Many indigenous peoples are living examples of societies thriving with sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles. Successfully meeting the global climate change challenge requires that much of the world shift from high carbon-living to low.
This shift is daunting. Current emissions for Australia and the United States average about 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. In the coming decades that needs to fall to two tonnes per person as it is currently in Brazil or the Dominican Republic.
Emissions from most indigenous peoples are even lower and are amongst the lowest in the world.
All options for making the shift from high- to low-carbon living need to be explored and that’s why the United Nations University Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) invited indigenous peoples to a special three-day workshop in Cairns, Australia last week.
“Climate change is the result of our behaviour,” said Youba Sokona, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group III that will report to governments in 2014 on ways carbon emissions can be reduced.
The IPCC is the world authority on climate, assessing the state of knowledge on the issue every five to six years. Traditional knowledge of local and indigenous peoples have been left out until now.
“One of the critical solutions is to change our behavior, to change our production and consumption systems,” said Sokona, a climate expert from the African nation of Mali.
The Climate Change Mitigation with Local Communities and Indigenous peoples workshop offered a number of “examples of local peoples in Siberia, in Australia, northern Canada and in some African countries demonstrating that it is possible to change our behavior,” he said.
“I live in a shack but I love being on my ‘bubu’, my traditional land,” said Marilyn Wallace of the Kuku Nyungka ‘mob’ (tribe) in northern Queensland, Australia.
Wallace has lived in towns but fought for years to “return to country” and live in her tropical forest homeland 60 kilometers from Cooktown.
At the workshop Wallace and every other indigenous delegate focused on land rights. The simple truth is that if they can’t live on and manage their lands with time-tested traditional methods, they can’t be part of the solution to climate change.
“It is clear that rights, equity and ownership of land are crucial issues for indigenous peoples,” agreed Sokona.
While Sokona thought the workshop went well he was surprised at the laser-like focus on land rights issues.
“The IPCC has to talk about rights and culture. You cannot separate it from climate change,” said Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, Executive Director, Tebtebba(Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education).
“The IPCC has been issuing major reports for 20 years now and things have only gotten worse. What does that say? It says it is not changing the way people behave or the systems that reinforce this,” said Tauli-Corpuz, a member of the indigenous Kankana-ey Igorot community in the Philippines.
Dealing with climate change means changing the current economic system that was created to dominate and extract resources from nature, she said.
“Modern education and knowledge is mainly about how to better dominate nature. It is never about how to live harmoniously with nature.”
“Living well is all about keeping good relations with Mother Earth and not living by domination or extraction.”
That kind of talk confused some participants looking for case studies, techniques and data on how to reduce carbon emissions. In the hallways one scientist complained that indigenous presentations lacked hard data and therefore nothing could be done with what they were presenting.
Even the physical workshop set up demonstrated the difference in worldviews. Held in the meeting rooms of a very nice Hilton Hotel, the speakers sat on a raised dais, looking down on participants sitting in rows classroom style. For many this echoed school systems that suppressed and continue to suppress traditional knowledge. When indigenous people discuss things everyone sits or stands in a circle. And people talk, especially elders, until they have said what they wish to convey no matter the time or schedule.
“The workshop was not structured to reflect the indigenous peoples’ way of sharing their knowledge,” said Tero Mustonen, Head of the Village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland.
“If this is supposed to be an intercultural change, it did not work very well,” said Mustonen, who has a doctorate and has written scientific papers.
The IPCC’s structure is rigid, with an emphasis on technical information, he said. “Indigenous peoples’ worldview and traditional knowledge can’t be conveyed by numbers and charts.”
However, if the oral history of traditional people can be recognized as valid as science that would be a major breakthrough, said Mustonen.
“No one has all the answers,” said Jean Pierre Laurent, Ethnobotanist at TRAMIL (Traditional Medicines of the Islands) in the Caribbean nation of St Lucia.
Translating traditional knowledge into academic language is possible. “My role in St Lucia has been to bridge science and traditional knowledge,” said Laurent, who was raised on a farm there.
This UNU-sponsored workshop sends an important message to indigenous people to hold on to their traditional knowledge, he said.
And one indigenous person has a climate change message for those who are most responsible.
“Are the Europeans (industrialized nations) delivering climate mitigation from their heart? Are they ready to do that?” Wallace, an Aboriginal woman, asked.
“It was a hard journey for us to get back on our land. Now we say: “come and learn from us.”