Climate change

Indigenous knowledge and climate change

Interest in the potential for indigenous knowledge to inform responses to climate change is growing.

An older woman of the Ladakhi nomadic tribe in India. © 2013 Charles Linkenheil. Courtesy of Photoshare
Edited by Alan Stanley
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Indigenous communities have long been recognised as being particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to the close connection between their livelihoods, culture, social systems and environment. At the same time, though, this deep and long-established relationship with the natural environment gives many indigenous peoples knowledge that they have used to adapt to environmental change, and are now using to respond to the impacts of climate change.

This potential for indigenous knowledge to inform observations of, and responses to climate change is an area of growing interest to those of us working to address climate change. This is particularly true for those of us working at community level, where access to other forms of “scientific” knowledge are quite often inaccessible or incomplete. But we are also seeing interest in international forums such as the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change) as well.

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Blane Harvey 

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Predicting or observing the impacts of climate change

The reason for this interest is the increasing recognition of evidence that indigenous knowledge is a powerful tool for compiling evidence of climate change over time, and as a tool for forecasting seasonal climate information. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where the technical infrastructure available for climate observation and forecasting is limited, this might prove to be an important resource for a wide range of stakeholders, from researchers to communities themselves. If it were possible to integrate indigenous and scientific forecasting, so the argument goes, we could see significant improvement not just in the accuracy of forecasting but also in its use at local level where communities often place greater trust in traditional forecasts than those of meteorological agencies. Just this kind of integration is being piloted in Kenya, Tanzania and Benin among other countries. 

Traditional Knowledge and climate prediction, Nganyi, Kenya

Traditional Knowledge and climate prediction, Nganyi, Kenya

 In Kenya in particular, the co-production of these “consensus forecasts” by both indigenous and scientific authorities, offers a compelling model of how these two knowledge sets may work together effectively. The following readings explore this model in more detail and provide additional examples.

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Using indigenous knowledge in responding to climate change

Similarly when it comes to communities mitigating the effects of climate change or adapting to its impacts, indigenous knowledge systems are increasingly being considered, alongside more established resource management practices and adaptation strategies, as part of the toolbox of options available. But, as yet, approaches for integrating these tools are still emerging and challenges remain – not least the familiar development problem of working with approaches which cut across sectors - agriculture, water, forestry, and governance for example.

What  has become apparent is that two distinct dimensions of the use of indigenous knowledge need to be considered: the content of this knowledge in terms of strategies, tools, and techniques, for responding to climate change; and the processes through which this knowledge is transmitted and put into action. This latter might include social learning, knowledge sharing, and collaborative management or decision-making for example. Also important to consider is the close link between indigenous scientific practice - the way which indigenous peoples observe, interpret, and build knowledge from their interactions with the environment - and the cultures in which it is embedded, as these are often seen as indivisible. 

These key readings provide a useful discussion of these challenges and include some good case studies

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Rights, ethics and justice considerations

Although still emerging, and by no means simple, the potential for climate change prediction, mitigation and adaptation approaches that incorporate indigenous knowledge is exciting and may offer new ways to directly engage local communities in action on climate change. But it also brings with it some important concerns about power, rights, and ethics in engaging in these kinds of partnerships. Despite the clear value of linking indigenous knowledge to action on climate change, it is important to consider how engaging with the communities who hold this knowledge might raise issues of rights, ethics or social justice. The widespread expropriation of indigenous knowledge in, say, the pharmaceutical industry underscores the importance of ensuring the meaningful participation of indigenous communities in planning, approving and implementing processes that involve their knowledge or resources. It is important to remember that indigenous peoples are often highly marginalised within their own countries, and routinely under-represented in international dialogues, so consideration must always be given to questions of power and voice in any engagement with those communities. These concerns are currently under-examined in the field of climate change, but there are many lessons which can be drawn from other fields such as biodiversity and conservation and some of these are covered in the selection of resources below.

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