Indigenous Fellowship Promotes Sharing of Traditional Knowledge

Recent droughts across much of East Africa — including Ethiopia, where this photo was taken — caused severe food shortages for millions. Scientists have attributed this extreme weather to climate change. (© Robin Moore)

Around northwestern Kenya’s Lake Turkana, livestock herding has been the traditional way of life for indigenous communities for generations. Although adapting to environmental changes has always been important, lately extreme weather has posed unprecedented challenges.

“We used to have drought every 10 years,” said Ikal Angelei, a young indigenous activist from the region. “Then it became five years, and now every two years we have a drought.” This shift has not only made herding more difficult, it’s also made finding fresh water for everyday needs — never an easy task in this arid region — even tougher.

This story is not unusual; more extreme weather conditions attributed to climate change are impacting communities across the globe. While indigenous and traditional peoples, whose livelihoods are often closely tied to the land and sea, are especially vulnerable to these impacts, their knowledge and experiences can provide valuable lessons for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In Ikal’s words, “The community-based and collectively-held traditional knowledge accumulated and maintained through practice over countless generations offers valuable insights into the state of the environment.”

The three winners of the 2012 Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Conservation Fellowship.

The three winners of the 2012 Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Conservation Fellowship. From left: Ikal Angelei of Kenya, Zenón Gomel Apaza of Peru and Diana Nascimento of Brazil. (© CI/Photo by Regina Harlig)

This is the impetus for the Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Conservation Fellowship, an award given to several indigenous recipients every year in recognition of their work exploring solutions to the threats that climate change and biodiversity loss pose to their communities’ lands and livelihoods. Sponsored by CI and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), this year three winners — including Ikal — were selected.

Ikal is the founder and director of Friends of Lake Turkana, an organization committed to environmental justice, sustainable resource management and community rights in the Rendille, Elmolo, Gabbra, Samburu and Dassanach indigenous communities around the lake, including some across the border in Ethiopia. With this fellowship, Ikal aims to expand community knowledge to fight climate change and freshwater inaccessibility in the region through actions like creating historical timelines of weather events, documenting traditional ways of storing water and facilitating knowledge-sharing between communities.

Her organization has a particular focus on women, who Ikal says are the main guardians of biodiversity. “Women are the ones who look for firewood; women are the ones who do healing, especially when it comes to maternal health. Women are the ones who teach the children what to eat and what not to eat among the wild berries.”

Ikal’s ultimate goal is to empower the local communities where she has spent most of her life. “A lot of the research that has been done in the region has been people coming in, doing research and leaving. No one even leaves a leaflet to communicate what they did, how they did it, what the results were. So this is going to be the first research that is for the people, by the people themselves.”

This year’s other recipients of the Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Conservation Fellowship are Diana Nascimento, a Brazilian university student who aims to combine scientific and traditionalKaingang knowledge to inform protected area management, and Zenón Gomel Apaza, a Peruvian farmer working to strengthen capacity for sustainable agriculture in Quechua communities.

Molly Bergen is the managing editor on CI’s communications team.


  1. Tim Upham says

    When I was along the Napo River, north of Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, I had a Yagua shaman take me out into the forest. He spoke perfect English, and wore Western style clothes like I did, but he was a shaman, just like his father, grandfather, and all of the generations before him. Among the Yagua Indians, being a shaman is a hereditary position. He mentioned about the plants, and all of the medicinal qualities they had, many of these plants did not even have scientific names yet. One tree produced a sap, when drunk would rid you of hookworms. One plant had a berry, when crushed you rubbed it all over you, and it protected you from mosquito bites. Another tree had a root that when boiled and drunk, would serve as a birth control pill. This made me realized how indigenous people really knew about the medicinal qualities of the plants which surrounded them. Medicinal qualities the outside world is still discovering. That Yagua shaman really taught me, how one of the components of the Amazon forest really benefits all humanity.

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