07.11.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

Indigenous Knowledge offers innovative solutions to address climate change

The UNESCO Pavilion at the 2016 UN Conference on Climate Change (COP22) opened its doors today with a series of discussions on the solutions that indigenous knowledge can offer to tackle climate change, and how to best support particularly vulnerable local and indigenous communities. Over 400 million of the world’s indigenous peoples live in territories that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Indigenous peoples of northern Europe, Siberia and Alaska, pastoralist communities in the Sahel, or island communities in the Pacific Ocean, to name but a few, are already experiencing adverse effects very keenly. Yet they are using their highly detailed knowledge, produced through direct experience over generations, to observe and respond actively to changing climatic conditions.

Indigenous representatives presented the main conclusions of the international conference organized by UNESCO and CNRS in support of international efforts to implement the Paris Climate Agreement. Held on 2 and 3 November 2016, it focused on the role that indigenous and local knowledge can play, alongside science, in observing and responding to the impacts of a changing climate.

UNESCO has long recognized that we need to bring together understandings, values and solutions from many horizons in order to tackle global challenges. “Indigenous peoples respond, innovate and adapt to this context of change, and their resilience is rooted in their ways of life and their social solidarity”, stressed Flavia Schlegel, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences. “They will find a path, whatever the hardships, thanks to their trust in their deeply rooted cultures, and the strength of their observations and knowledge, which are both ancestral and innovative”.

Collaboration between indigenous knowledge holders and mainstream scientific research can generate new co-produced knowledge that will enable effective action to cope with climate change. The similarities and differences between different knowledge systems must be better understood, in order to facilitate this collaboration. For example, extreme events are measured by Sami herders in terms of consequence, while climatologist will consider intensity. A series of low-intensity warm and cold spells, resulting in the formation of an ice crust on the snow that prevents reindeer for accessing their food, will be recorded as an extreme event by the Sami but not by climatologists.

Indigenous observations and knowledge factor in elements that are often overlooked by scientific experts. In Ethiopia, Afar pastoralists traditionally predict weather and climate through the observation of stars, winds, livestock, insects, birds, trees and other wildlife. The information is collected, shared and analyzed through traditional institutions, who triangulate various sources of information.

Over generations, indigenous peoples have modified and maintained most of the world’s ‘wilderness’ areas. Fire management, community forestry and indigenous soil enhancement practices have shaped landscapes across the globe. These traditional practices have the potential to enhance carbon sinks and provide benefits back to the communities; they provide tools for the sustainable management of nature. However, defining appropriate ways to engage indigenous knowledge at the intergovernmental level remains challenging, although international recognition of indigenous knowledge of the environment has accelerated, coupled with an increased awareness of the need to safeguard rights of indigenous peoples.

A series of thematic days will be ogranized during COP22 at the UNESCO Pavilion in the Civil Society Area of the COP22 conference,  to assist Member States through UNESCO's uniquely multidisciplinary expertise and outreach in climate change education, science, culture and communication, mobilizing efforts for enhanced climate change awareness and action.

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