- Four reports by the International Co-Sponsored Meeting on Culture, Heritage and Climate Change highlight that human cultural heritage has a wealth of knowledge to contribute to grapple with climate change.
- The reports also say that this diverse human heritage is under threat from climate change, poverty, rapid urbanization, policy, and failure to recognize land rights or grant access to resources.
- The authors share a list of cultural practices and knowledge systems that can mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, from food systems and forest conservation to architecture and natural resources management.
- The International Co-Sponsored Meeting on Culture, Heritage and Climate Change reports are co-sponsored by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), UNESCO and ICOMOS.
Many of the people archaeologist Dulma Karunarathna interviews in rural Sri Lanka have never been interviewed before. And many of them, representing a variety of religions and languages, tell her of the mee tree (Madhuca longifolia).
The tree’s roots balance water levels and share underground nutrients with rice fields. Its flowers, seeds and bark can be used to treat surface wounds, and its leaves provides shade for farmers’ watch huts to avoid wild animals at night while they exchange call-and-response pel kavi songs across their fields. But most importantly, its nectar attracts bats, which deposit their droppings across the rice fields. For locals, the trees offer a cheap alternative or supplement to nitrogen synthetic fertilizers and improve their resilience to disaster. For this reason, the mee tree is often called the fertilizer tree.
Many of Karunarathna’s interviewees are elderly, and some face a worrying epidemic of unidentified kidney disease that some researchers link with agrochemicals and heavy metals in drinking water. After an Indigenous doctor who she interviewed died recently, Karunarathna was in shock.
“That was his first and last interview,” the postdoctoral researcher at the University of Victoria tells Mongabay.
Karunarathna’s work to highlight traditional ecological knowledge crystallizes what climate scientists have increasingly begun publishing. Indigenous people and local communities (IPLCs) who benefit from centuries of knowledge by working closely with the land often interact with their environment in ways that reveal profound innovations and ecological tools that can benefit climate resilience and mitigation initiatives. At the same time, many of these ideas and the people who pass them on from generation to generation are under threat from a suite of factors.
At the end of last year, the International Co-Sponsored Meeting on Culture, Heritage and Climate Change, a research body sponsored by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), UNESCO and ICOMOS, released four reports that highlight that culture and heritage play a key role in understanding the causes and impacts of climate change and in designing responses, including low-carbon, climate-resilient pathways.
This comes on the heels of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report in 2022 that highlights the importance of Indigenous and local knowledge in grappling with climate change.
“It’s an emergency, right? It’s very urgent that Indigenous peoples’ knowledge is incorporated into climate policy,” says Levi Sucre, an Indigenous Bribri leader from Costa Rica who was not affiliated with the reports and who leads rural development programs with the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests. “And at the moment, it is very difficult, and incorporation is almost absent. We are also victims of the changing climate. Our livelihoods are impacted. Our food systems are impacted.”
First proposed in 2015, the research drew from representatives of IPLCs and experts in climate science and heritage. Impacts on cultural heritage have not been investigated globally and are rarely explored locally, they write, yet sustainable practices both ancient and current are at risk.
According to growing research, fulfilling the Paris Agreement of keeping the global temperature rise at less than 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels may not be possible without acknowledging and supporting the role of IPLCs in protecting their lands, which tend to be key carbon sinks in certain regions. In the Amazon, Indigenous conservation and sustainable use of forest resources between 2001 and 2021 removed roughly 340 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to the U.K.’s annual fossil fuel emissions.
Embedded in communities that have thrived and adapted to local weather and ecosystems exist alternatives and ways of adapting to the impacts of climate change, from food systems and forest conservation to architecture and natural resources management, the reports note. Their desire now is to expand research and to include more diverse people at the “climate table” to preserve this cultural heritage and use it as a tool for climate action. Full rights to their territories, they elaborate, have also benefited conservation and equipped communities to withstand environmental disasters.
One U.N. group is also trying to tackle cultural preservation from another angle: The World Intellectual Property Organization is in the process of designing instruments to protect genetic traditional knowledge and cultural expressions. By 2024, it hopes to have a treaty.
Diverse knowledge systems, diverse solutions
The reports are part of an effort by the research group to recognize that climate mitigation strategies have excluded knowledge from Indigenous and local communities, they say.
This is because Western science has tended to sideline knowledge based on observing, interpreting and incorporating religious beliefs. The exact position of Indigenous knowledge systems in particular and the myriad traditional research practices under this category are currently the subject of heated debate within the scientific community. While some scholars deem it a type of science that shares some characteristics with Western empirical science, others say it constitutes a different, important, knowledge system altogether.
The reports cite dozens of approaches to past and current environmental threats that offer lessons for climate policy in both rural and urban settings, from ways to use natural resources and organize communities and action, to envisioning values that govern relationships with nature.
Karunarathna, who is part of CRITICAL, a cultural heritage research project at the University of Edinburgh, studies “intangible heritage” stored in the practices and stories passed from ancestors to descendants. In her chapter in one of the reports, she wrote about women who harnessed folk songs to revive ancient methods to design and govern water storage systems, which strengthened resilience to drought.
In Nunavut, Canada, where coastal erosion threatens archaeological sites, an Inuit-led initiative builds “net-zero emission homes” by including traditional materials like snow, stone, driftwood and animal skins in construction. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the city of Auckland’s climate plan relies on the Indigenous Māori cultural relationship with the environment to recognize the rights of non-human species. In Japan, stone tidal weirs that trap fish close to the coast represent an alternative to expendable plastic fishing gear, but the practice is at risk of disappearing.
