Climate change is a term much in vogue today. Its causes and effects are debated, but it is undeniable that the climate of the world is changing visibly from year to year. The polar ice caps are melting, the sea level is rising, and is predicted to be six feet higher, within a few years, by some scientists.
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Coasts are being washed away, storms are becoming more intense and destructive, and mudslides and floods are affecting regions of the world hitherto considered immune.
Indigenous people have lived with such changes and the consequences for long periods, however. As a result, they are actively utilizing their knowledge, acquired over a long period of time, which they have used to plan for and manage the threats and opportunities offered by global climate variability, including the extremes of heat and cold.
The novel element in the current situation is the sudden and drastic injection of climate change agents directly traceable to human activity over the past couple of centuries. This remarkable boost in the rate of change has scaled up both the speed and the intensity of the threat, as well as the type of variability. And as might be expected, indigenous peoples are among the most affected, dependent as they are on their surroundings for their daily life.
Some of these impacts include loss of soil and other natural resources; destruction of their spiritual landmarks due to take over for the construction of dams, nuclear power plants, and the like; loss of painfully amassed traditional knowledge; loss of food security and sovereignty, loss of financial security; migration and resettlement; and health impacts.
Advantage indigenous people
Indigenous peoples are better poised to evaluate and deal with this situation, living in close contact with the land, observing the sky and the sea, and in tune with the other forms of life on earth. This is termed traditional knowledge and technologies (TKT). “Indigenous knowledge operates at a much finer spatial and temporal scale than science.”
Indigenous peoples can see how these changes actually impact the globe in multiple ways and can adapt earlier solutions, devised to meet less-pressing emergencies, to mitigate the looming crisis. This important knowledge of how to cope with change in the environment, actual or expected, makes an essential contribution to shaping policies on climate change.
Traditional knowledge differs from modern or scientific knowledge in that it is non-codified, limited to some individuals forming a community, transferred between themselves, and not readily changed. The worldview from which it arises is more peaceful, respectful of, and empathetic with nature.
Many such solutions involve agriculture, the root activity of most civilized life. In some places, drought has forced some African peoples to migrate out of their traditional homes on the hot savannah plains into the forest. Others make use of the wet soil on floodplains to grow cassava, a nutritious root tuber that will thrive in soils too moist for other crops.
In other situations, older indigenous technologies are being reintroduced to deal with current challenges that render newer methods less efficient or viable or use up unsustainable natural resources too fast.
Examples from Latin America
Terraces built on a soil-clay foundation are being resurrected in Latin America.
Earlier, Peru had two million hectares under terracing, but only a fourth is now in use. This allows for excellent use of water while curbing erosion, and preventing soil damage from harsh cold winds.
Traditional pasturing, for instance, uses up more land but rotates the flocks and herds, to allow grasslands to regenerate and keeps the ecosystems viable.
The herdsmen also preserve knowledge about how to choose plants that increase milk vs those that allow the animals to gain weight or improve their health. This allows them to optimize their use of resources during drought years, to prevent grasses from being grazed to extinction, as well as for deciding which animals to sacrifice first.
In Mexico, the Otomi people have learned to build small dams and terrace their land, keep track of erosion and soil deposition, manage sediment build-up, understand how different soils hold water, and classify soil by types, thus helping to sustain their farming during drought.
Conversely, in floodplains, raised beds of soil linked by water channels help them grow tubers and grains by preventing or slowing the onset of floods, facilitating soil drainage at such times, as well as keeping the soil moist during drought. This is well-suited to times such as the present climate change era.
Soil classification helps choose the right farm practices for the type of corn grown and the right areas for animal husbandry vs cropping. Crop diversity has also been maintained by natural practices, for crops like potatoes, quinoa, fruits of various kinds, and squash, keeping them genetically alive.
Mulching sown beans with a thick organic layer of grasses, weeds, and firewood (frijol tapado) is another method used in Central America to provide long-term inexpensive fertilizer for these legumes, while also slowing erosion on mountainside farms.
Chinampas are platform-based beds of mud and aquatic plants, about 40 cm high, used in swampy areas to raise up to four harvests a year, without relying on unpredictable rainfall, a known result of climate change.
Examples from Africa
In sub-Saharan Africa, farming technologies among indigenous farmers include sustainable methods that increase the resistance of the farm lifestyle to climate change, thus preserving its viability. These include changes in the planting of date palms, using cover crops to keep the ground moist, planting trees in the fields in a planned manner to convert their farming into agro-forestry.
Again, crops and animal husbandry are adapted to local conditions by choosing local species. Farm practices are tuned to prevent environmental degradation. The farmers are also knowledgeable about weather forecasting since their farm cycles depend on the weather.
They also use zero tillage systems, along with mulching, while using emergency fodder to deal with drought conditions, along with eco-friendly farming systems. All these ensure that farming is sustainable and agreeable to the environment.
Indigenous peoples are also ready to make use of their technology to pursue their own goals of conservation – both of their traditional ways of life and the environment. Even more interesting is the use of their observations to foster species or habitat conservation.
For instance, a tribe of Hewas in Papua New Guinea described which birds would not survive any change in their habitat, or reduction of fallow field cycles. This helped environmental specialists to plan strategies to conserve these species.
Reducing the carbon footprint
Again, an oil company in northern Australia entered into an interesting agreement with a group of indigenous peoples, paying them a million dollars a year for them to manage forest fires their way. This way has been shown by researchers to cause less carbon emission than natural wildfires. The reduction in the carbon footprint will offset 100,000 tons of greenhouse emissions produced by the refinery, according to the agreement.
TKT is also invaluable in designing housing and public institutions; charting migration routes for herded animals, including reindeer in the tundra; cultivating indigenous foods such as cassava, taro, and other yams; harvesting water; and land extension.
To make such traditional knowledge more widely available, the United Nations University set up a Traditional Knowledge Initiative, which has published a compilation of over 400 projects now going on. This allows the reader to identify the changes to the climate and the local environment, the immediate impacts and local observations, and what mitigation strategies are being put in place at present.
Another program is the UNESCO's Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems program (LINKS) that facilitates the contribution of indigenous knowledge into global policies for climate change and takes its science forward, spanning many disciplines. This goes one step beyond just recognizing the value of this technology to bringing together such systems from around the world, and incorporating them into future strategies, for mitigation as well as adaptation to climate change.
TKT is also unique in that it comes from a worldview that considers the environment to be worthy of respect, to be owned by all humanity, and as a common responsibility to be stewarded for future generations, rather than something to be exploited for private gain.
Research has shown that incorporating TKT into climate change policies can lead to effective, cost-efficient, participatory, and sustainable mitigation and adaptation strategies. It can also complement modern science, technology, and innovation to the benefit of both people and nature, particularly in communities that are responsible for overseeing or stewarding lands and resources in climate mitigation and adaptation projects.”