Human Resilience: Indigenous Knowledge and Impact of Climate Change on Vulnerable Communities

climate change food insecurity indigenous knowledge
Wednesday, 4 February, 2015 - 11:30

This article explores a selection of both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches in the context of indigenous knowledge in reducing human vulnerability to climate change within African nations

The effects of climate change on human life within Africa are largely unpredictable and variable.(2) But Sub-Saharan African nations are “the worst hit and the most vulnerable”(3) to climate change, as illustrated in the figure below. This situation could “overturn decades of development efforts,”(4) arguably prompting future development projects to intrinsically prioritise climate change resilience.
 
Global vulnerability to climate change (5)
 
It is predicted that no nation will benefit from climate change, there will only be those that are disadvantaged.(6) Perhaps, most obviously, it may cause droughts through the lack of rainfall, consequently increasing food insecurity and the frequency of natural disasters.(7) But cited to encroach upon both human life and the natural environment, climate change holds the potential to violate multiple human rights: the rights to health, shelter, food and life.(8) And, possibly less acknowledged outside of academia, it also threatens community cohesion, as shifts in the climate could force landowners to migrate, diluting the sense of place, tradition and identity that underpins community life.(9)
 
This CAI paper explores a selection of both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches in the context of indigenous knowledge in reducing human vulnerability to climate change within African nations.
 
Top-down approaches
 
Much of the developed world shares the perspective that, “climate change is a global challenge that requires a global solution.”(10) Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) appear to strive for increasingly community-based development models which, crucially, listen to what the land owners have to say;(11) a simple element that, it seems, has been excluded in past strategies. Despite this, critics argue that the importance of indigenous knowledge remains vastly underutilised by many African governments in their national development strategies.(12)
 
That said, there is evidence of economic investment across many different sectors in vulnerable African nations. One of these examples is the Global Reliance Partnership which was highlighted during the August 2014 US/Africa summit. This project hopes to invest US$ 100 million across the transport, energy, healthcare and trade sectors in many Sub-Saharan states, with the view that this will increase their resilience to climate change.(13) This raises a number of questions. Firstly, how far does the ‘developed’ world think that investment alone can help vulnerable African communities to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change? It has been suggested that current and future development missions need to be “scrutinised for whether they increase or decrease vulnerability to climate change,”(14) in attempting to meet both poverty reduction and climate adaptation goals.
 
Secondly, it is not explicitly mentioned which ‘sectors’ will benefit. It could be argued that investing in agriculture and infrastructure would perhaps be useful in boosting a nation’s resilience to climate change. It should also be clear how such investments would ‘trickle-down’ to benefit the poorest communities and assist them in adapting to climate change. Finally, how far would this financial aid be provisional on compliance with certain clauses and agreements? It would perhaps be interesting to investigate whether this is truly aid, or whether there are underlying international motives behind such apparent generosity.
 
The role of indigenous knowledge in bottom-up approaches
 
A number of indigenous agricultural practices can be used across Africa for both meeting poverty reduction targets and, equally as important, for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change. To succeed however, these indigenous techniques must be sufficiently supported by political backing and funding.(15)
 
One framework that arguably facilitates and nurtures community-based techniques is CARE’s Community Based Adaption Framework.(16) In a number of case studies, this promotes integration of climate resilience into rural African communities, in an attempt to reduce their vulnerability to climate change. Possibly the most striking example is the introduction of ‘farmer field schools’ in Mozambique’s Angoche District. With this method, local agricultural practice is merged with previously tested and developed, sustainable techniques, while crucially, farmers are given the freedom to make “informed choices”(17) through self-critique and empowering the individual smallholder.
 
Further case studies can be found in Africa’s Sahel region. Self-developed community strategies to deal with past droughts, having proved successful, have been passed down through generations. Local wisdom on flora and fauna in the region has been pivotal in ‘agro-forestry’ schemes, with the Baobab and Acacia trees beneficial for providing food, while acting as carbon sink zones.(18) By continuing to cultivate resilient crops, rural communities are improving their resilience to the increasing droughts that climate change is likely to bring to the region. Traditional farming practices, such as livestock rotation, also help farmers to adapt to seasonal change.(19) For instance, switching from cows to sheep and goats during droughts makes sense, as the latter have lower fodder demands and thus do not require lush pastures that would only be available with abundant rainfall.
fr
Indigenous weather prediction is a further example of traditional knowledge that could be implemented into national climate resilience strategies. Simple indicators, such as “the appearance of a rainbow in November”(20) can indicate the start of the dry season, acting as an early warning system, thus preparing communities to stockpile grains. Moreover, if nomadic famers continue to migrate with the seasons, as they have done for hundreds of years, pressure is taken off the land’s carrying capacity.
 
