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To stop climate change, it’s time to take Indigenous knowledge seriously

Dr Luci Attala says to fix climate change we have to draw on the know-how of Indigenous cultures already protecting vast parts of the planet

There is growing recognition that Indigenous people should be at the centre of climate change responses. However, despite stewarding 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, they have been pushed to the margins of international action and their knowledge disregarded.

After the disappointment of COP26, and with muted hope for COP27, a new project being launched at the University of Wales Trinity St David will put indigenous voices at the centre of environmental action. This is part of a wider initiative from UNESCO called Bridges, aimed at promoting alternative ways of thinking in promoting global sustainability.  

There are so many mysteries left to understand. Nobody knows why birth starts when it does, why water can float when it hardens to ice or how electricity actually works. We just know – and accept – them. There are other things – like, for example, the markets – that some claim to follow,  but are extraordinarily complicated systems only experts understand. 

Euro-US cultures have collared the market on experts. In these cultures, people are sure that ‘science’ – a word that, I acknowledge, contains a diversity of approaches and specialisms, but  is a useful catch-all – produces real experts. And, as evidence, the phrase “we are following the science” is used to demonstrate that decisions and actions are validated by the highest authorities. However, simultaneously, there are indigenous cultures with their own trained experts. Which raises the questions, who is it that knows, and which science should we follow?  

Currently, knowledge cultures are ranked on a scale, with science seen as the most advanced method, able to liberate the truth. Meanwhile, indigenous ideas are ranked near the bottom, with magic perhaps propping up the table. It’s understood that indigenous people have rights, but they don’t have access to the teachers, methods and libraries that would give their knowledge credibility.                                            

They may have the moral high ground on numerous social and organisational issues, but, when it comes to environmental science, cosmology, or biology most of us assume that indigenous people can’t really know how these systems work until they have  completed the necessary training and qualifications. 

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Increasingly these minorities are showing their utter exasperation with the steamroller approach to their knowledge and the colonial mindset that discounts their expertise as quaint but unqualified.  

This unashamed bias and championing of one set of methods against others is not unusual – all cultures fight to protect their ways because they are sure their method is correct. But at a time of environmental destruction, it may be time to take others’ ideas more seriously and find ways to innovate by urging experts from different knowledge cultures to work together.

This, of course, is not to question the remarkable achievements of science, but to recognise there may be people who know things about the natural world that have evaded us. And, perhaps more importantly, to see if by joining knowledge systems together, novel solutions can be born from the union.

Filmmaker Alan Ereira with the Kogi tribe of Colombia
Filmmaker Alan Ereira (background) with the Kogi tribe of Colombia, the subject of his film Aluna: The Kogi Mamas.
Photo: Eye Ubiquitous / Alamy Stock Photo

The Kogi of Colombia told the world that the environment was being compromised over 30 years ago. With extraordinary prescience, their 1990 film and message to the world outlined how changes in their territory were signs that events in distant lands were causing upset to the way the world should function. In 2012, they sent another message: things were worse. The earth was dying. In 2019, concerned that people do not have the skills to understand how to change, they decided to take action for the first time in history.

In discussion with a UK-based charity, the Tairona Heritage Trust and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, the Kogi have offered to teach a small group of environmental scientists and anthropologists the secrets of how they conserve and revitalise land. The project launched this year as we moved towards COP27 and is endorsed by the UNESCO-Bridges coalition. It aims to find ways to incorporate Kogi methods into conservation strategies and arrest the accelerating decline.  

The project is an exciting world first as it reverses the usual hierarchy between scientists and indigenous populations in a bid to produce genuine innovation. A group of the Kogi will lead a land restoration project with two scientists from the University of Zurich to restore an area of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in Colombia to its once-flourishing state.  

This pioneering project challenges the assumptions held that conventional science is unlikely to learn from indigenous experts specifically. The Kogi have already demonstrated they have an alternative body of knowledge about what constitutes environmental health and what is necessary to restore it once it is degraded. Specific actions are required. It is not enough to simply stop causing damage and hope for repair – nature needs help. 

Have the Kogi been secretly taking care of the world and repairing the damage being made? Do they know something that conventional experts don’t? This project will find out and may provide a paradigm shift to knowledge production and how knowledge cultures can work together. 

Dr Luci Attala is a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David
@AttalaLuci

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