An Indigenous Knowledge Forum on Climate Change Impacts

© Menuka Scetbon-Didi
Mayangna girl driving a pirogue early in the morning in the Lakus River (BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve)

[Uniquement disponible en anglais]

By Douglas Nakashima

Indigenous peoples have repeatedly voiced concern about their exclusion from ongoing climate change debates, most recently during the protests on 7 December 2007, at the UN conference in Bali.1 This predicament is alarming given that many rural and indigenous communities are finding themselves on the frontlines of climate change, suffering early impacts due to the particular vulnerability of their territories and their reliance upon resource-based livelihoods. In response to this outcry, UNESCO, in partnership with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issue (SPFII) and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), launched a grassroots climate change forum. This internet forum focuses on the knowledge and experiences of indigenous communities and peoples living in small islands, the Arctic and other vulnerable environments. The goal of the forum is to seek community-level observations on climate change impacts, as well as local efforts to cope with and adapt to these changes. It will provide an opportunity for communities to voice and share observations, experiences and concerns, while heightening the profile of indigenous peoples and their knowledge in international climate change debates.

Indigenous Peoples: On the Frontlines of Climate Change

Indigenous peoples figure conspicuously amongst groups identified as particularly vulnerable to climate change. Many indigenous territories are located in areas where impacts from global warming are anticipated to be both early and severe. Such vulnerable environments include low-lying islands, the circumpolar Arctic, high altitude zones and desert margins. Indeed, climate change poses a direct threat to the livelihoods of many indigenous groups due to their traditional and continuing reliance upon resources harvested from their immediate environment. Indigenous peoples therefore deserve specific attention when considering this global threat.

For the same reasons that they are highly vulnerable to climate change, indigenous peoples may also be particularly well placed to observe environmental changes caused by this phenomenon. Attentiveness to fluctuations and alterations in the natural milieu is an integral part of their ways of life, and remains of crucial cultural importance even in areas where lifestyles have been modified by colonialism and globalisation. Knowledge of specific localities may stretch back over many generations. When shared amongst elders and youth, this knowledge provides the basis for important comparisons between what is observed today, and what occurred in the past. Indigenous knowledge thus offers valuable insights into local changes in ecological processes. This knowledge can consequently supplement and add much needed detail and nuance to the broad-scale view offered by scientific research.

It is also important to keep in mind that indigenous groups have always been confronted with changing environments. Their strategies for coping with change have allowed them to successfully negotiate historical shifts in climate and environment, by modifying existing practice, shifting their resource bases or restructuring their relationships with the environment. While the environmental transformations engendered by climate change are expected to be unprecedented, this in-depth knowledge can nonetheless provide a crucial foundation for the new adaptation measures required to face up to this most recent chapter in global environmental change.

Finally, there is growing awareness that indigenous peoples may find themselves not only on the frontlines of climate change impacts, but also of impacts due to rapidly expanding efforts to mitigate climate change. For example, indigenous groups have already been dispossessed of their lands to make way for hydrological development, large-scale tree planting schemes and biofuel cropping, all of which are being pushed ahead with the justification of reducing or compensating for greenhouse gas emissions. As pressures to mitigate climate change continue to grow, it is essential that actions that aim to combat a phenomenon largely generated by the industrialised world are not carried out at the expense of indigenous groups who contribute little to the creation of this environmental hazard. Meanwhile, in northern Australia, recognition that traditional Aboriginal fire management practices serve to reduce the frequency and extent of late season wildfires, and thus reduce carbon emissions, has opened avenues for the revitalisation of this traditional practice as a climate change mitigation measure. This demonstrates that culturally appropriate mitigation plans can serve to acknowledge and enhance indigenous practices. These positive and negative consequences of climate change mitigation serve to further underline the need for indigenous peoples and communities living in vulnerable environments to play an active role in ongoing climate change debates.

The indigenous peoples and climate change forum

The internet-based forum aims to encourage indigenous peoples, small island communities, and other peoples living in vulnerable environments to share their observations and experiences of climate change impacts, and their efforts to cope and adapt to sea level rise, climate variability, the increased intensity and frequency of extreme climatic events, accelerated melting of circumpolar or high altitude snow and ice, and other climate change related events. Of equal interest will be local level reporting on the negative impacts of mitigation measures, such as the expansion of tree plantations, increased production of biofuels, and the resultant loss of access to lands and resources, as well as positive effects on traditional practices through carbon trading or other climate change mitigation strategies. Themes such as the gender, human rights and ethical dimensions of climate change will also be highlighted and discussed.

To stimulate debate and encourage inputs, a thought-provoking lead article, addressing a particular theme related to climate change, will be circulated by email. Highlights from the responses received will then be compiled and distributed in a series of subsequent postings at regular intervals. All responses will eventually be organised in a global database of local observations, experiences, practices and coping strategies. The forum will operate in three languages (English, French, Spanish), with possible expansion to other languages in the future.

Through the forum, UNESCO, SCBD, SPFII and OHCHR aim to deepen international understanding of the ways this global process is impacting at local levels. This will not only help to build awareness of this complex issue among and between indigenous and other rural communities, but will also provide a channel through which indigenous communities can communicate their experiences and needs to the wider international policy and research community. It may also provide a channel whereby communities who have been largely excluded from climate change debates gain recognition for their knowledge and practices, while drawing attention to the evolving negative impacts of climate change and/or mitigation measures on their livelihoods and territories.

If you are interested to participate in this indigenous peoples and climate change forum, please send an email to: peoples(at)

>> Download this article, which appeared in Pachamama, Volume 2 Issue 2, May 2008

1 see: Indigenous people lash out at Bali climate change talks, AFP

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