It may strike the reader as strange to encourage traditional forecasting methods, what with the advances in satellite weather systems. The underlying motive, however, is to continue to empower famers with what they know, to perpetuate their sense of cultural identity and to use ‘appropriate technology’, all to increase the sustainability of such attempts. Satellite forecasting, it may seem, would not be a sensible suggestion, being accessible to only those that are trained sufficiently. What could be suggested then is the fusing of both weather prediction systems; and additionally, the encouragement of traditional forecasting which may, at times, be deemed ‘inferior’ to the scientific advancements of the developed world.
Nonetheless, a number of issues may arise with the usage of indigenous knowledge. Firstly, do developed nations really have the authority to meddle with the established community-level power institutions in what could be viewed as a neo-colonial vein? In addition, some criticise current attempts to integrate indigenous knowledge into the mainstream development narrative as not being effective,(21) suggesting that greater institutional support is needed. Moreover, from a linguistic perspective, the term ‘climate change’ is often absent from local dialects.(22) This is problematic, as the severity of the issue may not be fully appreciated by pastoral communities.
 
Examples of community conventional wisdom suggest that climate change was caused primarily by deforestation and wood fire smoke - only partially true – with the burning of fossil fuels deemed to be the leading cause of anthropogenic-induced climate change.(23) Some communities neglect to acknowledge the developed world as the leading emitters of CO2 emissions, instead blaming themselves or religious deities.(24) This may be viewed both positively and negatively. Viewed through the community level lens, it is encouraging that the connection between human activity and climate change is made, even in poor, rural communities. Conversely, the aforementioned communities are almost certainly the least accountable for CO2 emissions, with their basic subsistence, low carbon consumption lifestyles.
 
Concluding remarks
 
It would appear that climate change adaptation strategies must underpin economic and social development goals to be fully adopted across Africa. From the grassroots level, climate adaptation strategies must be seen to benefit the communities who will implement them on a daily basis. The technology should be appropriate: it must be able to be operated and maintained - without external assistance - by the communities. If the benefits to the community are not tangible, it is unlikely that the projects will be widely adopted; and would thus fail, both as a development and climate change adaptation strategy. Institutional change should be avoided; instead, attempts should be made to merge current findings and nurture human capital. Indigenous knowledge must be supported by formal decision-making processes, both to be successful and to empower those at the community level. With that in mind, it would seem that indigenous knowledge will prove vital in implementing holistic and sustainable climate adaption strategies at the community level.
 
Notes:
 
(1)Andrew Munro is a Research Associate with CAI with an interest in the human security implications of climate change. Contact Andrew through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Enviro Africa unit ( enviro.africa@consultancyafrica.com). Edited byÂÂÂÂÂÂ Liezl Stretton. Research Manager: Angela Kariuki.
(2)‘Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability’, The Fifth Assessment Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014, http://climatechange2014.org.
(3) Bassey, N., 2009. “Localized energy conflicts in the oil sector”, in Dodds, F., Higham, A. and Sherman, R. (eds.). Climate change and energy insecurity: The challenge for peace, security and development. Earthscan: London.
(4) ‘Keeping track of adaptation actions in Africa: Targeted fiscal stimulus actions making a difference’, United Nations Environmental Program, 2014, http://unep.org.
(5) ‘Humanitarian implications of climate change: Mapping emerging trends and hotspots’, CARE Climate Change, November 2009, http://www.careclimatechange.org.
(6) ‘Coping with a changing climate: Considerations for adaptation and mitigation in agriculture’, Food and Agricultural Organisation, 2009, http://www.fao.org.
(7) Ibid.
(8) ‘Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability’, The Fifth Assessment Report, Chapter 12: Human Security, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014, http://climatechange2014.org.
(9) Ibid.
(10) ‘Fact sheet: U.S. engagement on climate change and resilience in Africa’, Office of the Press Sectary: Washington D.C, 4 August 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov.
(11) ‘Policy Brief 9 – Top-down and bottom-up approaches’, Food and Agricultural Organisation, 2008, http://www.fao.org.
(12) Nyong, A., Adesina, F. and Elasha, O., 2007. The value of indigenous knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaption strategies in the African Sahel. Mitigation and Adaption Strategies for Global Change, 12(5), pp. 787-797.
(13) ‘Fact sheet: U.S. engagement on climate change and resilience in Africa’, Office of the Press Sectary: Washington D.C, 4 August 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov.
(14) Simms, A., 2009. “A green new deal: Poverty reduction and economic stability in a carbon-constrained world”, in Dodds, F., Higham, A., Sherman, R. (eds.). Climate change and energy security: The challenge for peace, security and development. Earthscan: London.
(15) Ibid.
(16) For more information on CARE’s Community Based Action Framework, see http://www.careclimatechange.org.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Nyong, A., Adesina, F. and Elasha, O., 2007. The value of indigenous knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaption strategies in the African Sahel. Mitigation and Adaption Strategies for Global Change, 12(5), pp. 787-797.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Codjoe, S., et al., 2013. Perceptions, experience and indigenous knowledge of climate change and variability: The case of Accra, a Sub-Saharan African city. Regional Environmental Change, 14(1), pp. 369-383.
(21) Nyong, A., Adesina, F. and Elasha, O., 2007. The value of indigenous knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaption strategies in the African Sahel. Mitigation and Adaption Strategies for Global Change, 12(5), pp. 787-797.
(22) ‘Climate Change 2014: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability’, The Fifth Assessment Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014, http://climatechange2014.org.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Codjoe, S., et al., 2013. Perceptions, experience and indigenous knowledge of climate change and variability: The case of Accra, a Sub-Saharan African city. Regional Environmental Change, 14(1), pp. 369-383.
 

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