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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.”


World Risk Report 2011 – which world and whose risk?

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This is a document which does much to ensure that there is a North-South development divide and which also ensures that the flow of ‘aid’, of ‘development’ theory and of ‘development’ competence is one way only – North to South.

In the World Risk Report 2011, the philosophy of this view of the world is as much political as it is racially biased. I’m sorry for having to say that as bluntly as that, but there’s no getting around it or away from it. You can’t dress it up in pseudo-scientific gibberish and expect readers in the Brown and Black Two-Thirds World not to notice.

This philosophy is contained in the six maps that describe, in this strange way, ‘risk’ to the countries of the world. As you can see, the pinks which represent risk are overwhelmingly in Africa and Asia and in general in countries of the South. The green hues represent little or no ‘risk’ and are used to shade the countries of the North – USA, western Europe, the OECD countries.

I have extracted the maps and provide their titles so as to better understand why ‘aid’, ‘development’, ‘technical assistance’ and ‘knowledge’ flows the way it does, helped along its magnetic North-to-South channels by arm-twisting, by WTO, by the World bank and International Monetary Fund and their lesser lending cousins in all continents, and particularly by the thousands of economists who have been installed in the countries of the South, who have been trained and programmed by these institutions, and who are the purveyors of disastrous neo-liberal economics and social destruction from Manila to Morocco.

Internationial aid agencies and their partners large and small will use documents such as this and indices of misery such as this to deepen the dependencies of the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable and the voiceless in the South, photographs of whom in poster size will nevertheless adorn the walls of Northern exhibitions and collaborationist Southern conclaves.

On to the maps. These are captioned with their titles and followed by short commentaries guided by the experiences of our ‘developing’ peoples and their tribal roots.

Map 1 – “susceptibility, dependent on public infrastructure, nutrition, income and the general economic framework”. What we say: True, true, public infrastructure in the Brown and Black Two-Thirds World is lousy, fly-ridden and stinks. But, comrades, have you noticed how the working classes of the First World have, for well over a decade now, been complaining mightily about privatisation and its ills? Susceptibility to nutrition? Why, now, we didn’t invent Starbucks and KFC did we? We’re the ones who like our indigenous millets and tasteful tubers to be untouched by GM. Income? No we’re flat broke. But listen to the moanings of the European Central Bank these days and you’ll notice we’ve plenty of company.

Map 2 – “lack of coping capacities, dependent on governance, medical care and material security”. What we say: Let’s take this governance thing first shall we. You comrades in the First World long ago, for reasons unknown to us but risky in the extreme, ditched your tribal roots and turned to markets and finance and supermarket shopping carts. Shame you did, for that was the abandoning, the throwing away, of the original caring sharing wise governance that’s brought humans through generations. Coping capacities is a good one. We hereby solemnly invite all friendly First World comrades to come and spend a week in our shanty towns, our barrios and our favelas where they can learn what coping is and how to go about it. For medical care we recommend to you a journey to Havana, Cuba. For material security we recommend to you a rereading of any holy book of your choice.

Map 3 – “lack of adaptive capacities, related to future natural events and climate change”. What we say: Comrades and friends, we don’t sadly have as many shamans, diviners and ancient wise folk as we used to, but we can surely tell you this: future natural events and climate change is not going to choose between us and you, and you and them. We’re all in this together, you with your food coupons and us with our kitchen gardens. Adaptive? I do think we’ve got that covered good and proper.

Map 4 – “exposure, of the population to the natural hazards, earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and sea level rise”. What we say: Friends and fellow inhabitants of Gaia, if we stop making Mother Earth angry every single day, She may relent. It’s up to you too. Oh and as for exposure, we’re used to it, you’re not, sad but true.

Map 5 – “vulnerability, of society as the sum of susceptibility, lack of coping capacities and lack of adaptive capacities”. What we say: Well, we’ve had quite enough of these colour combinations now. Our sincere and heartfelt advice is that you turn us all the same shade of pink, or turn us all the same shade of green. But that will ruin the difference between Us and Those Danged Others, you protest. Dear comrades, we do share the same air, water and sky. It’s about time you stopped seeing people coloured differently and started seeing people.

Map 6 – “world risk index as the result of exposure and vulnerability”. What we say: We must correct you. The real risk is to your perception, friends, which you can remedy by coming to live with us and learning our ways.

More about the World Risk Report 2011 – “The Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft (Alliance Development Works) publishes the World Risk Report to examine these issues at the global level and to draw conclusions for future actions in assistance, policy and reporting. The core of the World Risk Report is the World Risk Index, which was developed on behalf of the Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany. The World Risk Index indicates the probability that a country or region will be affected by a disaster. The index is the result of close cooperation between scientists and practitioners. Experts in the analysis of natural hazards and vulnerability research as well as practitioners of development cooperation and humanitarian aid have discussed and developed the concept of the index. Globally available data are used to represent the disaster risk for the countries concerned.”

“In the framework of the World Risk Index, disaster risk is analysed as a complex interplay of natural hazards and social, political and environmental factors. Unlike current approaches that focus strongly on the analysis of the various natural hazards, the World Risk Index, in addition to exposure analysis, focuses on the vulnerability of the population, i.e. its susceptibility, its capacities to cope with and to adapt to future natural events as well as the consequences of climate change. Disaster risk is seen as a function of exposure and vulnerability. The national states are the frame of reference for the analysis.”

