Let’s embrace traditional knowledges for climate and social justice

When I was seven years old, I visited my grandmother in Kenya. I remember a story my father told me, that he had built her a Western style house of bricks and mortar, and she outright refused to live in it. She was more comfortable in her traditional hut. She knew her land, how to cultivate it, how to rear her animals, all of this impacted by the seasons.

Nowadays, climate change has wreaked havoc on the seasons. Traditional knowledge has had to adapt, but Western knowledge relies on science and technology which often involves time and a steep learning curve through scientific research.

What if we decolonise knowledge and practices of ecological management and development, to incorporate more traditional knowledge into environmental practices, health and wellbeing, agriculture and disaster management? What if we really embrace traditional knowledges in mitigating and adapting to climate change related threats?

Traditional knowledges have been passed down for generations and include skills, practices, knowledge systems of particular local communities, cultures, and geographic and geological areas. They understand the challenges and have the capabilities to confront them.

Traditional cultures and Indigenous peoples globally have a complex interconnected and spiritual relationship with nature. The belief is that “if you look after Mother Earth she will look after you”.

For Indigenous peoples, the delicate maintenance of biodiversity underpins belief systems, wellbeing and cultural heritage. For generations their knowledge has sustained the biodiversity of their lands, but these practices are being lost through Western development.

Every year we are facing more intense and more challenging threats to our environments and wellbeing. Isn’t it time that we brought back these traditional knowledges as part of wider policies and practices for environmental management?

The 2019-20 Australian bushfires devastated World Heritage areas across the country. More than 6 million hectares of land has been burnt devastating lives, biodiversity and the environment. Up to 100 threatened animal and plant species were affected, and an estimated 1 billion animals were lost.

This was a tragedy of historical proportions.

Not only could the intensity and duration of the fires have been lessened by incorporating Indigenous knowledge and practices into policy, but cultural burning also enhances biodiversity. In the age of climate change we are facing new challenges; old ways of approaching sustainable land management no longer work. To come back to my earlier question: yes! It is time to incorporate traditional knowledge to better preserve our global biodiversity.

It is not only a question of ecological management, but also of climate justice. Traditional and Indigenous communities are likely to be the most affected by the impacts of climate change, yet they are the ones who have caused the least ecological damage.

“Climate justice recognises the wealth of Indigenous knowledge that exists in relation to ecological management, and the coping strategies that Indigenous peoples have already developed in order to deal with climate stressors over the thousands of years that they have managed the land” (IPMPCC 2011).

There has been much research into the decolonisation of traditional and Indigenous knowledge, particularly as both climate change and mitigation, and also for climate justice. Yet, policymakers are still failing to fully embrace them.

Since the bushfires this summer, there has been a renewed push to look to Indigenous cultural practices for bushfire management. So, this is starting to change…but, slowly. Last week, as reported by the ABC, Western Australian state government had made progressive steps in that direction.  In a new program run by WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff and volunteers will be trained on Indigenous cultural burning techniques. It’s a great start, but we need more.

While indigenous knowledge in ecological management is vital, it is crucial that we also extend this practice to all parts of development practice and traditional knowledges. Traditional knowledges will be an important aspect of tackling climate change and related social injustices going forward.

The 2019-20 bushfires highlighted the fact that we must decolonise knowledge to achieve real change.

The neoliberal approach to the environment, to ecological practices, social equity and economic development has not and is not working. To ensure that we change the status quo, policy has to follow.

This type of hybrid knowledge and practice type approach is akin to what is advocated under Buen Vivir. It’s about decolonising knowledge and environmental practices, away from neoliberal and colonial mindsets about what is ‘right for the land, its biodiversity and it’s people for that matter.

 Incorporating traditional knowledges into policy and merging them with Western scientific and technical knowledge can lead to not only safer, but also more environmentally and socially just outcomes.

Want to read more on traditional and Indigenous knowledge? Here are some resources:

International Indigneous People’s Forum on Climate Change http://www.iipfcc.org/home

Adapting Agriculture with Traditional Knowledge PDF

Protecting our Pollinators through Indigenous Knowledge CSIRO

Vulnerability and Resilience in a World of Change UNESCO

Gupta & Katti 2009, Indigenous ecological knowledge as social capital: How citizen science can help us replenish the bank in Nature PDF