Combining traditional knowledge with science for climate adaptation

Indigenous communities hold a wealth of knowledge about their local environment, which – if properly documented and shared – has potential to enhance scientific efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The livelihoods of most indigenous communities are dependent on their in-depth knowledge of the surrounding environment © UNDP
The livelihoods of most indigenous communities are dependent on their in-depth knowledge of the surrounding environment © UNDP

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The ancient conservation and adaptation practices used by indigenous peoples around the world to maintain their livelihoods are being incorporated into modern adaptation strategies that effectively respond to the local context.

The impacts of climate change have become increasingly apparent across the globe with the stark rise in the severity and frequency of natural disasters in recent years. While researchers, development practitioners and policymakers grapple with the best course of action to take us into an uncertain future, indigenous people – many of whom live in some of the most hostile environments in the world – have learnt to live with and adapt to the challenges brought about by climate change. From pastoralists surviving in the arid conditions of sub-Saharan Africa to villagers living in the volatile environments of small island states in the Caribbean and Pacific, indigenous communities use the knowledge and practices passed on from the experiences of their ancestors to sustainably maintain their livelihoods and improve their resilience to the impacts of climate change.

The proven potential of the vast array of knowledge accumulated by these different communities, often referred to as indigenous knowledge (IK), has led many in the development community to advocate the integration of IK into climate adaptation strategies. “The key question regarding IK is: what can we learn from the users and farmers who are at the frontline of the effects of climate change as they pursue their daily livelihood?” says Oluyede Ajayi, Senior Programme Coordinator at CTA.

Documenting indigenous experience

The majority of IK has been passed on by word of mouth and is not well documented, which not only raises concerns about its preservation, but also makes it difficult to share relevant knowledge with key stakeholders. To address this issue, over the last decade a number of publications – including CTA’s recent book, Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Climate Change Management in Africa (see Spore’s interview with co-editor Professor Mafongoya), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO), Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation – have sought to document different IK systems used by communities around the world. As CTA Director, Michael Hailu, stated at the launch of the IK book in November 2017, such publications help, “To highlight the contribution of IK to building climate resilience.”

To further this cause, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has curated a Local Coping Strategies Database, which provides a systematic record of the IK used by different communities to cope with weather hazards, such as shifting seasons, drought and erratic rainfall. Some organisations seeking to document this knowledge have introduced research programmes that work with indigenous communities to transfer their local knowledge into a format that can be used by development practitioners and policymakers.

Since 2004, CTA has supported participatory three-dimensional modelling (P3DM) workshops across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific, which facilitate indigenous communities to map out the natural features of their local area on a 3D model. The models capture participants’ local knowledge of their surroundings and are often digitised so that land distribution and resource management authorities have access to this knowledge (see Spore’s Field Report on Participatory modelling: Mapping the local knowledge of villagers in Samoa).

Integrating IK with scientific research

To better integrate seasonal climate forecasts into agricultural and pastoral decision-making, the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA) programme – co-funded by the International Development Research Centre and the United Kingdom Department for International Development – supports collaboration between meteorologists and indigenous communities. In western Kenya, the Nganyi people have relied on subtle natural indicators, such as air currents, the behaviour of ants and bird song, to identify when to prepare the land and sow their seeds. However, the impacts of climate change have reduced the reliability of these indicators as Thomas Osare, a traditional Nganyi forecaster, explains, “Predicting intense weather is hard because it happens so suddenly. We cannot usually know in time for people to really prepare.”

CCAA has therefore encouraged government meteorologists and traditional Nganyi weathermen to meet at the beginning of each season and jointly produce a seasonal forecast that the Nganyi participants relay back to villagers. Combining Nganyi IK with scientific information helps to create more accurate forecasts that are accepted by the community and can be used to increase their climate resilience. “I think the two sciences are equally valid. We are marrying our energies to help people better,” states Nganyi community elder, Mr Onunga. The CCAA supports 46 similar projects across 33 African countries.

