Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Traditional knowledge and climate change

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The Enawene Nawe people live in the basin of the Juruena River in the southern Amazon rainforest. They perform the Yaokwa ritual every year during the drought period to honour the Yakairiti spirits, thereby ensuring cosmic and social order for the different clans. The ritual links local biodiversity to a complex, symbolic cosmology that connects the different but inseparable domains of society, culture and nature. Photo: UNESCO ICH / IPHAN

The connection between traditional knowledge and climate change is one that inter-governmental agencies really ought to pay a great deal more attention to. Several UN agencies, amongst them UNESCO and FAO, have done some sustained work on the subject. Their work, together with that of researchers and community leaders amongst indigenous peoples, has deserved a closer look for many years. Now, when ‘tipping points’ have been reached in several agro-ecological zones, it does seem gratuitous to look for ‘solutions’ (as they like to call it nowadays) from those who don’t see the world in terms of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’.

The traditional knowlege of tribal peoples, indigenous peoples, ‘adivasi’ (an Indian/South Asian term which means original inhabitant), or first peoples as they are called in parts of the northern hemisphere is now being seen as being a repository for all sorts of ‘solutions’ for problems caused by global warming, but also by the reckless growth of countries fixated on economic development. On the United Nations University (UNU) website, an article about ‘Why traditional knowledge holds the key to climate change’ by Gleb Raygorodetsky does a very good job of explaining the links and how they may, respectfully, be consulted.

I replied and commented on several of the points raised by Raygorodetsky. These appear below, and follow significant passages or statements in his article (in italics):

“Although indigenous peoples’ ‘low-carbon’ traditional ways of life have contributed little to climate change, indigenous peoples are the most adversely affected by it. This is largely a result of their historic dependence on local biological diversity, ecosystem services and cultural landscapes as a source of sustenance and well-being.”

The Limbe is a side-blown flute of hardwood or bamboo, traditionally used to perform Mongolian folk long songs. Through the use of circular breathing, Limbe performers are able to produce the continuous, wide-ranging melodies characteristic of the long song. Players breathe in through the nose while simultaneously blowing out through the mouth, using air stored in their cheeks to play the flute without interruption. Single stanzas of folk long song last approximately four to five minutes. A single song consists of three to five or more stanzas, which requires performance of the flute to continue uninterrupted for twelve to twenty-five minutes. Photo: UNESCO ICH / Ts.Tsevegsuren

It’s a good thing you’ve enclosed ‘low carbon’ in quotations here. Within these societies – indigenous, first peoples, tribal – this label has little meaning – as unhelpful as calling certain communities ‘low-hydrological’ (if the ecosystem they inhabit is a semi-arid zone) or ‘low-pelagic’ (where a coastal community practices only artisanal fishing).

“The very identity of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their lands, which are located predominantly at the social-ecological margins of human habitation…”

As urbanisation has proceeded these margins have become clearer. The homogenous economic choices made by many state governments in the last 60-70 years has encouraged urbanisation and the consequent marginalisation of the indigenous – a Hobson’s choice for many of these communities: ‘assimilate’ (and thereby run the risk of losing your identity) or be marginalised.

“…they utilize 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. In doing so, they maintain 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity in, or adjacent to, 85 per cent of the world’s protected areas. Indigenous lands also contain hundreds of gigatons of carbon — a recognition that is gradually dawning on industrialized countries that seek to secure significant carbon stocks in an effort to mitigate climate change.”

Yaokwa, the Enawene Nawe people’s ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order, is integrated into their everyday activities over the course of seven months during which the clans alternate responsibilities: one group embarks on fishing expeditions throughout the area while another prepares offerings of rock salt, fish and ritual food for the spirits, and performs music and dance. The ritual combines knowledge of agriculture, food processing, handicrafts (costumes, tools and musical instruments) and the construction of houses and fishing dams. Photo: UNESCO ICH / IPHAN

They are therefore the earth’s primary stewards, and what we today call ‘earth science’ would have had no baselines to build upon had it not been for their culturally-rooted practices of conservation and thriftiness. However, I don’t know that an altruistic recognition is dawning. It has dawned on those of us who work in related areas, who read and write about TK and exchange notes, but the industrialised countries and the ’emerging economies’ alike today tend to see carbon stocks as market commodities – their preservation, and through such preservation the protection of tribal homelands, becomes a by-product, not a constitutional guarantee.

“The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data…”

The other way round!

“While unmitigated climate change poses a growing threat to the survival of indigenous peoples, more often than not they continue to be excluded from the global processes of decision and policymaking, such as official UN climate negotiations, that are defining their future.”

