In the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, indigenous farmers gather at the top of mountains the night after the winter solstice — not to enjoy the view, but to forecast the timing and quantity of rains.
If the Pleiades star cluster appears large and bright, then rains will be abundant. If it looks small and dim, then the rains will be poor — in which case, the farmers delay the planting of their crops.
“What could at first glance seem like a far-fetched ancestral tradition actually showcases indigenous peoples' ability to make useful and constructive observations on climate forecasting,” said Douglas Nakashima, head of the small islands and indigenous knowledge section at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“While scientists know that El Niño reduces rainfall in the Andes, they were previously not aware of the link between El Niño and cloud cover,” he said.
Traditional skills and knowledge should be seen as a complement, not a barrier, to scientific knowledge and climate adaptation efforts, experts said at a conference on how communities adapt to climate change, held this week in the Ugandan capital Kampala.
Pool traditional knowledge
National policies to adapt to climate change not only often disregard traditional knowledge, they sometimes even undermine the resilience of indigenous populations, Nakashima said.
“Initiatives around the world to build large dams or boost green fuels to reduce emissions have displaced many communities,” he said.
Krystyna Swiderska, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development, said that governments also largely ignore indigenous innovation in farming.
“In Peru, for example, farmers already grow hundreds of potato varieties — as opposed to relying on just a few varieties as many countries do — so they have a better chance of surviving the negative impacts of climate change,” she said.
“But there is still a strong belief among the international community that science is the best solution for climate adaptation,” she said.
Herders — who have been adapting to erratic weather for decades — have much to teach about coping with climate change, said Elizabeth Carabine, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank.
Cities and slums
Conference participants stressed that cities, and slums in particular, could also be a significant source of inspiration for climate adaptation.
One participant highlighted that slum dwellers were highly innovative and entrepreneurial, for example by converting parts of their home into a school or a soup kitchen.
Using cities' knowledge is all the more important as people living in cities are just as affected as others — and perhaps more so — by climate change, said Julie Arrighi from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center.
“Cities are big consumers of energy and particularly exposed to threats like flooding as a result of rising sea levels,” she said. “That challenge is only going to get bigger as cities grow.”
Julie Greenwalt, an urban environment specialist at the Cities Alliance, guarded against governments ignoring the needs of cities to adapt to a changing climate, and instead focusing their resources on rural areas.
“Our definitions of urban and rural are largely driven by developed countries, but even in some cities — like in India — people keep cattle," she said.
This, said Rebecca Carter from the World Resources Institute, means that “climate adaptation should become part of how a city works, not just an add-on.”