Creating a shared dialogue

The concept of ‘marrying’ IK with scientific knowledge was also behind the launch of UNESCO’s Climate Frontlines programme, which creates transdisciplinary research networks that bring together communities of indigenous people, scientists and government officials to document and understand the value of IK systems. Under an initiative called ‘Knowing our changing climate in Africa’, Climate Frontlines conducts community research projects in Africa with Fulani (Burkina Faso), Fulani Mbororo (Chad), Afar (Ethiopia), Samburu and Laikipia Maasai (Kenya), Maasai (Tanzania), and Bahima and Karamojong (Uganda) pastoralist communities.

In June 2017, members of the Bahima and Karamojong communities met with academic and government climate experts in Kampala, Uganda, for a two-day workshop on ‘Weather and climate knowledge synergies between pastoralists and scientific forecasting systems in Africa’. “In planning for climate change strategies in the field of agriculture and rural development, it is important to encourage co-creation of knowledge with farmers” says Ajayi. The organisation of such workshops by Climate Frontlines has helped to create national dialogues on integrating IK systems with scientific knowledge to improve forecasting methods, address the impacts of climate change and enhance indigenous peoples’ adaptation.

Fostering healthy islands

Climate change not only poses a threat to the food security of agricultural and pastoral communities, it has other indirect health implications as well. In Fiji, according to research by the United Nations University (UNU), spikes in temperature have resulted in higher incidents of diarrhoeal disease like Dengue fever. During 2017, Natasha Kuruppu a fellow at the UNU International Institute for Global Health in Malaysia, and Litiana Kuridrani, a public health specialist at the University of Fiji, launched a project intended to explore how the country could simultaneously improve the health of its people and islands to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the heart of this effort, the scientists planned to harness the knowledge of Fijian indigenous communities.

The project was one of over 20 ‘SDG Labs’ supported by research initiative, Future Earth, and sought to integrate the IK of the iTaukei people, who make up about half of Fiji’s population of just under 1 million, into policies focused on creating ‘Healthy Islands’ – a concept which acknowledges that the health of island communities is intertwined with the health of their surrounding environment. “Whether it's in architecture, economics or in other fields, we should be looking at other domains of knowledge, not just Eurocentric or Western-based knowledge,” Kuruppu says.

Kuridrani is of the same opinion. In August 2017 she travelled back to her home village of Namatakula, on the Coral Coast of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu, with some of her students to collaborate with young villagers in a community ‘clean-up’ effort. The student researchers worked together with the iTaukei youths, drawing on their IK, to replant indigenous trees and vegetation along the beaches to protect the village against floods and map out popular fishing spots in order to create a plan to help villagers manage their fisheries more sustainably. Commenting on the importance of villagers’ participation in these activities, Kuridrani explains, “For Fiji, to achieve success, you have to do it communally.”

Advocating the value of IK for climate resilience

Part of the challenge of integrating IK into climate adaptation strategies is convincing stakeholders at all levels – from the youth in indigenous communities to scientists and policymakers – of the value that IK holds for building climate resilience. This is where advocacy organisations, such as the Association of Indigenous Fulani Women of Chad and the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), come in. RRI advocates for the land and forest rights of indigenous people; through its global network of over 150 organisations, the initiative responds to the priorities identified by local people and ensures that elected representatives of indigenous communities play a major role in guiding resource governance policies.

With a similar mandate to promote the rights of indigenous communities in Africa, the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) is engaged in several projects to support indigenous communities as holders of environmental knowledge, who can help protect the environment, guide national policies and develop social and ecological resilience to climate change. As well as supporting CTA to organise P3DM workshops across Africa, IPACC works with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Aïr and Ténéré Reserve (Niger), the Trinational de la Sangha (Cameroon, Central African Republic and Congo) and Okavango Delta (Botswana). Through regular workshops, the indigenous peoples of all three areas are encouraged to participate in the development of a rights-based approach to conservation that takes into account their IK systems and cultural diversity.

Only with the cooperation of the communities that live in these areas can effective conservation practices be implemented. The ‘eagle-eye science’ of the international science community and the ‘toad’s eye science’ of indigenous peoples are interdependent. As Dipak Gyawali, research director of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, states, “Both are necessary, but neither is sufficient. Eagle-eye science lacks roots in the community, while toad’s eye science lacks a broad perspective.” 

Stephanie Lynch

Other dossiers

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.