For Climate Change Adaptation, Traditional Knowledge is Critical

Sarshen Marais is currently attending the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Bonn, Germany. Here, she blogs about a side event on traditional knowledge and climate change adaptation, an event presented by CI, UNESCO, the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee and the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Read other posts about Bonn here.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is a member of the Mbororo people — nomadic and semi-nomadic livestock herders whose territory includes Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Chad. For her, climate change is not a distant issue; in the last few years, her people have faced increasing drought, desertification and biodiversity loss in their homeland. Pasture and water are essential elements for nomadic livestock herders. Migration distances of herders can range from 110–1000 kilometers (68-620 miles). Droughts are making these distances even longer.

The Mbororo are not alone; most indigenous and traditional peoples are highly reliant on natural resources, and thus especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Hindou is here in Bonn this week as a member of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) and one of the participants in a panel discussion on integrating traditional knowledge, meteorology and policymaking into adaptation policy and practice.

Founded in 1997, IPACC is a network of over 155 indigenous peoples’ organizations in 22 African countries. Most of the group’s members have been battered by floods, heavy snowfalls, extreme droughts, changes in seasonal cycles and other impacts generally attributed to climate change.

Recently, IPACC has been focusing on the importance of traditional knowledge and local decision-making as building blocks for climate adaptation policy. Indigenous and traditional peoples have emphasized that climate change adaptation needs to recognize different kinds of knowledge, competing interests and variations in access to power and resources that different groups may have.

Adaptation is not just about how people survive, it is also about human rights. Rural African women often bear the brunt of climate change impacts, including lack of food, water and energy sources increased instances of illness and the resultant stress on the family. This often results in domestic violence and the lack of resources to deal with daily needs. However, these same people hold much of the knowledge about how to adapt, such as where to find water during droughts. There is a huge need therefore to understand how local communities organize themselves and use the knowledge they have built over generations for coping with the impacts of climate change.

For example, nomadic pastoralists traditionally cope with drought through a variety of practices, including :

  • Rotational use of pasturelands, which allows pasture to recover after intense grazing. This recovery period is becoming harder to secure as more farmers move onto traditional lands.
  • Division of livestock: only the strongest animals are taken on longer migrations.
  • Raising different types of livestock (such as cattle and goats), which have different grazing habits and reduce herders’ risk of losing all their animals to one disease.
  • Traditional knowledge of rainfall and seasonal changes.

The panel discussed the need for better understanding of the scientific information on weather and climate to help them make better management choices as the system changes in unprecedented ways.

Aboubakar Alabachir, a camel herder and IPACC representative from Niger, also spoke of his experiences and how recent droughts have impacted traditional practices. Droughts have caused his community to shift from year-round pastoralism to agro-pastoralism, in which they rely on herding for only part of the year and practice subsistence farming during the rest. This has increased food security and has been a positive adaptive strategy. They have also changed their herds to more drought-resilient types of camels.

We also discussed the WMO’s Global Framework for Climate Services, whose representative, Mannava Sivakumar, stressed that it’s not enough to provide climate information; it needs to be accurate, easy to understand and accessible. There must also be ways for pastoralists to give feedback on the usefulness of information and whether it has improved their livelihoods.

Johnson Cerda, CI’s indigenous advisor, discussed how traditional and scientific knowledge can be included and valued in the international adaptation policy discussions here at Bonn. He also talked about the work that CI does to support the sharing of traditional knowledge and ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation in regions around the world, and stressed the international need for additional research and field work. CI does this in part through its Indigenous and Traditional Fellows Program. The fellows are working across the globe to record and share traditional knowledge and practice in relation to climate change and biodiversity.

Moving forward, we need to continue to build the links between traditional knowledge and adaptation and strengthen the two-way information exchange between pastoralists and the meteorological sector. Much of this information is already documented in the form of climate diaries where community members record their observations, existing weather records and local oral histories of traditional knowledge, which we can record and share on websites and information portals. However, making this information easily accessible to pastoralists and supporting dialogue for meaningful feedback from both groups is an ongoing challenge.

In order to continue this type of exchange and bring information to COP 17 in Durban, a further workshop on the links between pastoralists and meteorologists to improve adaptation outcomes will be hosted by UNESCO, IPACC, WMO and CI in Chad in September 2011. Armed with this information, we hope that the UNFCCC will be better able to craft decisions that support effective climate change adaptation around the world.

Sarshen Marais is the Climate Action Partnership manager at Conservation South Africa.


  1. Pingback: For Climate Change Adaptation, Traditional Knowledge is Critical | Climate Himalaya Initiative

  2. CARACAL says

    We feel you might find this TEDx talk by Dr. K. Alexander valuable to making the case of the importance of traditional knowledge in understanding and managing environmental challenges. Dr. Alexander works on climate change and rural communities in Africa and shares her experiences regarding the importance of incorporating traditional knowledge into scientific study and environmental management. We hope to get this idea more widely distributed and feel TEDx talks provide an important opportunity to share this important idea.

    TEDx – Knowing and Knowledge – Dr. K. Alexander

    thank you

    Kasane, Botswana

  3. Pingback: In Indonesia, villagers find innovative ways to adapt to climate change | Human Nature - Conservation International Blog

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