Indigenous Knowledge Systems are key to combat climate change impacts – reflections from a first timer at an IPCC conference

Immediately, one might ask, what impacts? Well, where Im from, Cape Town, South Africa, I can tell you about one of the worst drought in recent memory, that the city could run out of water for more than 4 million citizens in the next few months. Read about the wildfire in North America? What about the melting of ice in the Artic that will have catastrophic implications for the indigenous people and the environment?  These are just a few of the impacts of climate change around the world.

Well, scientists have sufficient knowledge about the impacts of climate change on the environment, people and biodiversity and have made great strides in combatting these impacts. However, we are still on a downward trajectory towards extinction. Extinction not only in terms of biodiversity and landscapes, but also of people, their cultures and traditions. The most affected people, are indigenous people who live in close association with nature. What is weird is that these beautiful peoples have the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with a changing climate, and have done so for centuries. However, their actions have recently become hindered by a magnitude of barriers including a lack of support from their governments.

This is why I came to Canada to share my experiences on working with indigenous communities in southern Africa and how they adapt to their changing climate. I was invited to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Cities and Climate Change conference by the Government of Alberta and The Resilience Institute (TRI) from 4-7 March 2018 to partake in two panel discussions about the value and use of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) in combatting climate change. The conference brought together thousands of scientists, policy makers, practitioners and others from around the globe to Edmonton, Alberta to assess current climate change knowledge and to discuss a way forward in terms of research and cities’ responses to climate change.

My first panel contribution was in the ‘Village of Hope’ pre-conference session. It was the first time such a platform was created for indigenous peoples and scientists to share their views on climate change and its associated impacts. We had our discussions in sharing circles, as indigenous peoples usually do, and over plenty of good cultural foods throughout the session. There was no time limits and no ‘celebrities’ where everyone was treated equally and acknowledged for their own valuable contribution towards the discussions.  At least for this short period, at hopefully many more in the near future, we did it the indigenous way, which was very different from the colonial and Eurocentric ways of formality, structure and top down.

Given this unique platform, people were very comfortable and ideas were flowing. In circle one, we learned that there is an increased need for some indigenous community members in Canada to understand how climate change affect them, including the elders, youth and women. As such, TRI and the Blackfoot community embarked on a process to create climate change awareness and understanding through community workshops and hiring a climate change coordinator who is based on the Blood tribe reservation. Their next steps would include developing adaptation and mitigation strategies with the participation of all relevant stakeholders. We also heard from Dr Leroy Little Bear, the most fascinating and knowledgeable speaker I ever heard in my entire life, that for the Blackfoot tribes who live in sync with nature, landscape degradation and disappearance of species as a result of climate change would make them less Blackfoot, and in a sense less human. This could be said to all indigenous people having their livelihoods closely coupled to nature.

In the circle, where I presented in, a practical model for knowledge sharing between the global north and south specifically on climate change adaptation was discussed. The discussion identified that we need to consider that for this model to work, it needs to be a bottom up process, include vulnerable youth and women, and view the climate crises holistically in combination of other societal issues such as poverty and crime. We also recognised that international treaties such as the Paris Agreement are difficult to implement due to resource limitations and this will raise challenges that would prolong adaptation responses. The benefit of building climate resilient indigenous communities for cities around the world would include; a sustainable landscape where they could harvest resources such as water, energy and food from and a reduction in climate migrants who seek a better life by migrating out of rural areas to cities. Given this heap of benefits in building resilient livelihoods, we are exciting about bringing the Blood tribe to South Africa and take the Nama clans to Canada for knowledge exchange and learning on climate change adaptation.

The conversation on the important role IKS could play in climate change adaptations continued the Monday during a panel session on Application of Multiple Knowledge Systems for Evidence-Based Decision Making: Opportunities and Challenges for Ensuring Resilient Communities. Here, we discussed why it is important to braid the two knowledge systems (indigenous and scientific) to inform climate change adaptation and mitigation programmes. There was great passion from the panel and they all unanimously agreed that firstly, IKS is an important source of info and secondly, that it could be used to inform not only future IPCC reports but also climate change adaptation actions at landscape levels where impacts are mostly felt. Indigenous knowledge holders could also inform research agendas where some of their indigenous methodologies and theories could be used and tested. The process, of exactly how these two knowledge systems could be effectively braided is still under discussion but examples at local level where they have been braided (not integrated) have been given, but these examples are few. However, key messages emerged that when these knowledge systems are braided it should be a transparent and participatory process, validation needs to occur at appropriate levels, trust building needs to take place and that people’s rights and their valuable contribution they can make towards combatting climate change should be respected.

