Knowledge of animals, insects, agricultural techniques and weather patterns is honed from interaction with nature passed down through generations
Off Baffin Island in Canada, summer sea ice melts to an unprecedented low and Inuit hunters fear stepping on the ice pack. On Kiribati, an island republic of low-lying coral atolls in the Central Pacific, locals at the main port of Betio witness tidal surges pounding their hospital, forcing an emergency evacuation of the maternity ward. In the Laramate District of Peru, indigenous farmers watch mainstay crops wither and rot, as glacial melt in the Andes combines with forest degradation in the Peruvian Amazon to disrupt weather patterns.
In June, climate experts including Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, co-signed an article in Nature magazine warning we’ve a mere three years to safeguard the climate. In the Arctic alone, surface air temperature has warmed at about twice the global rate over several decades. Melting sea ice exposes the ocean beneath; unlike snow and sea ice, which reflect heat, oceans absorb it, causing further melting in an endless feedback loop. Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), the biodiversity working group of the Arctic Council, cites the risk of a tipping point being reached, where ecosystems cross a threshold and reversal is extremely difficult. For some large-scale Arctic systems such as the Greenland Ice Sheet, the threshold may already have been breached.
Aside from threats to human wellbeing and livelihood security, the impacts of climate change on biodiversity are profound: IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species counts 5,111 animal species threatened by climate change or severe weather. The World Bank estimates that 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity lies within territories and lands of indigenous peoples who, despite a low ecological footprint, face an inequitable burden of adaptation. While their customary usage of ecosystems and lands is generally grounded in sustainability, indigenous peoples increasingly find themselves at the frontline of climate change. From the Circumpolar Arctic to low-lying small island states like Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, their territories are often located in areas most severely impacted by disrupted weather patterns and ecosystems.
Globally, indigenous peoples number around 370 million, who speak 4,000 different languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. Their scientific knowledge of animals, insects, agricultural techniques and weather patterns is honed from interaction with nature, often gained over millennia and passed down through generations. In Rajasthan, India, indigenous tribes predict crop potential through wind direction, cloud type and cloud formation. Islanders and aboriginal peoples of the Torres Strait use indigenous astronomy to predict weather patterns: by reading stellar scintillation (the twinkling of stars), they interpret changing trade winds, temperatures and coming rains to plan fishing, hunting and planting food. In Canada, Inuit people of the Arctic northern territory of Nunavut have a rich lexicon for describing changes in snow and sea ice conditions: vital for ensuring safe navigation and describing local conditions in a region increasingly afflicted by global warming.
Indigenous science knowledge is crucial for monitoring and mitigating climate change impacts, yet collaborations between climate science and indigenous peoples are only nascent. Across the globe, examples abound of the resilience and adaptiveness of indigenous peoples in ensuring food security for their communities and conserving biodiversity. In the Laramate District of Peru, a project supported by the UN and CHIRAPAQ (Centro de Culturas Indígenas del Perú) saw local women using ancestral farming methods to grow weather-resilient crops.
Abandoning agrochemicals, the women used their legacy of indigenous agricultural technology to rest the land, select higher-quality seeds and rotate their crops, resulting in a higher and more diverse yield with greater weather resilience. In the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, a women’s organisation, the Co’oleel Caab Collective, has mastered beekeeping of the stingless Melipona bee, a skill dating from the Mayan civilisation. In 2005 the Smithsonian Tropical Institute reported finding only 90 Melipona beehives in the Yucatán Peninsula: a worrying discovery as the Melipona bee pollinates native forest canopies, helping maintain forest integrity in the wake of severe weather events. The Co’oleel Caab and other collectives keeping the indigenous Melipona bee will be central to conserving the species.
Collaborative projects are, however, slowly emerging, as the potential of indigenous knowledge to inform climate science is harnessed by innovative organisations. Based in Alaska, the LEO (Local Environmental Observer) Network is successfully combining technology with observations by indigenous and local people to document unprecedented environmental events. Hosted by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, LEO is supported by Nasa, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Commission for Environmental Co-operation, an organisation dedicated to conserving the shared biodiversity of Canada, US and Mexico and the traditional ecological knowledge common to all three countries. On-the-ground observers across the globe can record and geo-map unusual or significant animal behaviour, weather patterns or invasive species: vital for monitoring localised changes across vast terrains such as the Arctic.
“One unique thing about LEO is that it engages people from different knowledge systems to describe specific events,” says Mike Brubaker, founder of the LEO Network. “This includes people with familiarity and expertise about the topics and the places where they live and work. Knowledge keepers often have a lifetime of experience living close to the land. This could be an Indigenous elder, a farmer, fisherman or scientist. Anyone that knows their environment so well can recognise and describe subtle and significant change. Indigenous elders have knowledge that can span generations or much longer timeframes, and like local experts often relate the real-life implications of these changes. By providing a forum where they engage with scientists, a rich and applied dialogue can occur and help us to understand not only “what” is changing in our world, but also the “so what”.
In April, indigenous peoples and climate scientists from around the globe met in Boulder, Colorado, at the Rising Voices conference, to scope collaborative climate solutions. Speaking at the conference, Suzanne Benally, a Navajo of Santa Clara Tewa and executive director of the organisation Cultural Survival, said: “Indigenous people have drawn on indigenous knowledge and science for millennia to understand and respond to climate and environmental change they faced. This knowledge is deeply embedded in our worldviews and relationship with the natural world as well in our cultural practices. What is different and challenging today is the rate of climate change occurring made by man and our ability to respond to it.”
As Douglas Nakashima and co-authors point out in their book, Weathering Uncertainty (2012), “a holistic approach that integrates the social and natural sciences and indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and worldviews can help to coproduce solutions to the future challenges of climate change”.