In Eastern Africa, severe drought is causing massive famines. In the United States, temperature records are soaring due to one of the warmest winters in decades. From pine beetle infestations in the Rockies to thinning ice in the Arctic, the impacts of climate change are inescapable.
Adapting to these changes is not an easy task. In addition to using modern science and engineering, we will need to draw on indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge. This knowledge is an invaluable and often overlooked tool for adaptation. Indigenous peoples have extensive knowledge of their local environments, gained through hundreds of years of observation and trial and error. They possess a large repository of strategies, skills, and techniques for dealing with climate variability.
In this paper by Emily Kirkland, Brown University, three examples from the Peruvian Andes illustrate the importance of the role of indigenous knowledge for adaptation. In the southern Andes, an archaeologist named Ann Kendall is working with local communities to recover Inca-era terraces long abandoned as ruins. These terraces can successfully retain water for prolonged periods, allowing farmers to withstand droughts.
In nearby Cusco, six mountain communities have banded together to conserve hundreds of native potato varieties. Unlike imported white potatoes, many native varieties are resistant to heat, drought, and crop pests making them a more resilient option in the face of climate impacts.
And in Peru’s Piura region, an NGO called Soluciones Prácticas has created an innovative weather prediction system that blends modern meteorology with traditional forecasting methods. By combining local observations of plants and animals with official predictions, Soluciones Prácticas creates seasonal forecasts more accurate than those delivered by modern science alone.
Unfortunately, indigenous knowledge is threatened by some aspects of globalization and the continued marginalization and impoverishment of indigenous peoples. This paper also points out the crucial role of outside actors – such as NGOs and governments — in promoting, protecting, and disseminating traditional knowledge.