[World Risk Report 2011, Published by Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft (Alliance Development Works) of Germany in cooperation with: United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security, Bonn (UNU-EHS)]

The advance guard of climate change

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Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

From late 2003 to early 2005 I was part of a small group in south Nagaland (in India’s north-east region) conducting a study on natural resource management and the prospects for tourism in the region. The study was funded by a Indian central government ministry, was ‘supervised’ by the state government and was made possible by the village community of Khonoma, in the Naga hills.

At around the mid-point of our study, when the time had come for the paddy seedlings to be transplanted, that the convergence of climate change and scarce labour resources became obvious. The seedlings were not ready to be moved at the time of year they were usually expected to be. By the time they were, the extra labour each rice farming family had mobilised in preparation for the hard work ahead, had their regular jobs and occupations to return to. The hill villages were in turmoil. Practically every single family that had a plot of terraced rice field to attend to was caught in a dilemma.

If they insisted that those who had come to the villages to help them – daughters, sons, cousins or aunts – stay back to complete the work, those helpful souls would certainly lose salaries and wages. If they let them return, they would have to look for very scarce hired labour, whose per day wage was high and which would certainly rise given the scarcity of hands available and time. It was for most families a Hobson’s choice, and by either reckoning only made the socio-economic cost of rice cultivation dearer. This was the most dramatic impact of climate change that I saw at the time, for the shift in transplanting season was considered very odd indeed by the villages, almost unprecedented.

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

We know now that local observations of direct effects of climate change by tribal populations and indigenous peoples corroborate scientific predictions. In a very real sense, indigenous peoples are the advance guard of climate change. They observe and experience climate and environmental changes first-hand, and are already using their traditional knowledge and survival skills – the heart of their cultural resilience – to respond. Moreover, they are doing this at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already undergoing significant stresses not only due to the environmental changes from climate change, but from the localised pressures and economic impulses of global trade and movement of capital.

The United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Study has just released an advance copy of what promises to be a goldmine of such observation. The volume is entitled ‘Advance Guard: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples – A Compendium of Case Studies’. The 402 case studies summarised in this densely packed volume mention a host of specific vulnerabilities and early effects of climate change being reported by indigenous peoples (and these include cultural and spiritual impacts): demographic changes, including displacement from their traditional lands and territories; economic impacts and loss of livelihoods; land and natural resource degradation; impacts on food security and food sovereignty; health issues; water shortages; and loss of traditional knowledge.

: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples

The cover graphic of the UNU-IAS compilation 'Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples'

Impacts are felt across all sectors, including agriculture and food security; biodiversity and natural ecosystems; animal husbandry (particularly pastoralist lifestyles); housing, infrastructure and human settlements; forests; transport; energy consumption and production; and human rights. The entire range of effects on habitats and their biomes are supplied: temperature and precipitation changes; coastal erosion; permafrost degradation; changes in wildlife, pest and vector-borne disease distribution; sea-level rise; increasing soil erosion, avalanches and landslides; more frequent extreme weather events, such as intense storms; changing weather patterns, including increasing aridity and drought, fire and flood patterns; and increased melting of sea-ice and ice-capped mountains.

“In spite of these impacts,” states the UNU-IAS compilation, “indigenous peoples also have a variety of successful adaptive and mitigation strategies to share. The majority of these are based in some way on their traditional ecological knowledge, whether they involve modifying existing practices or restructuring their relationships with the environment. Their strategies include application and modification of traditional knowledge; shifting resource bases; altering land use and settlement patterns; blending of traditional knowledge and modern technologies; fire management practices; changes in hunting and gathering periods and crop diversification; management of ecosystem services; awareness raising and education, including use of multimedia and social networks; and policy, planning and strategy development.”

From Asia, I’ve picked out three cases which illustrate just how important it is to observe and learn from these responses:

BANGLADESH | Indigenous forecasting in Maheshkhali, using meteorological indicators and animal behaviour to predict cyclones. Maheshkhali Island is situated off the Bay of Bengal coast with an area of approximately 60 square km. Cyclones are the greatest disaster threat of coastal people. Research has revealed that certain indigenous prediction capacity possessed by the local people always helped them to anticipate cyclones and take necessary precautions. The indigenous cyclone prediction is even more important as it was revealed during interviews with the Maheskhali islanders that they do not understand the modern warning system with its different numerical codes (1-10) and elaboration on wind direction, as explained in the warning bulletins.

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

INDIA | Indigenous forecasting in India using meteorological indicators, plant features and animal behaviour. Researchers from Gujarat Agricultural University have evaluated eight indigenous forecasting beliefs between 1990 to 1998. For each year, the data was tabulated and analysed on the basis of Bhadli’s criteria. Based on the findings the researchers concluded that many of the beliefs are reliable indicators of monsoon. The study has helped to restore the people’s confidence in their own traditional knowledge and skills. As climate change occurs, these traditional forecasting indicators may change. Locals have to continue their observations and adjust their predictions accordingly to ensure that correct coping mechanisms will be applied.

INDONESIA | Customary Iban Community. This study examines the social and institutional practices of a sedentary Iban sub-tribe in the upstream part of the Kapuas system in governing their life. In 2008, the Sungai Utik community acquired a formal, recognition of their institutional capacity to live at the center of one of the most complex ecosystems that is the tropical rainforest of Kalimantan. The Indonesian Eco-label Institute provided the community logging practice of the Sungai Utik Ibans its “seal of ecological appropriateness”. The Sungai Utik life-space is part of the bigger climatic zone just north of the Equator that has been predicted to experience higher precipitation over the course of climate change in this century, particularly in comparison with the last three decades of the last century. It means that the community should learn to adapt to a transformed rainy season—the duration of which and the timing of its start and ending are also subject to change—for the crucial nugal (planting) rituals.