Indigenous knowledge – Have we been ignoring the climate experts? 

When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck Indonesia, Thailand and India in 2004, it was the Moken and Urok Lawai peoples of Thailand’s coast, the Ong of India’s Andaman Islands and the Simeulue community in Indonesia who sensed the incoming sea force and retreated inland. In the mountain ranges of Pakistan, the Kalash people have developed an intricate knowledge system allowing them to predict weather patterns, plan their harvest and raise livestock. To manage rainwater harvesting, the Aymaran Indigenous peoples of Bolivia developed a system in which their dams also serve as thermo-regulators of humidity, which have been shown to diffuse harmful sun rays. 

There are 370 million Indigenous people, living on 24% of the land worldwide. These communities safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

Indigenous communities are simultaneously the most vulnerable to climate change as well as those with the most knowledge on how we can protect our environment and live alongside nature. So why are the local Indigenous experts not being listened to? 

Indigenous communities – fountains of knowledge  

UNESCO reports that “Indigenous knowledge operates at a much finer spatial and temporal scale than science and includes understandings of how to cope with and adapt to environmental variability and trends”.

Climate change is likely to lead to more extreme weather events, and destruction to people’s land, homes and businesses. Traditional Indigenous knowledge has been proven to help create resilient recoveries post-disaster, for instance when the island of Vanuatu was hit in 2015 by Tropical Cyclone Pam. Nakamals constructed with modern materials through modern techniques were more severely affected than the nakamals made from local materials and traditional building methods. Practices that seem new to us, have been used by Indigenous communities for years, such as green and sustainable living, organic farming, and reducing carbon emissions. For example, Indigenous communities in India have been the pioneers of single-use plastic alternatives for decades, creating biodegradable plates from natural products such as leaves, and sustainable toothbrushes made from Neem tree twigs and date palm.  

 The UNSECO “Local Knowledge, Global Goals” publications reveal in-depth insights Indigenous communities can offer us on our natural world, and how we can use this to prevent further degradation of our planet. 

Indigenous communities at risk 

The knowledge indigenous communities hold has helped to preserve what remains of our biodiversity across the globe. Their practices and teachings mean they have contributed the least to the climate crisis, and yet, they are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.The International Labour Office identifies six reasons why Indigenous communities are the most vulnerable to climate change:  

  1. Indigenous communities some of the poorest communities in society.
  2. Indigenous communities rely on renewable natural resources for their livelihoods.
  3. Indigenous communities often live in geographical regions which are more vulnerable to climate change.
  4. Indigenous communities are often forced to migrate, exacerbating their vulnerability to climate change.
  5. Indigenous women are subject to gender inequalities that magnify the impacts of climate change.
  6. Indigenous communities are omitted from decision-making. 

Instead of working with Indigenous communities, respecting their way of life and learning from their practices, political and mass consumerism has marginalised Indigenous communities, ignoring their expertise, and hindering their way of life. This racial exclusion can be seen within the environmental movement, for instance through the creation of national parks in America, which sought to preserve natural land, and yet led to the removal of Indigenous communities from that land. Without the voices of Indigenous communities being included and heard, the global environmental movement runs the risk of being white-washed and detrimental to the pursuit of restoring nature and wildlife.  

Global policy 

Over the years, there have been several global commitments made to climate action, which have included mention of Indigenous knowledge. The UN on the rights of Indigenous people’s states “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources”. The UN also established a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and most recently the UN Leaders’ Pledge, which included a commitment that the implementation of climate policy “will recognise the crucial role of traditional and indigenous knowledge”.  

However, the recognition of Indigenous communities is still yet to be seen in practice. Many of these communities live on “customary land”, which governments around the globe fail to acknowledge as belonging to Indigenous peoples. The World Bank reports that “insecure land tenure is a driver of conflict, environmental degradation, and weak economic and social development”. Added to this the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected even the most remote Indigenous tribes in the Amazon, there is yet to be any protection provided to these communities. Without governments actively acknowledging and protecting their Indigenous communities, vital knowledge systems will be lost, and our chances of successfully fighting the climate crisis are hindered. 

Supporting indigenous communities  

Whilst global policy change may seem out of our control, there are things we can all be doing to support Indigenous communities around the globe: 

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