Indigenous leaders from around the world gathered in New York last month during UN Climate Week to raise awareness about the need to bring Indigenous and traditional perspectives into climate policy.
Their call is to recognize the vital role that these communities, many of which hold collective rights over their territories, play in the conservation of essential ecosystems.
They hope to bring this call to the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 in the United Arab Emirates in early December.
The situation in the Gulf of Guayaquil on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast illustrates the importance of their call.
The region is prosperous yet unequal, a region dominated by the shrimp industry. The Gulf’s natural resources have been systematically extracted since at least the 18th century. This has led to the degradation of several ecosystems, particularly mangrove-covered areas — which play a central role in protecting the coast and regulating salt concentration.
These losses have primarily affected the ancestral inhabitants of this land, the Punae people, with a severe impact on their livelihoods and ways of life.
Nevertheless, as a result of years of resistance, the Punae have managed to obtain the rights to some 60,000 hectares of mangroves and are engaged in community-led ecosystem monitoring. Their struggle is guided by ancestral knowledge about the functioning of the mangrove ecosystems, rooted in the idea of interdependence.
The type of knowledge held by the Punae people is known as traditional ecological knowledge.
Traditional ecological knowledge can be essential for the adaptation to the effects of climate change.
Traditional ecological knowledge is an invaluable source of legitimacy at the local level as integrating it into climate policies can bring more sustainable interventions and can help strengthen local governance models.
And Indigenous knowledge is “an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change,” as underlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.
Yet, there are still many challenges in “mainstreaming” this form of knowledge into climate policy.
One of the main hurdles in engaging with traditional ecological knowledge is the difference in what constitutes valid knowledge in Western and non-Western thought.
Western science favours analytical and reductionist methods, is positivist and materialist, is objective and mostly quantitative, is based on an academic and literate transmission, and isolates its objects of study from their vital context by putting them in simplified and controllable experimental environments.
In contrast, traditional knowledge tends to be more intuitive and holistic, has a spiritual dimension and does not always make distinctions between the empirical and the sacred, is usually mainly subjective and qualitative, is often passed on orally from one generation to the next by elders, and usually depends on its context and particular local conditions.
Another, often ignored, barrier to integrating traditional ecological knowledge into climate policy is that of communication injustice — the injustice of being denied a public voice.
Many Indigenous and grassroots communities face communication injustice on a daily basis.
The Punae people in Ecuador suffer from communication injustice in that their plight receives little or unbalanced media attention because it stands in the way of powerful shrimp business interests.
They also lack reliable internet connectivity and a dearth of independent media. This makes them nearly invisible to the broader public and to policy makers.
COP 28 will be — yet another — opportunity to raise the visibility of traditional ecological knowledge in climate circles.
Governments and civil society involved in the COP process must highlight the critical importance of local knowledge in addressing the climate crisis. And they must place communication and information justice at the heart of climate and environmental justice.
Failure to do so will perpetuate the status quo, meaning local voices will continue to be ignored.
A member of the Indigenous Peoples Constituency at COP26 advocates for bolder action to address climate change.
Photo: Albin Hillert/Life on Earth