Session: Application of Multiple Knowledge Systems for Evidence-Based Decision Making

My interactions with indigenous Blood tribe of Treaty Seven at Standoff

I was full of expectation that travelling to the other end of the globe to meet up with the Canadian Blood tribe. My expectations were fundamentally fashioned by the limited material that was available on the internet on the tribe and based on my more than a decade of working with the descendants of Nama clan. The Nama people essentially suffered the same fate regarding the impact of colonialism on the Blood tribe but are still continuing their traditions of pastoralism in the South African version of ‘reserves’ for indigenous people. And this was basically my frame of reference in understanding the impact of acculturation and the dispossession of grazing land have on indigenous tribes. Furthermore, literature I’ve accessed on acculturation mostly painted a negative picture on the degeneration of cultural practices, boundless socio-economic challenges, and a perceived backwardness in terms of agricultural production systems. To be honest my perceptions didn’t carry a lot of positivity.

My two-day trip from Cape Town to Canada didn’t allow me enough time to mentally prepare for the extreme Canadian cold that I would face, which is in complete contrast to the extremely hot conditions in Namaqualand, South Africa.  Protected from the cold with layers of layers of insolation our travels to the Blood tribe took me to the place called Standoff. I gazed through the vehicle’s windows to catch my first sighting of a traditional tipi, but to my surprise it was the well-established infrastructure that first caught my eye. This is something I’m not familiar with from my South African context.

It was such a privilege for me and my colleagues from the United States (Dr Karl van Orsdol) and South Africa (Dr Mmoto Masubelele) to set foot onto Treaty Seven territory, the Blackfoot Reservation after the conference. To welcome first comers like us with such great openness and humility is almost unprecedented these days. And to honour us with gifts, resembling Blackfoot culture and traditions was really overwhelming. As in the Blackfoot way, we had very insightful conversations over some cultural food. We were offered delicious Saskatchewan berry soup together with some biscuits and meat, dried the traditional way.

The director of the Blood Tribe Lands Administration, CLoAnn Wells, presented a short PowerPoint on the Treaty Seven Land, the institutional arrangements of her administration and their links to the Chief and Council. Afterwards, we discussed their functions and the challenges as an administration including the roles of the environmental protection agency (EPA). I was so impressed by their ‘efficacy’ and from my experience, they function better than any other traditional land agency I ever interacted with.

The EPA team took us out into the field, thanks Elders William and Adam, and the two vibrant young ladies, Kansie and Diandra. We braved the cold, and were shown the different land uses on the reserve which included extraction of oil by companies which they lease some parts of their lands to and some cattle ranches. We discussed challenges of the lack of reliable stocking rates and a rotational resting system to inform management of the rangeland, and the impacts of wildfires on the reserve. However, the EPA team is working hard to gather the necessary data and have been monitoring the rangeland for impacts including those brought about by climate change.

I saw similarities and differences in the challenges the Blood tribe and the Nama people in South Africa are experiencing in terms of climate change and the use of indigenous knowledge. 1) Current IKS are not keeping up with the rapid changes in climate and this impede their ability to adapt, 2) knowledge transfer is inadequate between elders and youth who often aspire more modern city lifestyles, 3) losing valuable indigenous knowledge since this knowledge is often kept orally in songs, ceremonies and theatre, and 4) indigenous knowledge is not adequately used in climate change adaptation plans and programme that affect their land. We hope that these few observations could spark the conversations between the Nama and the Blood Tribe when we will bring them together in both Canada and South Africa in the near future.

I left Canada inspired but mindfully reiterating the words of Dr Leroy Little Bear, that “we as humans need to take a step back and rethink the way we interact with nature, we need to change our ways or we will all become less human” to remind myself that we still have a lot to do to build resilient climate communities.

Our enegagement with the Blood tribe in Standoff


Having meaningful conversations in the field


Photo credits: Karl van Orsdol