2009 Editorial: TK & Climate Change at COP-15

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Home » Resources » Publications » Articles » 2009 Editorial: TK & Climate Change at COP-15

2009 Editorial: TK & Climate Change at COP-15

Traditional knowledge and climate change: from Anchorage to Copenhagen

By Elsa Tsioumani, UNU-IAS Traditional Knowledge Initiative
Published online 8 December 2009

Summary: This editorial focuses on the key TK messages from the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change in April 2009 that are being presented at the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP-15) being held in Copenhagen from 7-18 December 2009.


There are still major gaps in climate science and policy around the role of traditional knowledge (TK), including what type of contribution it can make, how it can be presented in a form that is useful to the climate scientists and policy makers, and what would its role, and the role of Indigenous Peoples, be in the post-Kyoto regime. In the meantime, Indigenous Peoples all over the world are already using their traditional knowledge both to record their observations of climatic changes and their effects on the environment, and to adapt to these effects. Usually living in particularly vulnerable ecosystems, such as polar regions, small islands or deserts, Indigenous Peoples are the first to be affected and the first to be looking for practical solutions. Because of their close relationship with the environment and through the use of their traditional knowledge, acquired and transmitted from generation to generation over thousands of years, Indigenous Peoples can cope with climatic changes, respond to natural disasters and offer valuable insights to the rest of the world.

Some of such insights were exchanged at the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change, held from 20-24 April 2009, in Anchorage, Alaska, USA where traditional knowledge was one of the key issues considered. Over 400 indigenous people from 80 countries attended the Summit, the first such meeting on climate change focused entirely on Indigenous Peoples. In a thematic session on Ways of Knowing: Traditional Knowledge, Contemporary Knowledge and Decision-Making, participants addressed questions related to traditional knowledge and its connection to their history, land, culture and the environment. They highlighted that Indigenous Peoples and the global community will have to use both traditional knowledge and wisdom and western science to adapt to and mitigate the effects and impacts of the climate crisis, acknowledging that this will require new and innovative partnerships that are respectful and equitable. Still, traditional knowledge requires recognition and protection, and a number of mechanisms were put forwarded in order to enhance and preserve it, including the right to land ownership and the protection of sacred lands; legal instruments to protect rights to TK and its repatriation to communities; programmes to revive cultures, languages and TK; and instruments to ensure incorporation of TK in decision making. Furthermore, appropriate educational systems are needed, to support youth learning and transmission of TK to the next generation.

At the conclusion of the Summit, participants adopted the Anchorage Declaration, through which they call upon the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Parties to recognize the importance of traditional knowledge and practices shared by Indigenous Peoples in developing strategies to address climate change; and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other relevant institutions to support Indigenous Peoples’ climate change assessments. They recommended establishment of formal structures and mechanisms for, and with the full and effective participation of, Indigenous Peoples in the UNFCCC decision-making bodies, including the organization of regular technical briefings by Indigenous Peoples on traditional knowledge and climate change. They encouraged Indigenous communities to exchange traditional knowledge, and finally offered to share their traditional knowledge with humanity, provided their fundamental rights as intergenerational guardians of this knowledge are fully recognized and respected.

The Anchorage Declaration will be presented in Copenhagen, along with a number of other inputs stressing the importance of including Indigenous Peoples and their traditional knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. As highlighted in 'Advance Guard', the Climate Change Compendium published by the UNU-IAS Traditional Knowledge Initiative, Indigenous Peoples already have a variety of successful adaptive and mitigation strategies to share, the majority of which are based in some way on their traditional ecological knowledge. Furthermore, in facing the challenges posed by climate change, a large number of communities are reporting renewed interest in traditional knowledge that was being lost, and there are many projects that aim to document indigenous knowledge before it vanishes, from creating simple dictionaries which capture the climate knowledge inherent in local languages (as in several Russian communities), to the Canadian ‘Voices from the Bay’ project, which put the ancestral knowledge of the environment from the Indigenous communities of the Hudson Bay bioregion into writing. Several projects have revitalized traditional soil- and water-conservation methods and cropping systems and re-introduced traditional efficient and low-cost technologies such as traditional water-conservation and harvesting practices, resulting in real improvements in the livelihoods of Indigenous communities.

The Compendium also includes case studies to highlight that the observations and assessments of indigenous groups provide valuable local-level information and are currently providing the basis for local community-driven adaptation strategies. Local observations of direct effects of climate change by Indigenous Peoples corroborate scientific predictions, and include temperature and precipitation changes; coastal erosion; permafrost degradation; changes in wildlife, pest and vector-borne disease distribution; sea-level rise; increasing soil erosion, avalanches and landslides; more frequent extreme weather events, such as intense storms; changing weather patterns, including increasing aridity and drought, fire and flood patterns; and increased melting of sea-ice and ice capped mountains. In addition, many indigenous communities rely on traditional forecasting knowledge, often based on early warning signs (typically related to the appearance of the sky or sea, and changes in animal behaviour), while sophisticated indigenous knowledge-sharing programmes have been established for indigenous forecasting abilities, such as the Indigenous Weather Knowledge Website Project in Australia.

Participants at the Copenhagen climate change talks will also have the opportunity to view a collection of compelling stories from indigenous communities across the globe highlighting the impacts of climate change to their livelihoods, cultures and resources, as well as their adaptation strategies based on their traditional knowledge and relationship with nature. The “Indigenous voices on climate change” film festival is featuring stories from the coasts of Bangladesh to the highlands of Tajikistan, and from the forests of Cameroon to the Arctic.

The search for answers will continue at the Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to be held on 12 December 2009. A thematic session on Climate Change, Traditional Knowledge and Western Science: Convergences and Tensions, will address a series of vital questions: what role can indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge play in assessing and monitoring climate change impacts and enhancing indigenous peoples’ capacities to adapt to and mitigate climate change? How can western science and indigenous peoples’ knowledge complement each other in the development and use of climate science? How will indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge be harnessed to assess, monitor and report on climate change-induced changes in ecosystems? What are the experiences of indigenous peoples (in particular indigenous women) in using their traditional knowledge on climate change and what support do they need in reinforcing and transmitting these to the younger generations? What are the tensions between climate change-related indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and western science, and how can these be resolved?

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