Everything old is new again, at least when it comes to searching for workable and proven solutions to addressing climate change. Indigenous peoples have developed, over time, innovative climate-smart practices rooted in traditional knowledge and their relationship with nature.
Traditional knowledge is a blend of passed down observations, experiences, practices, and information about the intimate relationship between indigenous peoples, their local environment and culture. It evolves gradually and this allows communities to adapt to their local realities and respond to their practical needs. This knowledge is valuable not only to those who depend on it for their day-to-day lives, but has been vital to modern innovations in areas such as medicine, food production, agricultural practices, rainwater harvesting, sustainable management of marine resources, and fire management of large landscapes, to name but a few.
This system of understanding the natural world has also been an important source of innovation for climate science and practice, especially at the local level. Traditional knowledge informs environmental stewardship methods that help address local development and environmental challenges such as securing livelihoods, mitigating climate change (efforts to reduce or prevent emission of greenhouse gases), and improving resilience so their communities can withstand, recover and adapt from climate crises. These ‘traditional innovations’ are vital to global climate change efforts.
Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agree. They affirmed the importance of traditional knowledge in promoting resiliency and contributing to adaptation and mitigation, especially for those communities hardest hit by climate change. Indigenous peoples are therefore an asset to climate science and practices and should inform climate solutions.
Shouldering the burden of climate change
Indigenous peoples’ traditional ways of life contributed little to climate change, yet they are the most adversely affected by it. As the identity, wellbeing and survival of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their land, water, and natural resources, the consequences of climate change directly affects their livelihoods and cultural practices (such as agriculture, pastoralism, fishing, hunting and gathering). Increasing global temperatures lead to rising sea levels, changes in precipitation, floods, and droughts, and other extreme weather events, increasing in frequency and intensity. This in turn has led to greater food and water insecurity, land dispossession, a surge in infectious diseases, poverty, social conflict, and overall diminished human wellbeing.
The cumulative impact of this is especially dire for the extreme poor who shoulder the global burden of climate change. Representing 5% of the world’s population, indigenous peoples are over-represented in global poverty rates: 15% of the poor, and 33% of people living in extreme poverty in rural areas. Climate change therefore exacerbates poverty and deepens inequalities and marginalization.
Yet at the same time, they are not only among the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, they are active climate leaders. They hold vital local knowledge and practices on how to avoid, improve or adapt to a changing climate. Catalyzing locally based indigenous traditional knowledge with western climate science could have a very real global impact on effective climate action and equitable climate and development outcomes.
The opportunity for global impact is real. Indigenous peoples steward, own, occupy or have claim to approximately a quarter of the planet representing 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. This is not a coincidence. Some of the most biologically important lands and waters around the world are intact as a result of indigenous peoples’ commitment and efforts to environmental stewardship and natural resource management.
Stewardship methods informed by traditional knowledge have been shown to enhance the resilience of local ecosystems – as a result a significant amount of global carbon is stored in their lands and waters. For example, more than 20% of the world’s tropical forest carbon was found in indigenous peoples’ territories located in the Amazon Basin, Mesoamerica, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia. This number increases significantly once other regions and territories are considered. As a result, indigenous forestlands hold hundreds of gigatons of carbon, rendering these lands attractive to countries seeking to secure substantial carbon stocks as part of their national contributions to global climate change efforts. Similar findings exist for grasslands. In Mongolia, for example, grasslands managed by communities have resulted in more carbon storage.
The bottom line? When indigenous peoples have access and rights to their lands, nature and people are better off.
What do land rights have to do with climate change?
A recent study found that annual deforestation rates in Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia inside territories belonging to indigenous peoples with legally recognized land tenure were significantly lower than adjacent lands over a 12-year period between 2000-2012. Anyone who has flown over the Amazon rainforest can starkly see that areas that have been legally demarcated as indigenous forests have been better conserved than the adjacent lands. The study concluded that securing indigenous land rights is therefore a “low-cost, high-benefit investment” in climate mitigation efforts.
Currently, an estimated 65% of the world’s lands are under indigenous customary ownership, and yet many governments recognize only a sliver of these lands as formally or legally belonging to indigenous peoples. Closing this land tenure gap is vital to achieving global climate goals. Insecure land tenure is a driver of conflict, environmental degradation, and weak economic and social development. This threatens cultural survival and vital knowledge systems – both of which contribute to ecological integrity, biodiversity and environmental health.
Given the importance of indigenous lands to realizing global climate and sustainable development goals, land rights should therefore be considered as a core climate change strategy by state parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and by all climate actors.
A formal a role in global climate decision-making
Indigenous peoples have reacted to the impacts of climate change in innovative ways, drawing on traditional knowledge and other technologies. Securing indigenous land rights, including tenure-secure communal lands as a core climate change mitigation strategy, and formally recognizing traditional knowledge holders as climate experts, are essential pillars underlying effective climate action. But we still have a way to go. Indigenous peoples by and large are still not formally included as technical advisors at the UNFCCC and its subsidiary bodies.
As the global climate community prepares to chart a new course of climate action now that the Paris Agreement is coming into force on 4 November, days before the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP 22) of the UNFCCC is set to take place in Marrakech, the challenge for the global climate community is to address this missed opportunity.
Global climate decision-making must better recognize the contribution of traditional knowledge by creating mechanisms for indigenous peoples to directly shape climate solutions as key climate partners – or we risk limiting the range of viable, innovative and effective climate solutions. This is a risk we can’t afford to take.