Kirsty Galloway-McLean, ed.
Publication Date
December 1, 2009

United Nations University - Institute of Advanced Studies Traditional Knowledge Initiative

From the United Nations (UN) University "Illuminating Voices" series, this compendium of more than 400 case studies is written to address how Indigenous People have been affected by and are adapting to climate change. The report recommends that Western scientists draw on the knowledge and experience of Indigenous People when creating climate change policy. It provides a survey of current effects of and adaptive responses to climate and environmental changes, including various adaptation and mitigation strategies that are currently being implemented by Indigenous Peoples as they use their traditional knowledge and survival skills to trial adaptive responses to change.

The case studies were drawn from reports by UN departments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), universities, and research organisations. From the Executive Summary: "Effective adaptation planning relies on the best available knowledge base, and the urgent need to respond to the pressures of climate change has put a premium on the generation, interpretation and use of information in this regard. In recent years, there has been an increasing realisation that the observations and assessments of Indigenous People provide valuable local level information, offer local verification of global models, and are currently providing the basis for local community-driven adaptation strategies that are way past the planning stage and are already being implemented and tested.

Local observations of direct effects of climate change by Indigenous Peoples corroborate scientific predictions....

...Indigenous Peoples ...have a variety of successful adaptive and mitigation strategies to share. The majority of these are based in some way on their traditional ecological Knowledge, whether they involve modifying existing practices or restructuring their relationships with the environment. Their strategies include application and modification of traditional knowledge; shifting resource bases; altering land use and settlement patterns; blending of traditional knowledge and modern technologies; fire management practices; changes in hunting and gathering periods and crop diversification; management of ecosystem services; awareness raising and education, including use of multimedia and social networks; and policy, planning and strategy development..."

Strategies for adaptation and mitigation efforts involving communication include the following:

  • Africa: "The effects of climate change in Africa are heavily entwined with human rights issues, and many of the major policy responses identified by the region to support Indigenous Peoples’ adaptation and mitigation efforts focus on implementing a human rights framework. Other strategies being used in the region include engaging indigenous knowledge; creating institutional and policy support for mobility; initiatives that empower indigenous women; and encouraging peaceful co-existence by designing programs that allow different kinds of land use."
  • Asia: "Solutions offered by Indigenous Peoples in Asia include focus on sustainable traditional agriculture practices, agro-forestry and low-carbon lifestyles, development of locally-controlled small scale energy projects, and rehabilitation of coral reefs and mangrove forests."
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: "The... region has emphasized the importance of Indigenous Peoples and traditional knowledge in finding sustainable solutions... particularly highlight[ing] the need for education and capacity development... where this enables Indigenous Peoples to make use of their traditional knowledge to build community resilience... a joint agenda for dealing with climate change adaptation and mitigation."
  • Arctic: "To adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, while at the same time preserving important elements of their culture, Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic believe they need to find a balance between old and new ways, between scientific and experience-based knowledge. There are many examples in this region of fusion between traditional knowledge and scientific technologies, such as the use of satellite-based snow maps by reindeer herders."
  • North America: "Indigenous Peoples in this region are active in arguing for the rights to self-determination, land, water, and cultural practices.... The region has mostly rejected solutions such as nuclear power projects, “clean coal” development and genetically modified food systems and has generally cautioned against market-based mitigation strategies that threaten Indigenous sovereignty, ecosystems, rights and livelihoods. However, one positive effect that is noted by several communities in this region is the opportunity for generating wind power to sell to both the central and remote grids."
  • Pacific: "Science institutions... are increasingly recognising the importance of indigenous knowledge and perspectives on weather, climate variability and change....For example, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, in collaboration with indigenous communities and several Australian institutions, has developed a website showcasing the weather and climate knowledge of countless generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders ....Adaptation activities in the Pacific islands have concentrated heavily on resilience and mitigation strategies, particularly regarding future relocation strategies, and the importance of participating in relevant political discussions and processes."

Integration of scientific and traditional knowledge includes programmes designed to enable Indigenous Peoples to contribute to scientific environmental assessments. Mechanisms that enhance, preserve, and protect traditional knowledge include: mapping of traditional knowledge; the use of legal instruments to protect traditional knowledge and intellectual property; programmes to revive traditional knowledge, cultures, and languages; the creation of financial and appropriate resources to ensure Indigenous People's knowledge can support adaptation activities; and mechanisms to ensure the respect of traditional knowledge and its communication to the next generation, including transmission of knowledge between the community, education systems that support youth learning, and use of knowledge for climate change adaptation that benefits the global community. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are being increasingly used for Indigenous People's knowledge management and preservation and for increasing the use of a 'social' web to exchange information. Indigenous organisations' and institutions' roles involve maintaining and sharing information through ICT, relating to Indigenous observations and knowledge.

  • "In the Arctic, for example, geomatics engineers and Inuit hunters have come together to design a new, integrated GPS ...[Global Positioning System] that can be easily and affordably mounted on snow machines.... The system automatically logs the location of the snow machine every thirty seconds, providing geo-referenced waypoints that can later be mapped to produce the traveller’s routes on a map. In addition to tracking routes, the Igliniit system logs weather conditions (temperature, humidity, pressure, etc.) and the observations of hunters (e.g. animals, sea ice features, hazards, place names) through a customized computer screen that has a user-friendly icon interface. Digital cameras (photo and video) that the hunters carry with them provide visual images at certain waypoints (e.g. photos of dangerous hazards, video of animals). All of the data logged in this system is downloaded in the community and used for the creation of maps....
  • GPS mapping technology has recently been introduced to the Congo Basin with a handheld mapping device that has made it possible for the Pygmy communities to communicate to timber companies the specific forest resources that they hold sacred."
  • "Democratisation and decentralization of media development has encouraged the decentralization of information production, and horizontal ‘people-to-people’ communication models are replacing more traditional top-down communication processes. Video is a powerful tool that does not depend on traditional literacy, and it has the power to communicate and transform perceptions globally." Both professional and participatory videography has created climate change-related video, like the UN videobrief series.

"The development of biocultural community protocols by Indigenous Peoples help[s] communities reposition themselves as the drivers of conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and in ways that support their livelihoods and traditional ways of life. The process of developing a biocultural community protocols involves reflection about the inter-connectedness of various aspects of Indigenous Peoples’ ways of life ... and may involve resource mapping, evaluating governance systems and reviewing community development plans, [as well as]legal empowerment so community members can better understand the international and national legal regimes that regulate various aspects of their lives."

See video