Indigenous Knowledge Could be the Answer to Climate Change

By Brynna Boyer

This past week marks the start of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15). During this conference, 195 countries are expected to collaborate on finalising a new pact that will build upon the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The participants in COP 15 will work to devise more solutions to protect the planet’s diverse plant and animal species, ensure sustainable use of natural resources, and further protect the biocultural rights of indigenous communities.

In response to the agenda of the conference, Indigenous groups in the Amazon rainforest have issued a very clear message for those involved in COP 15 conference: ‘respect our land and human rights to slow climate change and protect biodiversity.’ This demand echoes the many calls of indigenous groups around the world, who are pleading with global leaders to listen to their needs and protect their rights when planning solutions to climate change.

Indigenous communities have an enormous stake in finding sustainable solutions to save the planet, not least because they are among the groups most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Due to earning lower incomes, having access to fewer resources, and often operating within isolated geographic locations, indigenous communities find themselves directly dealing with the dire effects climate change has already wrought on our environment.

This begs the question: if indigenous communities are the groups most affected by the ongoing crisis, then why are they excluded from the international discourse focused on finding climate solutions? Until recently, global leaders have been uninterested in what indigenous communities have to say. Indigenous activist Nemonte Nenquimo, a leader of the Waorani people in Ecuador, opines: ‘People who exploit and take out resources don’t live (in the Amazon) – but we do. The forest is our home.’ Governments of countries are not listening or respecting the rights of indigenous peoples, leaving these peoples without agency to act within an arena of discussions to a solution which disproportionately affects them.

Defending indigenous rights to their land is considered particularly crucial to conserving the Amazon and other resource-rich areas of Latin America. ‘In Latin America, the legal framework to protect biocultural rights is pretty much there. However, there’s a huge gap in implementation and enforcement,’ said Patricia Quijano, an environmental lawyer in Peru. ‘At the end of the day, indigenous groups often don’t have the power to protect and exercise those rights,’ she added. ‘There are many laws that protect indigenous rights on paper, and they sound nice, but it’s just on paper.’

Brazil is perhaps the most publicised instance of the disrespect towards indigenous lands and rights. President Bolsonaro has promised to protect indigenous rights and has asked for £720 million a year in foreign aid to reduce deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Yet, during his presidency, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has soared, leading to dire environmental repercussions for not only these communities, but the entire world.

The Awa community, an indigenous group in the Amazon, is one of the last traditionally hunter-gatherer societies in existence. However, due to the increasing clearing of the rainforest, they are finding it difficult to sustain their way of life, as resources that have traditionally been available to the group are now disappearing. Furthermore, this existential angst caused by unsustainable environmental practices is becoming a common experience amongst many indigenous peoples.

Better protection of biocultural rights of indigenous people and their land, can help indigenous people manage natural resources more sustainably. Protecting and restoring the traditional lands of these communities- carbon-absorbing native forests like the Amazon- is also an incredibly effective and inexpensive way to combat climate change globally.

A report this year from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that protecting the biocultural rights of indigenous- and especially forest-dwelling- communities reduces deforestation and promotes the sustainable management of natural resources. It is no accident that land where indigenous people are present is often greatly biologically diverse. It is the product of a way of life that is transmitted from generation to generation, which encourages sustainable practices and knowledge, as well as an enduring tradition of respecting nature.

Western science is currently failing to provide us with effective solutions to combat the climate crisis. Perhaps it is time we start searching for ideas outside of Western scientific systems and consider the inherited knowledge of indigenous communities. While the climate change discourse is relatively new, changes in climate and the necessity of responding to them are certainly not. Its central premises are already built into indigenous epistemology, and these communities consequently already may have effective solutions to the climate crisis. 

The traditional, inherited knowledge- passed on through the generations- of these communities have allowed the people to harmoniously live with the land for centuries, sustainably using resources which not only help the community, but enrich the environment. They can teach us how to employ these methods to create sustainable ways to use the land without resulting in mass extinction, deforestation, raising carbon levels and other effects arising from the over-consumption of resources.

To remedy the dire environmental situation, it is clear we must not only fundamentally change the way we interact with nature, but also how we think about nature. The epistemology of many indigenous communities is based on a mutual respect for the land on which they’re living and the resources they are using. There is the understanding that the land controls them, not the other way around. 

For too long the philosophical tradition of individualism in the Western world meant that scientists and policy makers could not fathom that Indigenous peoples successfully live united with the natural world, utilizing it with minimal harm and enhancing the biodiversity of their lands. Many Indigenous peoples are willing to share their knowledge with Western ecologists and land managers, and tentative collaborations have shown how traditional ecological knowledge can work alongside scientific ecological knowledge to better address pressing environmental issues. 

Ultimately, the climate crisis won’t be solved by one individual or one scientific breakthrough. On the contrary, it will require us to look beyond ourselves and collaborate with others in new and exciting ways. However, unique solutions cannot be found without including all kinds of people in the discussion. Indigenous people are speaking; it’s time we finally listen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image source: Leo Otero/MNI on Flickr

One Comment Add yours

  1. Absolutely! Indigenous knowledge could be the answer… 🌍


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