Traditional languages have always represented a defining element of a culture or society. In native communities, they express the meaning local people give to their existence and their intimate connection with their lands. In many cases, the connotation of Indigenous expressions is held by a logical combination of different words. Hence, it is essential to understand Indigenous knowledge.

For example, the word Mapuche, used in Araucanian to refer to Indigenous people living in south-central Chile and Argentina, literally means “People of the Land” (Mapu: land and the: people), emphasising their territory as a fundamental element of their being.

The Wayuu community from the Guajira peninsula, Colombia, named their language “Wayuunaiki”, literally “the word of the Wayuu (from wayuu: ethnic identity and Naiki: language), while their mythological God is called Maleiwa (from Mna: Earth and iwa: spring), suggesting the essential connection between nature and their origin.

The etymology of Indigenous languages can help understand the essence of their culture and their most intimate connection with Earth and its elements. In this sense, it reminds us of the constructive power their local knowledge can have on other forms of understanding, including the scientific one.

Representing 5% of the world population and caring for almost 22% of the Earth’s surface, Indigenous people protect nearly 80% of our planet’s biodiversity.

Their inherited practices and cultures are built on long interaction and spiritual connection with the natural environment. These deep roots represent the basis of Indigenous traditional knowledge.

From this world view system comes a spiritual obligation to preserve the natural environment and what we call biodiversity. Indigenous people are the possessors of specific ancestral knowledge. In this sense, Indigenous people play a unique role in supporting scientific research. 

How is Indigenous Knowledge related to climate research?

Over the last decades, climate research has experienced an increasing interest in the social dimension of climate change. A recent wave of climate change scholars emphasises the importance of the human aspect of climate change, particularly in remote areas, where people’s livelihoods depend on the natural environment and its resources.

Many of these people belong to Indigenous communities, identified as “distinctive groups protected in international or national legislation as having a set of specific rights based on their linguistic and historical ties to a particular territory, before later settlement, development, and or occupation of a region.” (UNPFII, 2015).

The choice of including Indigenous people in climate research comes not only from the need to support local adaptation measures in remote regions but also to learn from – and engage with- the local traditional knowledge.

Traditional knowledge (TK) is defined as a “cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and values acquired through experience and observations or from spiritual teachings and handed down from generation to generation.” (Ford, J.D et al., 2016, p.5). Local knowledge systems and environmental management practices offer insights to face ecological challenges better, helping the prevention of biodiversity loss and land degradation and mitigating the effects of climate change (Unesco, 2019).

Moreover, Indigenous communities bring valuable support to the collection of useful data about local climate change indicators.

Local people acquired first-hand knowledge of physical and biological systems, observing changes in the weather and climate system. As well, which makes it not only a unique form of heritage for all but also a “place-based tool to ground-truth climate models.” (Reyes-García et al., 2016).

As they experience the burden of extreme weather events and their impacts, they have a deeper understanding of how ecosystems change and how to adapt to it.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge as support in ecological restoration processes

Within the full range of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, academics often endorse practices related to ecological restoration, recognising the scientific relevance of Indigenous knowledge systems in these processes (Noble et al. 2014).

In this context, some scholars refer to a “set of understandings of ecological relationships, spirituality, and traditional systems of resource management”, known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge, (Clarence et al., 2011), which allow Indigenous communities to adapt to continuous environmental changes. As such, it can provide intergenerational information about natural phenomena.

Indigenous communities can play an essential role in ecosystem restoration and resource management, carrying out activities such as maintenance of traditional practices and management, repair of lands degraded by outsiders and collaboration with external groups in ecosystem recovery (Reyes-García, V. et al., 2019).

Indigenous people are preserving biodiversity in Indonesia
(Credit: Ibadah Mimpi)

Many cases of ecological restoration had proven successful when Indigenous people and local communities actively managed processes development. For example, Indigenous practices helped in biodiversity and land management through a selection of “cultural keystone” species (Garibaldi & Turner, 2014), fundamental native elements for effective processes of natural regeneration.

ILK can provide baseline ecosystem information on cultural keystone species, that is, culturally salient species that shape people’s identity or cultural keystone places, that is, particular places that are critically important for the flow of ecosystem service and to people’s lifeways.”

(Reyes-García et al., 2019, p.4)

An example is represented by the Saami Indigenous people in Finland, who restore their habitats based on their own experience (Mustonen, podcast).

Yet, the inclusion of local communities in ecological restoration projects does not always translate into direct benefits for them.

In this sense, bottom-up approaches show fairer results when considering local needs and avoiding conflicts over landscapes with non-local entities.

Some studies underline how ecological recovery decisions are
driven by biological importance rather than local needs and concerns, even when Indigenous people are involved in the processes (Reyes Garcia et al. 2019; Tobón et al. 2017).

How can Indigenous knowledge contribute to the study of climate change?

Science and traditional knowledge appear to be very similar in their aim to identify the changes experienced by the natural environments and the biosphere. What differ between them is the used narrative.

The Indigenous knowledge might lack in the quantitative objectivity that is typical of science but can provide complementary information about historical local climate change patterns in regions where very few instrumental records are available (Clarence et al., 2011).

Personal narratives are crucial to understanding change.
(Credit: Breston Kenya)

Personal narratives play a pivotal role in the understanding of current global changes, especially there where the natural environment, culture and spirituality are conceived at the foundation of people’s survival.

As in some previous studies, these personal narratives represent a crucial element in my current project as well. The collaboration with Indigenous communities in La Guajira, whose past and present perceptions of environmental changes represent a significant contribution, is fundamental for the development of the study.

To involve native communities in the identification of local climate change impacts, semi-structured interviews, and participatory methods turned out to be the best approaches for the data collection process. Some scholars underline the relevance of personal narratives compared with strictly scientific information (Clerance et al. 2011; Reyes-Garcia et al. 2016).

For example, the voice of Indigenous communities experiencing the impacts of melting ice in the Arctic is a qualitative piece of information that goes way beyond the glacial wastage sensor tool (Mustonen, 2005).

Even if criticised, biased views are often part of the expected results of fieldworks, characteristics of the relativity of human experiences. It allows scientists to assess the social dimension of climate change in different scenarios and societies.

Through a deep understanding of geographies and biologies, as well as a rooted culture of natural stewardship, Indigenous knowledge helps us make better sense of the current climate change crisis and find ways to ensure a future for our planet.

Beatrice Meo, Environmental Science

Beatrice Meo is a Plan A Academy contributor, Master graduate in Environmental, Social and Economic Sustainability from the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Her main study focus is on climate change and social values on coastal areas. Her final master thesis aimed to analyze the social dimension of climate change impacts on natural protected areas to advance values-based adaptation policies. Her work was part of the LITOMED project led by the INTERFASE research group at UAB. Among the various topics she came across during her studies, she developed a strong curiosity towards climate change research and indigenous knowledge.

Besides this, she is currently focusing on sustainable lifestyle practices and interested in the study of circular systems management. She strongly believes the survival of our planet requires a re-thinking of our economic system, with a change in our production and consumption approaches to minimize the burden on natural resources.