Forging partnerships with indigenous peoples to address climate change


As the world’s indigenous peoples reminded the COP21 in 2015, their ancestral knowledge offers a tremendous contribution to assessing, adapting to, and mitigating climate change. UNDP Photo

Imagine an extra-terrestrial being gazing down at our Blue Planet from outer space, seeing large expanses of water, gradually turning into swirling sheets of ice at the poles, some 3 trillion trees, as well as extensive deserts made up largely of sand. Homo Sapiens has been on the planetary scene for about 200,000 years, and in this time we’ve expanded across all but the most hostile of these landscapes.

And in so doing, unleashed the Anthropocene – an epoch where human beings have literally changed the geological history of the planet. This has come about most notably through our use of fossil fuels locked up underground for half a billion years.

I remember visiting the Banaue rice terraces of the central Philippines as a child. The ancestral practices of the indigenous Ifugao have allowed them to grow countless varieties of rice, co-evolve with every ecological niche in the landscape, reshaping the very mountains themselves. They represent one of humankind’s longest continuing cultural landscapes, born from the early imperative to produce food for survival.

Emerging from the African Savannah, human beings have come to populate the far corners of the planet. Through global migrations, our ancestors learnt to tread silently through the deepest of rainforests, cross the driest of deserts, live on the most treacherous of ice flows, and chart a course across the world’s roughest of seas.

How was this possible? Through traditional knowledge honed through trial and error over generations.

Science has, on the one hand, allowed us to make impressive strides in medicine and agriculture, on the other, it has missed the importance of the intimacy with which indigenous peoples inhabit their environments.

For most of human history, nature has been our class-room. We are a travelling species, inquisitive from the outset. The songs of birds have shaped the myths of the rainforest-dwelling peoples of Papua New Guinea, an everyday poetry experienced through a walk in the forest, not from behind a desk, or a vibrating phone.

For many indigenous peoples, knowledge can only be transmitted through these movements: examining the leaves, sand, snow and skies as they change from day to day. Sea-faring peoples in Micronesia, could navigate the ocean currents in the Pacific using bamboo lattice maps, crossing thousands of miles of open seas. Like language acquisition, the educational system was an embodied experience.

Recognising the importance of this traditional knowledge, a partnership of United Nations agencies launched a report at the Rio+20 Summit on ‘Weathering Uncertainty’. This year, the Inter-Governmental Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has also moved closer to a profound reconciliation of western science with traditional knowledge as co-equal in addressing and solving development challenges.   

In Borneo, ethnobotanical studies with the indigenous Dusun have tripled the number of known plants first observed by Western-trained botanists. In the Artic, NASA is collaborating with reindeer herders to exchange remote sensed data on snow quality, which the Saami use to avoid hardened ice sheets in search of lichen for their animals to graze – in return sending back data on the accuracy of the satellite images produced by the “extra-terrestrial” scientific models.

This year’s ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ came in early August: marking the point in a given year when we exhaust our annual quota of natural capital. For the remainder of this year, we will be eating into our future.

This year marks a turning point where governments will submit plans to keep global temperature increases to under two degrees. As the world’s indigenous peoples reminded the COP21 in 2015, their ancestral knowledge offers a tremendous contribution to assessing, adapting to, and mitigating climate change.

In mid-2016, the ‘International Network of Indigenous Mountain Peoples’ reconvened in Yunnan, China, to facilitate a global South-South exchange of traditional knowledge, seeds and technologies, for peoples living at high altitudes – who, like those in small islands -- are particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change.

Under the terms of the Paris Accord, indigenous peoples are hopeful that the Green Climate Fund will work to respect, protect, and recognise their traditional knowledge as a response to a changing global climate. We have been here before, at the end of the last ice age. Indigenous wisdom is part of our collective memory. Let us not squander it.

Blog post Indigenous people Asia & the Pacific Climate change Environment

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