Climate change adaptation can benefit from Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge

Climate change adaptation can benefit from Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Indigenous Peoples are amongst the most vulnerable to climate change. Despite their knowledge about the environment they live in, they are rarely included in climate change conversations, or not to the extent they should be. However, the landscapes they inhabit are often of high ecological value and important for the communities’ climate resilience. Involving Indigenous Peoples in climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR), and integrating their traditional knowledge into such activities, can improve local resilience building through empowerment and ownership.

Marginalised stewards

According to the World Bank, there are around 370 million Indigenous Peoples worldwide. They make up roughly 5% of the world’s population, but 15% of the world’s extreme poor. While their traditional ways of living have contributed very little to climate change, they are amongst the most climate-vulnerable people. At the same time, Indigenous Peoples are stewards of 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Their traditional knowledge and practice are often important to safeguard environmentally important lands. These lands are important due to their biodiversity and the carbon they store, and because they are inextricably linked to the identities and cultures of the Indigenous Peoples that they support.

Despite this, the views and experience of Indigenous Peoples are rarely integrated in climate change adaptation programmes. One prominent source of conflict, for example, has been the UN programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). Indigenous Peoples have expressed concerns about the commodification of their forests and lands, losing control over them to carbon traders, and ultimately reducing their resilience due to lack of control over their ancestral lands.

Integrating traditional knowledge

Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge is often characterised by an advanced understanding of the local environment that has evolved over many generations. It originates in the community, is collectively owned, and can be adapted to changing circumstances. Both climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in these communities can benefit greatly from the held within Indigenous communities.

Traditional knowledge has the potential to improve disaster risk reduction policies by integrating it into disaster education and early warning systems. For example, pastoralists in East Africa have a thorough understanding of when major rains should arrive; it is implied in the wind, the humidity, and the temperature of their environment. They also use animal and plant behaviour as an indicator. The pastoralists are able to predict major rains up to four weeks in advance. The absence of certain natural indicators means that major rains will be absent. This can help them plan for drought conditions.

While modern technology and science might be able to predict such phenomena with accuracy, there are important reasons to integrate and value traditional forms of knowledge. UNISDR points out four primary arguments that have been made to integrate traditional knowledge more into disaster risk reduction:

  1. Certain practices and strategies embedded in traditional knowledge can be adapted and then transferred to other indigenous communities that might be in similar situations.
  2. Incorporating traditional knowledge into DRR practices can encourage affected indigenous communities to participate and have a sense of ownership over DRR activities.
  3. Traditional knowledge provides crucial insights into the local context, which can help with implementation.
  4. Means of communication used to disseminate traditional knowledge can provide a successful model for DRR education.

A close collaboration between the DRR and CCA communities can improve disaster resilience even more by avoiding maladaptation. DRR that only builds on past and current experiences might use inappropriate risk scenarios that underestimate climate variability and its impacts, leading to unsustainable protection measures. CCA practitioners have valuable knowledge about climate projections and changing risk thresholds that can make DRR work much more sustainable and resilient.

On the other hand, the CCA community can learn important local information from Indigenous Peoples, which can be combined with future climate projections to develop adaptation strategies that are contextually appropriate and sustainable. Indian researchers have also pointed out that incorporating Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge in adaptation planning can help develop cost-effective strategies.

Complementing each other

By integrating traditional knowledge into climate resilience planning, Indigenous Peoples can be encouraged to participate in CCA and DRR activities. Traditional knowledge is not a replacement for scientific knowledge, however it can complement it. Combining the two can help CCA and DRR communities of practice build Indigenous Peoples’ resilience to climate change disasters.

Cover photo by United Nations (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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