Local knowledge ‘can corroborate climate data’

Copyright: Olivier Barbary/IRD

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[HYDERABAD] Knowledge held by communities about environmental shifts, such as temperature changes and species distribution, conforms closely to scientifically obtained data on climate change, new research shows.

A study by Kamal Bawa, a biology professor at the University of Massachusets, United States, and graduate student Pasupati Chaudhary published online last month (27 April) in Biology Letters, reported that local communities in villages observed changes that overwhelmingly supported scientific findings in the region.

The study was based on interviews and group discussions in 20 villages in the Himalayan foothills, covering parts of India’s eastern state of West Bengal. It described one aspect of a much larger study of environmental changes in the region, considered among the world’s most sensitive ecological hotspots.

Indicators of climate change mentioned by community members and validated by data include early budburst and flowering; disappearance of some plant species from lower heights; and the appearance of new weeds and pests, including mosquitoes.

The study found that communities living in higher altitudes were more sensitive to changes in their immediate environment.

The authors noted that this is the first large-scale study to use such "ethnographic" methods — understanding people’s knowledge, beliefs and practices through close observation, interviews and discussions.

"Earlier studies have been on smaller samples and looked at fewer indicators," Bawa told SciDev.Net. "Our findings suggest that these methods have tremendous applicability in climate change research, particularly in such hotspots where it is important to gather information quickly to inform policy and practice."

Ankila Hiremath, an ecologist working with the Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, which partnered in this project, observed: "I’m struck by the richness of the information — encompassing climate, agriculture, biodiversity — yet this shouldn’t be surprising. People who live close to the land have learnt, over generations, to read the signs that tell of the changing seasons, and many of these have become culturally embedded."

The marriage of ethnographic and scientific methods in climate change research has important implications, Bawa said. "We gain tremendous insight into how these communities are facing and coping with ecological change on a day to day basis, and policy makers as well as civil society groups can make use of such information."

The results are the outcome of a long-standing engagement with these communities, the researchers said. "We still have a lot to learn in terms of how to conduct such research with communities and use the information in ways that bring greatest benefit," Bawa said.

Link to abstract in Biology Letters