This is sadly, clearly, starkly true. They are excluded not only from climate discussion and negotiations, but also from many other policy fora. This is how tribal communities, indigenous peoples are treated both by international treaties and within states. Within countries and nations, the degree of exclusion is often greater in fact, and they have negligible or no political voice and weight, are economically impoverished and turned into dependants on welfare formulae that are constantly under threat. It is a precarious existence within states.

“The consequences of such marginalization are that many globally sanctioned programmes aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change — such as mega-dam projects constructed under the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) framework — further exacerbate the direct impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples, undermining their livelihoods even more.”

Well said. The CDM has brought havoc to tribal folk and rural communities alike and ought to be wound up as soon as possible – and not replaced by another ‘market mechanism’ invented by global finance. As you point out in the following paragraph, the mutations of REDD are hardly better.

“One significant manifestation of the marginalization of indigenous peoples from the climate change policy and decision-making is the paucity of references in the global climate change discourse to the existing traditional knowledge on climate change.”

Visible here is the tendency of ‘science’ – a formalised system based on a ‘method’ that is seen today as an internationalised standard which evolved from 20th century Western civilisation – to disregard any other form of knowledge repository as equally valid and therefore worth learning from.

“The last IPCC Assessment (AR4, published in 2007) noted that indigenous knowledge is ‘an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change’.”

Naqqa-li is the oldest form of dramatic performance in the Islamic Republic of Iran and has long played an important role in society, from the courts to the villages. The performer – the Naqqa-l – recounts stories in verse or prose accompanied by gestures and movements, and sometimes instrumental music and painted scrolls. Naqqa-li was formerly performed in coffeehouses, tents of nomads, houses, and historical venues such as ancient caravanserais. Photo: UNESCO ICH / Department of Traditional Arts at the Research Center of ICHHTO

Then we must from the ‘outside’ take forward the UNU Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU-TKI) and the IPCC partnership to impress upon the IPCC AR5 authors, more than 800 of them, that TK must move from being a peripheral acknowledgement to a cornerstone of the IPCC’s work. Here is their calendar.

To the four points you have listed I would add a fifth, that of pursuing these four strenuously at the national and sub-national levels, for it is there that such recognition is most needed, and it is from there that reporting to the IPCC (and to the UNFCCC) is done.

The five points you have mentioned as being covered in more detail by the technical report currently being finalized for the IPCC are excellent summaries. When turned into guidelines they will go a long way towards educating ‘the scientific method’ about cosmologies that currently exist among indigenous societies, in which expressions of culture, transmission of values and inter-dependence are intrinsic elements. These are the subject of a UNESCO Convention, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and their importance to what we currently call ‘sustainable development’ cannot be over-emphasised.

“It is unfortunate, however, that many government policies limit options and reduce choices, thereby constraining, restricting and undermining indigenous peoples’ efforts to adapt. This is reflected in counterproductive policies, including those leading to increased sedentarization, restricted access to traditional territories, substitution of traditional livelihoods, impoverished crop or herd diversity, reduced harvesting opportunities, and erosion of the transmission of indigenous knowledge, values, attitudes and worldviews.”

That is a cogent, if depressing, summary of the many limits that government policy binds itself with. If we are urban, we are economically discriminated against if our consumption is less than a current optimal mean; if we are rural, we are gradually forced into producing goods and relinquishing our scarce natural resources in order that this consumption mean be satisfied; if we are indigenous and tribal, we are utterly ignored and our customary rights and traditional livelihoods are trampled upon.

Can the UNU(TKI)-IPCC cooperation remove this blind spot and right some of the wrongs committed in the name of ‘development’? I should hope so. It sounds like a careful and considered beginning, and yet we can’t see more time spent on ultimately inconclusive negotiations on climate, as happened recently in Durban. M K Gandhi had once said it well: “Make haste slowly.”

2 Responses

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  1. I agree that there is an amazing amount of ancient knowledge that the modern world can learn about human sustainability on Earth. Climate change is the result of a lack of knowledge about how to live in natural harmony on this planet. Indigenous tribal people all over the the world have retained their sustainable lifestyles by understanding how to live within the cycles of the natural world and respecting their place within these cycles and limits. Modern industrial humans have made the huge arrogant mistake of thinking that humans are above the natural world and can manipulate and control it.
    For the human race to survive we should be looking toward all the ancient knowledge to understand how certain human civilizations manage to live sustainably and why living in natural harmony with mother earth is the only way. The Earth will survive humans, humans may not survive themselves.

    Michael Chadd

    January 3, 2012 at 00:07

    • Dear Michael, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes indeed, somehow indigenous and first peoples have clung to their lifestyles and yes it is a monstrous arrogance on the part of industrial, technology-tethered humans to assert that theirs is the only ‘development’ that matters. I do hope the Transition movements we’re seeing in the West will soon catch on in those parts of Asia that are racing to get rich.

      makanaka

      January 3, 2012 at 14:39


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