Dr. Christine Evans: The Importance of Taking Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledge into Account

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This post was written by Dr.Christine Evans. The below paragraphs are excerpts from the research that she is currently undertaking onclimate change, human rights and the recognition of indigenous knowledge. —

Indigenous peoples are among those who have contributed least to the climate change crisis, yet they are the ones suffering from its worst impacts. There are more than 476 million self-identified indigenous peoples in at least 90 countries around the world. They are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change as many live in the most affected regions including high altitudes, humid tropics, coastal regions, deserts and polar areas and they depend on ecosystems that are particularly prone to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires and cyclones. Global warming reduces biodiversity, changes animal migration routes, causes saltwater inundation of fresh water sources, destroys crops and causes food insecurity.

Furthermore, indigenous peoples are among the poorest and most marginalised people in the world. While indigenous peoples account for 6 per cent of the world’s population, they comprise 18 per cent of those living in extreme poverty. Most are heavily dependent on their lands and natural resources for basic needs and livelihoods. They have a long tradition of ensuring that they use resources in a sustainable manner in order to safeguard their environment.

Indigenous peoples are finally gaining recognition as important actors. Due to their close relationship with the environment, indigenous peoples are uniquely positioned to advise on climate change adaptation measures. While not necessarily recorded in writing, indigenous oral traditions have ensured the transmission of knowledge through indigenous peoples own institutions for many generations, and this has ensured their ability to adapt to local changes in climate.

Traditional indigenous territories encompass over 20 per cent of the world’s land surface and overlap with areas that hold around 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity. The correlation between secure indigenous land tenure and positive conservation outcomes is well documented. Indigenous peoples and their traditional knowledge are vital for sustainable environmental management of natural resources and biodiversity conservation, both of which are essential elements for combating climate change and fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goal 13.

Major research gaps remain in the understanding of indigenous knowledge and in particular, the human rights implications of the failure to appreciate and respect indigenous peoples’ knowledge and their traditional practices related to mitigation and adaptation measures.

For indigenous peoples, a human rights-based approach to climate change needs to be in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Article 29 asserts their right to the conservation and protection of the environment and their lands, territories and resources, while Article 31 affirms their rights to their traditional knowledge, such as to their sciences, cultures and human and genetic resources, as well as their right to develop intellectual property over such knowledge. Article 11 of UNDRIP sets out the right of indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalise their cultural traditions and customs, including their technologies. In order to effectively implement the rights enshrined in UNDRIP, this requires recognition of the interrelatedness with key human rights for indigenous peoples including their rights to self-determination; development; land rights, participation and the obligation to seek their free, prior and informed consent.

Persistent advocacy finally resulted in the Paris Agreement (2015) being the first international climate change treaty to explicitly recognise human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. The Paris Agreement furthermore asserts that adaptation action should follow a participatory approach, and should be guided by the best available science as well as the knowledge of indigenous peoples with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions. These references provide an important milestone, as in implementing the Paris Agreement parties have committed to ensure that indigenous peoples’ rights are respected in their climate change actions.

While recognition has been achieved in international legal standards and policies, the shift to practice is still at a nascent stage. Major research gaps remain in the understanding of indigenous knowledge. To date research has often focused on anthropological perspectives, centred on indigenous peoples as ‘vulnerable’ rather than as agents of change or focused on how indigenous peoples’ knowledge can be ‘harnessed and used’.

Crucially, the failure to appreciate and respect indigenous peoples’ knowledge and their traditional practices continues to be linked to human rights violations, especially mitigation measures and fortress conservation policies, as has been observed by the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples in a range of countries. Simultaneously, the Special Rapporteur has through direct interaction with indigenous organisations in many countries documented, including in situ, numerous way that indigenous knowledge and practices are effective in protecting natural resources, biodiversity and combatting climate change. From consultations directly with indigenous peoples and from visits to their communities, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur has observed various practices for example how indigenous marine management systems protect biodiversity; rainwater harvesting and irrigation systems provide effective tools for water retention; customary forest management and the planting of local tree varieties rather than imported species avoids draining the soils of nutrients and limits coast line erosion; and traditional fire control techniques help to control wildfires.

A human rights-based approach to climate change needs to recognise different knowledge systems and that indigenous knowledge and ‘Western’ natural science are complementary. This requires dialogue, participation and genuine partnerships at the local, national and international levels.

More about the research

Dr. Christine Evans is currently carrying out research informing the Special Rapporteur’s report to the Human Rights Council

OHCHR | Call for submissions “Indigenous Women and the Development, Application, Preservation and Transmission of Scientific Knowledge”

OHCHR | Call for submissions “Protected Areas and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights: the Obligations of States and International Organizations”

Dr. Christine Evans i möte med representanter fràn sameorganisationer under Stockholm 50+.

The 22nd Sami Conference

Dr. Christine Evans will join the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples travelling to the 22nd Saami Conference — Sámiráđđi (saamicouncil.net). 
This  year’s theme for the conference is ‘Empowering Sápmi’.  The 22nd Saami Conference will take place from August 10-14 2022, in Gällivare. Thursday evening will be dedicated to Sami and climate change.

The Saami Council is preparing a Sámi climate report – ordered by the Norwegian Sámi Parliament –  compiling findings on the consequences of climate change and how they are expected to affect Sámi culture, livelihoods, and society.

The paper  is expected to be completed by the end of the year.


Photo credit: Andreas Ausland.
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