zone) or ‘low-pelagic’ (where a coastal community practices only artisanal fishing).

    “The very identity of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their lands, which are located predominantly at the social-ecological margins of human habitation…”

    As urbanisation has proceeded these margins have become clearer. The homogenous economic choices made by many state governments in the last 60-70 years has encouraged urbanisation and the consequent marginalisation of the indigenous – a Hobson’s choice for many of these communities: ‘assimilate’ (and thereby run the risk of losing your identity) or be marginalised.

    “…they utilize 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. In doing so, they maintain 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity in, or adjacent to, 85 per cent of the world’s protected areas. Indigenous lands also contain 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.”

    They are therefore the earth’s primary stewards, and what we today call ‘earth science’ would have had no baselines to build upon had it not been for their culturally-rooted practices of conservation and thriftiness. However, I don’t know that an altruistic recognition is dawning. It has dawned on those of us who work in related areas, who read and write about TK and exchange notes, but the industrialised countries and the ‘emerging economies’ alike today tend to see carbon stocks as market commodities – their preservation, and through such preservation the protection of tribal homelands, becomes a by-product, not a constitutional guarantee.

    “The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data…”

    The other way around!

    “While unmitigated climate change poses a growing threat to the survival of indigenous peoples, more often than not they continue to be excluded from the global processes of decision and policymaking, such as official UN climate negotiations, that are defining their future.”

    This is sadly, clearly, starkly true. They are excluded not only from climate discussion and negotiations, but also from many other policy fora. This is how tribal communities, indigenous peoples are treated both by international treaties and within states. Within countries and nations, the degree of exclusion is often greater in fact, and they have negligible or no political voice and weight, are economically impoverished and turned into dependants on welfare formulae that are constantly under threat. It is a precarious existence within states.

    “The consequences of such marginalization are that many globally sanctioned programmes aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change — such as mega-dam projects constructed under the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) framework — further exacerbate the direct impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples, undermining their livelihoods even more.”

    Well said. The CDM has brought havoc to tribal folk and rural communities alike and ought to be wound up as soon as possible – and not replaced by another ‘market mechanism’ invented by global finance. As you point out in the following paragraph, the mutations of REDD are hardly better.

    “One significant manifestation of the marginalization of indigenous peoples from the climate change policy and decision-making is the paucity of references in the global climate change discourse to the existing traditional knowledge on climate change.”

    Visible here is the tendency of ‘science’ – a formalised system based on a ‘method’ that is seen today as an internationalised standard which evolved from 20th century Western civilisation – to disregard any other form of knowledge repository as equally valid and therefore worth learning from.

    “The last IPCC Assessment (AR4, published in 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’.”

    Then we must from the ‘outside’ take forward the UNU Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU-TKI) and the IPCC partnership to impress upon the IPCC AR5 authors, more than 800 of them, that TK must move from being a peripheral acknowledgement to a cornerstone of the IPCC’s work. Here is their calendar.
    http://www.ipcc.ch/scripts/_calendar_template2.php?wg=8
    To the four points you have listed I would add a fifth, that of pursuing these four strenuously at the national and sub-national levels, for it is there that such recognition is most needed, and it is from there that reporting to the IPCC (and to the UNFCCC) is done.

    The five points you have mentioned as being covered in more detail by the technical report currently being finalized for the IPCC are excellent summaries. When turned into guidelines they will go a long way towards educating ‘the scientific method’ about cosmologies that currently exist among indigenous societies, in which expressions of culture, transmission of values and inter-dependence are intrinsic elements. These are the subject of a UNESCO Convention, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and their importance to what we currently call ‘sustainable development’ cannot be over-emphasised. More on the 2003 Convention here:
    http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/

    “It is unfortunate, however, that many 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, substitution of traditional livelihoods, impoverished crop or herd diversity, reduced harvesting opportunities, and erosion of the transmission of indigenous knowledge, values, attitudes and worldviews.”

    That is a cogent, if depressing, summary of the many limits that government policy binds itself with. If we are urban, we are economically discriminated against if our consumption is less than a current optimal mean; if we are rural, we are gradually forced into producing goods and relinquishing our scarce natural resources in order that this consumption mean be satisfied; if we are indigenous and tribal, we are utterly ignored and our customary rights and traditional livelihoods are trampled upon.

    Can the UNU(TKI)-IPCC cooperation remove this blind spot and right some of the wrongs committed in the name of ‘development’? I should hope so. It sounds like a careful and considered beginning, and yet we can’t see more time spent on ultimately inconclusive negotiations on climate, as happened recently in Durban. M K Gandhi had once said it well: “Make haste slowly.”

    Thank you again for an excellent introduction to this effort.

    Regards, Rahul Goswami

    Agro-ecological systems researcher, National Agricultural Innovation Project, Government of India; Trainer and examiner, UNESCO 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. makanaka@pobox.com

  • Mitcbc

    I am an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree tribe of Rocky Boy, Montana, USA. I can’t help but feel a little defensive. It seems like non-tribal members have been taking, studying, researching our tribes and are never satisfied…wanting more and more. I’m a little fed up of the things and ways that I love being exploited. I know that our special relationship with the earth has a place in climate change discussions and I have seen how this knowledge helps decision makers make better decisions. I need to say that I’m not set in my ways and am very open to new ideas and concepts. I am not saying these words to be offensive to anyone or any organization, it is just how I feel. I will continue to attempt to engage our tribal members in climate discussions, it’s just I need more ammo to convince them that this effort isn’t just another taking by non-natives.

  • http://twitter.com/blindspotting James Greyson

    Yes indigenous knowledge is key. Yet the potential contribution is not just to climate negotiations but to the necessary paradigm change of world-view from a commodified Earth to one where it’s us who belong to nature. http://bit.ly/switch5

  • Raymondobare

    we need them goingn forward as they provide necessary insights in the climate change discourse needed to bring forth tangible developments if correctly implemented

  • Prof.A.Prabaharan

    Leave us to live our lives

  • EdChombeau

    OK; we need to adapt as humans have always adapted.

  • Dr. K.H. Amitha Bachan

    Ultimately we agree that “we should learn from the indigenous communities, how to live sustainably on earth, with low carbon foot print, with proper resource management strategies and, practices with simple living”. It is great that we agree the traditional wisdom and management strategies evolved over generations, time tested are far better than any other invented formulas of the mainstream thought and science. Question is how far we can go down for an inclusive and right based frame work in this unequal world.!!!!. a high carbon massive world negotiating with a low carbon tiny commune….