Linda M. Tello, PhD, PE

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Why Traditional Knowledge Holds the Key to Climate Change

Photo: James Gordon

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Why Traditional Knowledge Holds the Key to Climate Change

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.

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