06 Dec 2019 Highlighting traditional and Indigenous climate knowledge at COP25
Some 25,000 government, private sector, scientific community, and civil society representatives from over 200 countries are currently attending the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 in Madrid, Spain.
It is increasingly clear that climate change is no longer a future problem – the past five years have been the hottest on record, and climate-related natural disasters like out-of-control forest fires are now more frequent. According to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “The point of no return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling towards us.”
COP 25 is a particularly important conference as it marks almost four years since the signing of the Paris Agreement, meaning that by now it is possible to assess the extent to which countries are moving towards meeting their emissions reductions goals. However, climate change commitments are lagging, amplifying the irreversible damage of emissions on the climate. Under current climate plans, temperatures are expected to rise 3.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, according to the UN Environment Programme.
In light of this mounting planetary crisis, it makes sense to draw on all sources of knowledge to help identify ways either to mitigate climate change or to better adapt to its effects. One form of knowledge we all should be paying more attention to is traditional and Indigenous ecological knowledge. For example, in relation to forest fires, recent research[i] published by the Global Centre for Adaptation, pointed out that:
“Indigenous peoples have long set low-intensity fires to manage eco-cultural resources and reduce the buildup of fuels – flammable trees, grasses and brush – that cause larger, hotter and more dangerous fires, like the ones that have burned across the West [of the United States] in recent years…
[The Karuk people’s] use of fire has been central to the evolution of flora and fauna of the mid-Klamath region of Northern California. Sophisticated Karuk fire practices include using frequent, low-intensity fires to restore grasslands for elk and maintain tanoak and black oak acorns. Fires also maintain grasslands that provide quality basketry materials, and provide smoke that shades the Klamath River, cooling water temperatures and benefiting fish during the hot late summer months.”
This approach contrasts with the one followed by European settlers in North America, which consisted primarily of suppressing fires as much as possible. Over time, this transformed several ecosystems from “food desserts to food pantries” and made forests more prone to high intensity fires that are difficult control and are almost certainly fueled by the effects of climate change.
This is but one example of the multiple was in which traditional and indigenous ecological knowledge can make a meaningful contribution toward addressing and adapting to climate change.
In recent years the 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris Agreement have also recognized the importance of traditional and indigenous knowledge in the context of building resilience to climate change.
Let us hope that the delegates at COP 25 seize the opportunity to highlight the importance of traditional and Indigenous ecological knowledge. Doing so would not only help communities across the world to adapt to the effects of climate change, it would also be a form of acknowledging and rectifying some of the ecological and colonial violence to which Indigenous people have been subjected for centuries. —by Lorenzo Vargas and Amanda Soares
Photo above: An afforestation effort in Minwoho, Lekie, Cameroon, where villagers prepare the Gnetum nursery for sustainable cultivation of the plant that is native to tropical Africa. Gnetum has helped provide food and income for poor farming communities. By Olivier Girard/CIFOR/ via Climate Visuals