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.

Professor Paramu Mafongoya explains the knowledge indigenous communities’ gain from reading the natural signs of their surroundings © UKZN
Professor Paramu Mafongoya explains the knowledge indigenous communities’ gain from reading the natural signs of their surroundings © UKZN

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Professor Paramu Mafongoya is the South Africa Research Chair in agronomy and rural development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and co-editor of CTA’s recent publication, ‘Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Climate Change Management in Africa.’

What is the potential for indigenous knowledge (IK) to contribute to effective climate resilience strategies?

IK is specific to each locality. It is used by communities to predict forthcoming seasonal variation using local indicators like tree phenology, animal behaviour, astronomical observations and the direction of the wind. For example, we have a bird in Southern Africa and when there is going to be a flood it builds its nest in the tops of the trees around the river, but when there’s not going to be much rain it builds its nest very close to the river on the lower branches, which indicates that there is going to be a drought. With this knowledge farmers can take the necessary action to prepare for extreme weather or natural disasters.

If the natural indicators suggest that the season is going to be poor, pastoralists can increase their resilience by selling their animals before they get ill and die. This is what happened in 2015/16 when pastoralists were faced with extreme droughts caused by El Niño. Some pastoralists sold their animals when they were still in a good condition so that they had enough money to make it through the bad season, but those who did not lost most of the animals on which their livelihoods depended.

How can policymakers and development practitioners create an enabling environment for sharing the valuable knowledge and experiences of indigenous communities?

This is an exciting prospect, but first there needs to be a change in attitude among senior policymakers to accept IK as a real science, which can help farmers to adapt to climate change. Currently, many policymakers associate IK with voodoo and other forms of pseudo-science. There is therefore a need to involve senior policymakers in projects that are harnessing IK so that they see for themselves the value of this knowledge.

When policymakers have this exposure it will encourage them to support other similar projects. I’m talking about agro-meteorologists meeting farmers and participating in workshops together to create weather forecasts and natural resource management plans. Policymakers can help to create an enabling environment for this kind of collaboration in which both parties are treated as equal partners. Scientists are holders of scientific knowledge and farmers are holders of IK – they come on a par and should be able to negotiate without playing power games.

Can you give an example of a project that has successfully integrated IK with scientific research?

I have many examples but there is one project that I am really excited about involving the Nganyi clan rainmakers in western Kenya. Here, a group of agricultural meteorologists and other stakeholders have been holding workshops in villages with the so-called rainmakers. Together they talk about how they know there is not going to be any rain and explain their indicators for this knowledge. This is an example of a project which successfully engages the holders of IK as equal partners.

Both IK and scientific knowledge has its strengths and weaknesses, even the farmers agree that their knowledge has its limits and some of the indicators are no longer as reliable as they used to be. So when these two groups meet they can combine their knowledge systems to create more accurate forecasts and help address the impacts of climate change. There are many workshops like this taking place all over Africa, where the knowledge of indigenous peoples is being acknowledged, respected and included in strategies looking at how we move forward into a sustainable future.

Why is it so important that IK is formally documented?

Not everybody in a village holds IK; the information resides in people of particular age and authority. So, if we don’t report this knowledge before these knowledge-holders pass on we’ve lost valuable information and an important heritage. I meet a lot of people who say things like, ‘There was a man who knew how to treat diabetes or asthma using traditional medicine but he passed away 10 years ago’ and when I ask, ‘Who else can do it?’ They say, ‘We don’t know’ – so you see the danger there? We need to document IK so that communities can continue to use it for generations to come.

We also want other stakeholders in other countries to have access to this knowledge – how can they access it if it isn’t documented?

Stephanie Lynch

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Professor Paramu Mafongoya explains the knowledge indigenous communities’ gain from reading the natural signs of their surroundings © UKZN


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.