Indigenous people share climate adaptation strategies

A Dayak man guarding the village's old growth trees from logging Copyright: Citt Williams/UNU

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Indigenous people from around the world gathered this week to discuss the effects of climate change on their lands — the first time they have convened in such numbers on the topic.

The Andean region has suffered an increase in respiratory illness, a decrease in Alpaca farming and a shortened growing season, which may eventually be cut in half. In Kenya the Samburu people are losing their livestock to severe, extended droughts. And the Dayak in Borneo have documented climate variations including rising water levels and the loss of traditional medicinal plants.

More than 400 indigenous people presented their adaptation strategies to representatives from 80 nations at the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change held in Anchorage, Alaska, this week (20–24 April) to both highlight their vulnerability and impact climate research.

"We don’t want to be seen as just the powerless victims of climate change," said Patricia Cochran, chair of the summit and an Inupiat native of Nome, Alaska, in a press release.

Sam Johnston — summit co-sponsor and a senior research fellow at the UN University — told SciDev.Net that there has been a growing recognition of the importance of incorporating climate variations at the local level into climate research.

Among new adaptation efforts presented was a farming method developed by the Quezungal people in Honduras, who plant their crops under trees so that the roots anchor the soil and reduce crop damage during natural disasters.

Johnston says that indigenous people and Western scientists have a lot to learn from one another. He says the conference presentations are "ground-truthing"; they confirm that climate change is happening in all areas.

Regarding the acceptance of these traditional offerings as serious research, Johnston says: "There are some serious methodological barriers to overcome in order for [the research] to be taken seriously by Western scientists … obviously a lot of this indigenous knowledge isn’t documented or peer reviewed."

He says there was a willingness on the part of the indigenous people to start to document and express their findings in a way that is easier for scientists to use.

Johnston wants for a similarly open-minded approach from scientists. "If mainstream scientists want to incorporate local knowledge and local impacts as they said they did, they have to move away from a strictly guided and formulated approach to what information is valid and what isn’t … they have to meet some of these [indigenous] stakeholders halfway."

Summit participants are planning to formulate a declaration calling for world governments to include indigenous peoples — who comprise around six per cent of the global population — in any new international climate pact such as the Copenhagen negotiations in December.