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.

Youth and elders from 14 indigenous villages in Samoa have been engaged in the creation of 3D maps of the local area © Paulo Amerika, MNRE
Youth and elders from 14 indigenous villages in Samoa have been engaged in the creation of 3D maps of the local area © Paulo Amerika, MNRE

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

With the increasing occurrence of environmental disasters in Pacific Island states, a project in Samoa uses indigenous knowledge (IK) of local areas to produce stand-alone 3D maps that encourage community-driven sustainable development.

Samoa’s natural resources are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly as the islands are already enduring the effects of extensive cyclonic damage, rising sea levels and extreme rainfall. The country’s threatened coastal and inland forests are an important source of cultural and environmental resources, essential for the livelihoods of local communities.

Land clearing and encroachment in upland areas also puts pressure on the islands’ natural resources, further compounding the effects of extreme weather events. However, if climate change risks and unsustainable land issues are not addressed, the consequences will result in a decrease in forestry and water resources, increased risk of flooding, reduced protection from wind, erosion and landslides, and degradation of sites with cultural, religious and touristic value. 

A visual representation of IK

To incorporate vital IK of local resources in order to enhance the resilience of forest ecosystems and strengthen the capacity of Samoan communities to respond to the impacts of climate change, the national Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) launched a project across the Samoan islands. Funded by the Global Environment Facility and supported by CTA and the United Nations Development Programme, Integration of Climate Change Risks and Resilience into Forestry Management in Samoa (ICCRIFS) used participatory three-dimensional modelling (P3DM) of the local area to encourage community engagement and achieve a shift away from unsustainable land use practices. The models were also used as a way to demonstrate to development practitioners how the knowledge they hold about the local effects of climate change from their day-to-day lives can be used in the formulation of climate adaptation strategies.

P3DM is a participatory mapping process that integrates local geographical knowledge with georeferenced data. With hands on input from village representatives, a participatory 3D model portrays the different uses of local resources, and indicates territories, as well as physical and social features using pushpins, string and paint. Cardboard and paper are used to represent the landscape, land cover and landmarks relevant to residents in the area. Local youth are generally responsible for the construction of the physical 3D model, while adults and elders populate it with data from their knowledge of the local area.

When P3DM was first proposed in Samoa as part of the ICCRIFS project, the matai (village leaders) were concerned that the government wanted to map their land and take control of their resources. However, others were attracted by the opportunity to map and understand the issues related to their land. “Through introducing this method we saw the change in the community in terms of commitment and interest in the project,” says Yvette Kerslake, ICCRIFS project coordinator. The process was used to identify opportunities for climate-sensitive interventions within forest management. As a result, a climate‐sensitive forest fire prevention strategy has been developed for the islands, weather stations have been installed to provide early climate warnings, and the Samoa Forestry Resources Information System has been updated to integrate annual rainfall maps.

The process of making the model brings communities together and allows them to express their understanding of their land and resources, and to share their coping strategies for adverse climate conditions. The models also express, in different ways, the communities’ sense of belonging to a certain territory. It is this feeling of ownership that can, however, give rise to conflict over village boundaries during model development. Where such instances occurred, ICCRIFS staff encouraged villagers to think of their territories as a wider, interlinking ecosystem and to ‘think beyond the boundaries’.

The value of the participatory process is that it helps to build trust as the different groups get to know and learn from each other, both at the community level and among the local participants and project leaders. According to ICCRIFS agroforestry officer, Luaiaufi Aiono, without the establishment of a relationship of trust, the project would not have been able to achieve the same results.

Coordinated action

By visualising their villages and the surrounding area’s topography and vegetation, P3DM has enhanced Samoan communities’ participation in the development of community-based management plans. In Faleaseela village on Upolo Island, the second largest island in Samoa and home to most of its population, the community 3D model is located at the Lalotalie ecotourism resort and is now used to point out areas of cultural significance and tourist activities, such as waterfall and rainforest tours. In Letogo village, also on Upolo Island, the model is used as a reference for issues relating to land management during community meetings, as well as by local schools to teach children about the islands’ terrestrial and marine ecosystems and the links between them. “P3DM is a great tool for us in Samoa. It is really helping our communities, schools and all stakeholders to understand the different scenarios, topography and allocation of different resources,” says Suluimalo Amataga Penaia, CEO at MNRE.

Following a week-long P3DM workshop in north Upolu where ICCRIFS engaged 14 villages to build 3D models and discuss the future impacts of climate change on their environments, participants agreed to establish a community‐managed upland forest reserve to protect the remaining native forest on the ridge‐top. On Samoa’s largest island, Savai'i, a 3D model in Lalomalava village was used to explain to participants the impacts of farming and grazing on forest areas and to encourage discourse about alternative income-generating activities. Participants resolved to rehabilitate coconut trees, which were once a key crop but whose livelihood contribution had declined in recent times. They also identified areas of cultural interest for tourism development.

Changing perspectives

The change in the attitudes and behaviour of both the local communities and the partners involved in the P3DM workshops, in relation to sustainable resource management and conservation, indicates the success of the project. Aiono explains that, “When you do the talking and there is no visual, you see a lot of nodding… You go 1 month later and there is nothing.” However, “Once they looked at the model and saw the landscape and the way this was related to the water sources, they just automatically pinpointed it on the map.” After the P3DM, workshops Samoan communities took action on their own initiative and ICCRIFS only had to provide assistance by demonstrating how to plant and space trees to help protect the land.

Having facilitated collaborative action for sustainable land management between community and government representatives, 19 models were constructed (and four digitised) by the end of 2016. Following the project, a number of divisions within MNRE opted to use the P3DM approach within subsequent projects, and ministry divisions dealing with forestry, water and environment, conservation and tourism have also built 3D models for planning purposes.

Sophie Reeve

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.