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5 ways indigenous knowledge can solve global problems

Too often, the voices of the world’s 370 million indigenous people are left out of global conversations on critical issues, such as climate change. This isn’t just bad news for indigenous groups; the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples could help address environmental problems that plague the entire planet.

As Conservation International’s (CI) Johnson Cerda framed it: “The knowledge of Indigenous peoples continues to provide key information to protect the resources of the Mother Earth, and to create opportunities for climate change adaptation and mitigation actions across diverse ecosystems.” Cerda is an indigenous Kichwa from the Ecuadorian Amazon who leads CI’s work with the Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, a global initiative of which CI is the executing agency

As the 15th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues kicks off in New York, here are five things we can learn from traditional knowledge passed down through time.

1. Restoring Hawai‘i’s native fish ponds

Right now, 63% of Hawai‘i’s seafood is imported — a surprising stat for an island chain in the middle of the Pacific. But those waters are far from pristine; pollution runoff, overfishing and coral reef degradation all mean that many seafood specials are flown in from thousands of miles away.

To address this, some native Hawaiians have turned to Hanai i’a, the practice of raising fish in loko i’a, the fish ponds built on the coasts by their ancestors. These fish ponds once provided millions of pounds of seafood to local communities, simultaneously restocking surrounding reefs with fish when pond managers release stock into the wild. Given their location in coastal zones, resurrecting a single fish pond requires completing a complex permitting procedure — so Conservation International (CI) is helping streamline the process.

By rekindling time-tested hunting, fishing, farming and gathering traditions, communities in Hawai‘i and worldwide can become more self-sufficient — and often reduce their environmental footprints while doing so.

2. Establishing a conservation corridor that protects more than trees

Don’t let its small size fool you — Suriname is a conservation giant. In addition to retaining over 94% of its original rainforest cover (the highest in the world), in 2015 indigenous communities there declared an indigenous Southern Suriname Conservation Corridor (SSCC) covering 7.2 million hectares (17.8 million acres). While current law doesn’t allow for indigenous management, CI is working closely with the government and indigenous communities to allow community-owned conservation areas like the SSCC to be incorporated into the country’s official protected areas.

Besides protecting nearly all of Suriname’s watersheds and an array of Amazonian species, the SSCC provides economic benefits to the 3,000 Trio and Wayana indigenous peoples inhabiting it through ranger and monitoring jobs supported by CI and partners. Suriname’s indigenous peoples have set remarkable precedents in the country: Not only have they declared the corridor and designated their land for conservation, the government has formally recognized their declaration. In doing so, the people of Suriname are preserving the tropical forests vital for storing carbon and combating climate change.

3. Looking to indigenous leaders to guide the way

Adapting to climate change looks different depending on where you are — and for any community to do it successfully, local customs and traditional knowledge must be taken into account. Through CI’s Indigenous Leaders Conservation Fellowship program, indigenous leaders have the opportunity and funding to explore climate change solutions using traditional knowledge, science and partnership with local institutions. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a former CI fellow who recently spoke at the signing of the Paris Agreement, used the fellowship as a launching pad for her work to raise awareness about the shrinking of Lake Chad and the negative effects that is having on the Mbororo people, who rely on the lake for water during the dry season.

With no large-scale activities around the lake that would account for the water loss — no dams, industry or large irrigation systems for agriculture — Ibrahim felt confident climate change was responsible and used her fellowship to explore ways indigenous knowledge could help her community adapt to it.

In a recent interview, she expounded on her findings: “One way we are adapting is through weather-casting: using ecological observations to help us move from place to place. By observing environmental changes — from the liquid inside certain types of fruit, to the flowers, to the position of the stars — we can predict the strength of the next rainy season and can be more prepared. For example, if certain birds make their nests in branches near the water, you know that the next year will not have heavy rains. If they build the nests in the tops of the trees, then you know that the whole area will be inundated.”

4. Fighting forest fires with time-tested methods

In the far north of Australia where wildfires are a constant threat, the government is recognizing the value of the land management practices of Aboriginal communities — including setting controlled early-season fires to prevent the build-up of dense ground vegetation. Through a combination of government-accredited funding and offset payments from corporations, northern Aboriginal communities are gaining economic opportunities and reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by fires — all by introducing early-burning techniques based on traditional knowledge. As one Balangarra woman explained, it’s not just Australia’s savannas that are benefiting: the government funding provides a much-needed source of income for local communities. In addition, the fire management program “spreads elders’ knowledge about early-season burning to young people, who have grown up without such intimate understanding of their ancestral country.”

5. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground

Do current data- and politics-based arguments for reducing global dependence on fossil fuels and turning to non-petroleum alternatives fail to resonate with you? For Patricia Gualinga, an indigenous Kichwa woman from the Sarayaku community in the Ecuadorean Amazon, they do: “Our people believe that petroleum is the blood of our ancestors deep in the Earth, and the Earth is our mother. So you are taking the blood from the mother and you are creating a total imbalance. Petroleum is powerful, but when it’s outside of the ground, it produces a lot of ambition, a lot of contamination, a lot of death.”

Organizations including CI seek to enable communities and countries to account for the long-term value of nature — including keeping resources in the ground despite their immediate extractive value. Gualinga makes the case for integrating other types of values into natural resource management — ones that go well beyond money.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.