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.


Integrating meteorological and indigenous knowledge-based seasonal climate forecasts for the agricultural sector: lessons from participatory action research in sub-Saharan Africa
International Development Research Centre, 2010
This paper examines how meteorological seasonal climate forecasts (SCF) and indigenous knowledge-based seasonal forecasts (IKF) can complement each other to improve agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. Using case studies, the report documents the processes and lessons learned with respect to using, applying, and integrating SCFs and IKFs. It also presents the current available seasonal forecasts and indigenous knowledge, and explores how the two types of information have been integrated, as well as the platforms for disseminating this information and the challenges of applying it.
The Earth is faster now: indigenous observations of arctic environmental change
Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, 2002
This paper presents observations of indigenous people on the arctic environmental change and the implications of such change. It also examines the ways in which social science methods and results contribute to collective understanding of the arctic system, the combination and interactions among physical, biological, and social conditions, and its relationship with the rest of the world. It argues that in the pre-modern era, arctic people were dependent largely on local resources but used a variety of means to influence their relationship with the living things on which they depended.
New voices, different perspectives: Proceedings of the AfricaAdapt Climate Change Symposium 2011
Institute of Development Studies UK, 2011
This report brings together the proceedings of the 2011 AfricaAdapt Climate Change Symposium, which share the research, experiences, and co-constructed knowledge that emerged from the three-day, bilingual symposium with the wider climate and development community. The publication includes short abstracts of all the papers and addresses delivered over the event, and provides links to more extended versions of the papers, powerpoint presentations, and other relevant resources.

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


The value of indigenous knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies in the African Sahel
, 2007
It is increasingly realised that mitigation and adaptation should not be pursued independently of each other but as complements. Integrating mitigation and adaptation into climate change concerns is not a completely new idea in the African Sahel where the local populations in this region, through their indigenous knowledge systems, have developed and implemented extensive mitigation and adaptation strategies that have enabled them to reduce their vulnerability to past climate variability and change.
Advance guard: climate change impacts, adaptation, mitigation and indigenous peoples – a compendium of case studies
United Nations University, 2010
This compendium presents a wide-ranging overview of more than 400 projects, case studies and research activities specifically related to climate change and Indigenous Peoples (IP).
Guide on climate change and indigenous peoples
, 2009
This report discusses the basics of climate change, mitigation and adaptation measures, and the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples. It gives examples of adaptation and mitigation processes practised by indigenous people. It further discusses the risks and opportunities that Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) presents to indigenous people.It notes that indigenous peoples are the least contributors to climate change, yet they are the first to suffer from its impacts.
Indigenous knowledge systems and Alaska native ways of knowing
, 2005
Until recently, literature on Native world views and ways of knowing has been scarce. Indigenous peoples globally have sustained their unique world views and knowledge systems for ages even in the face of transformative forces beyond their control. This article explores the processes of learning that occur within and at the intersection of diverse world views and knowledge systems, drawing on experiences from across Fourth World contexts, particularly the Alaska context.

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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Climate change and human rights: issues and opportunities for indigenous peoples
Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008
This article examines issues and opportunities in relation to indigenous peoples’ participation in response to climate change both nationally and internationally. Using the case of Australia, the paper evaluates ways in which indigenous people choose to participate in local development opportunities through environment-based commercial activities. It also presents examples of ways in which indigenous people may contribute formally and informally to environmental services.
Universal declaration of the rights of Mother Earth
, 2010
This is a proclamation of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (ME) which was created at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of ME held in Cochabamba, Bolivia on April 22, 2010. Article 1. declares that ME is a unique, indivisible, self-regulating living being that sustains and reproduces all beings as an integral part of itself. It has inherent rights just like human and other beings. All other beings have rights which are specific to their type and appropriate for their role and function within their communities.
Protecting traditional knowledge from the grassroots up
International Institute for Environment and Development, 2009
For indigenous peoples around the world, traditional knowledge (TK) based on natural resources forms the basis of their culture and identity, and yet it is under threat. Indigenous communities are increasingly vulnerable to eviction, environmental degradation and outside interests keen on taking over their traditional resources. Intellectual property rights are not suitable for TK because of their commercial focus, as opposed to fundamental indigenous principles such as resource access and sharing.