Two dimensions of knowledge mingle at COP 20

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One of the issues that has kept coming up in the corridors, conferences and meetings during the first days of the COP 20 climate summit has to do with the traditional knowledge of indigenous people and the need to incorporate it into climate change procedures and negotiations.

At last year’s COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland, hundreds of civil society and indigenous organisations quit the meeting in protest at the apparent indifference of the rich world to issues that will directly affect indigenous communities.

On the face of it, nobody here wants to see a repeat of that incident. But is the world really willing to hear indigenous voices and meaningfully include them in negotiations and international mechanisms to adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change? Or is it just political correctness?

We face a great challenge: our knowledge goes to science and we don’t hear again what happened with it, but when experts come to our communities they want to teach us things we already know very well.

Casimirio Yamiri, a representative of the Yanesha 

Many indigenous representatives are asking this question of other stakeholders at COP 20, as I heard in discussions and during a session on 3 December on indigenous peoples, health and community-based monitoring systems, which was organised by indigenous peoples policy research organisation Tebtebba and researchers from Canada’s McGill University.

I think they are right to raise this issue. Let’s take the topic of knowledge as an example. Everyone seems to talk about indigenous knowledge and the need to share it and use it alongside science. But many indigenous representatives complain that governments, and sometimes scientists, often make use of their knowledge and practices without respect for their intellectual property rights. For example, when indigenous knowledge does bear fruit in others’ hands, it is rarely fed back to the indigenous communities.

I spoke with Casimirio Yamiri, a representative of the Yanesha, an Amazonian people, who told me: “We face a great challenge: our knowledge goes to science and we don’t hear again what happened with it, but when experts come to our communities they want to teach us things we already know very well.”

Another complaint I heard is that government programmes don’t train indigenous people in modern technologies such as climate monitoring systems, remote sensing or information and communications technologies — and that policymakers sideline communities when they analyse climate change vulnerabilities, even though most of these occur in indigenous areas.

Tarcila Rivera, the leader of an Andean women’s group, said in one of the side events that “science and indigenous knowledge must be complementary. [Governments] mustn’t judge us as uneducated because, if we were, our peoples wouldn’t have survived for centuries preserving our identity, biodiversity and cultural values.”

Yamiri added: “I think we have to re-educate governments on this topic.”

I agree. And from what I heard, the calls for this also come from beyond Latin America.

Kimaven Ole Riamit, from Kenya’s Masai people, added: “We have our own monitoring systems of climate variability, built and proven over thousands of years.” He presented a ‘bio-cultural calendar’ that Masai farmers use as a guide not just for the best time to plant and harvest but also for the best food to eat depending on the climate.

Riamit went on to explain that the main difference with so-called modern approaches is the holistic insight that traditional knowledge provides when spiritual dimensions are included. “All elements — economic, social, agricultural, theological — are incorporated.”

He added that modern approaches to climate change adaptation and mitigation will fail unless such community-based monitoring and information systems are taken into consideration.

“We, the Masai people, can use technology in a creative way,” he said. They want to be trained in science and technology in a way that is mutually respectful, he added.

A representative of the Batwa people from Uganda added: “Governments don’t share with us their knowledge and technology about climate change. We have our own systems, so the task ahead is to try to share scientific knowledge, training and insight without putting aside our knowledge.”

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