Traditional knowledge in Climate Adaptation

The role of traditional knowledge in climate adaptation strategies is something I think about almost daily. The people native to their lands are most intimately in tune with its changes and, in most cases, have been “adapting” for years, decades, centuries. To treat traditional knowledge as an afterthought –a nice but peripheral component of adaptation strategies and policy– is not only disrespectful, but also counterproductive. Many impressive efforts get this, and are earnestly working in ways I admire; others seem to have much to learn. 

There are so many layers to explore within this particular topic. I have no fully formed answers or insightful suggestions for the field, at least not yet. I do, however, have a few humble observations to offer. 

Climate adaptation is constantly being redefined and reimagined. Our efforts to improve its practice will serve as the foundation for future education, training, implementation, policy, and all other responses. The relative infancy of climate adaptation practice (at least at the growing rate we are seeing today) means that it’s not “too late” to more thoroughly  include traditional knowledge into our plans and vision for all our communities as they adapt.

Additionally, I think that this effort serves to de-standardize the goals and metrics in the adaptation space.  At first that sounds like a negative, unsettling effect, since we like uniformity and comparability when measuring the impact of activities we are spending lots of money and time on. But it might alternatively be a more effective way to conceptualize successful adaptation. As development practitioners have learned, some of the most “successful” efforts are carefully and thoughtfully localized. That is because communities define health, well being, dignity, and progress in very different ways; they all have just as different sets of needs, resources, and socio-political contexts. Therefore, our metrics are best designed not as standard and one-dimensional, but rather as dynamic and adaptable themselves. (To see more on monitoring and evaluation of climate adaptation work, check out SEA Change’s list of publications on the topic here.)

Finally, the integration of traditional knowledge into the strategies we use to help each other adapt to climate change offers an opportunity to work in partnership with groups of people whose expertise is usually undervalued or ignored. More profoundly, it allows us to bring conservation and social equity into one (very important) conversation. 

Such conversations are happening all over the world at all kinds of levels. It is encouraging, and we need more of them. For example, UICN’s pilot projects in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru give us lots to study and think about. 

This is an important, fascinating, and complicated topic I hope to come back to in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading, and please do share your thoughts either here or by email danuuribe at gmail dot com!




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