In China’s Yunnan province, the Honghe Hani rice terraces, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, use a water management system that is capable of withstanding intense drought. A group of villagers manage the water at the top of the surrounding mountains by cutting grooves into a wood barrier that allows necessary amounts of water to reach each area. The water flows through drainage systems to each village, and the forest at the top is protected as a sacred store and purifier of rainwater.
“Between 2008 and 2012, the Yunnan province suffered from a rare five-year period of drought, but the Hani terraced fields still maintained good production functions,” Rouran Zhang of Shenzhen University writes in one report. The method has demonstrated its climate resilience in food production, but it’s at risk of being lost as many villagers abandon the practice and move to cities.
In the Philippines, the Igorot people have used stone walls to support their rice terraces, but more recently they’re using them to prevent erosion in settlements on hillsides. Increased rainfall caused by a warming climate is likely to worsen erosion, the authors say, and the use of stone walls offers an accessible tool to buttress hillside communities.
It’s a practice that depends on feel, which makes learning the skill time-consuming and the practice susceptible to sudden loss between generations, writes Wilfredo Alangui, a professor of ethno-mathematics at the University of the Philippines Baguio, in another chapter. Builders only use local, natural materials, a cleaner option than transporting carbon-intense cement.
Religion and spirituality often form the foundation of many of these practices and give birth to the kind of values the authors argue should be used to improve our climate responses. José Arias-Bustamante, a policy analyst at the Indigenous Science Division at Environment and Climate Change Canada, says that in both Mapuche communities in Chile and the Nisga’a First Nation in Canada, a spiritual understanding of humans’ place in the world guides decisions about how communities decide to use natural resources like forests.
Traditionally, when a Mapuche cuts down a tree, they should explain to the spiritual protector of the forest why the tree must be cut. This comes from a belief that other life exists in the Mapu, an Indigenous concept that encompasses both natural and supernatural parts of Earth.
However, the Chilean state restricted the Mapuche in the commune of Curacautín to live in just 0.6% of their ancestral territory of more than 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres). Now, in some communities, called laf, water is trucked in, and the government won’t support water infrastructure because aquifers have dried up from agriculture, and the river is under private ownership. Being evicted from their ancestral lands also cut Mapuche communities in Curacautín off from the sites they held sacred. Many Mapuche say they worry their understanding of sustainable and spiritual connections is fading fast, Arias-Bustamante says.
Without the ability to farm, hunt, and gather materials from the forests, the Mapuche find other ways to feed their families, sometimes taking up logging. In that case, they can choose to receive a forest management plan from the state to authorize logging, which often leads to further forest degradation when the most profitable trees are cut or plantations replace forests, Arias-Bustamante says.
“While doing the restoration of their forest, conserving the forest, they are contributing to climate change mitigation, even though that’s not the main primary priority. Their priority is to get the land back, to get the connection to Mapu and to the spiritual dimension,” Arias-Bustamante says.
The authors found that having access to the ecosystems that could support Mapuche communities would decrease their reliance on cutting forests and high-emitting lifestyles in cities. The conclusion reflects increasing research and widespread advocacy that protecting Indigenous communities’ rights to land can also reduce emissions.
Rapid urbanization and poverty are some of the greatest threats to sustainable ecosystem management in Mapuche communities, says Arias-Bustamante, who describes in one report how cultural heritage from others parts of the world, not just the Western cultural sphere, can inform global climate mitigation.
Jha, D., & Mazumder, P. (2018). Biological, chemical and pharmacological aspects of Madhuca longifolia. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, 11(1), 9-14. doi:10.4103/1995-7645.223528
Bhoye, S. (2021). Importance of Mahua plant (Madhuca longifolia) in Tribal (Adivasi) areas. Agriculture & Food, 3(6). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353075343_Importance_of_Mahua_Plant_Madhuca_longifolia_in_Tribal_Adivasi_Areas
Menegat, S., Ledo, A., & Tirado, R. (2022). Greenhouse gas emissions from global production and use of nitrogen synthetic fertilisers in agriculture. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 14490. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-18773-w
De Silva, P. M., Ekanayake, E., Gunasekara, T., Thakshila, W. A., Sandamini, P., Abeysiriwardhana, P., … Jayasundara, N. (2022). Occupational heat exposure alone does not explain chronic kidney disease of uncertain aetiology (CKDu) in Sri Lanka. The Journal of Climate Change and Health, 8, 100143. doi:10.1016/j.joclim.2022.100143
Tehrany, M. S., Shabani, F., Javier, D. N., & Kumar, L. (2017). Soil erosion susceptibility mapping for current and 2100 climate conditions using evidential belief function and frequency ratio. Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, 8(2), 1695-1714. doi:10.1080/19475705.2017.1384406
Salvacion, A. R. (2023). Soil erosion modeling under future climate change: A case study on Marinduque Island, Philippines. Water, Land, and Forest Susceptibility and Sustainability, 381-398. doi:10.1016/B978-0-323-91880-0.00012-X
Alangui, W. V. (2010). Stone walls and water flows: Interrogating cultural practice and mathematics (Doctoral dissertation, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand). Retrieved from https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/5732
Banner image: The Kargi people, a remote nomadic settlement in Kenya. Image by Ian Macharia via Unsplash.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We speak with National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan to talk about the value of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in protecting the world’s biodiversity and examples of TEK from Indigenous communities he’s visited. Listen here: