Five types of measures for mitigating climate change in indigenous and tribal territories

d. Culture and traditional knowledge

Various aspects of indigenous peoples’ cultures and knowledge favor good stewardship of forestry and agroforestry areas. This includes some of their values, beliefs, customs, productive practices, and field experiences; all of which are intimately related to their languages and cultural identities. Given the importance of these aspects for biodiversity conservation and climatic stability and the survival of these peoples as such, cultural revitalization and inter-generational transmission of knowledge is important for any holistic effort to protect indigenous and tribal territories. Cultural revitalization also favors the formation of social capital, which is essential for any collective action, including indigenous management of forested territories.

Indigenous and tribal cultures are intimately related to the ecosystems of the territories emerged from. Many words and phrases in their languages refer to animal or plant species or other characteristics of their ecosystems, and many foods and medicines are associated with the local ecology. Hence, the ecosystems and cultural identity are integrally related. Consequently, local conservation of nature and preserving ethnic identities are interlinked (Garibaldi and Turner, 2004; Pert et al., 2015).

Without a doubt, the territories are losing traditional ecological knowledge (Camara-Leret et al., 2016; Wilder et al., 2016). But it is not just a question of preserving this knowledge; it is equally important to ensure the knowledge benefits local people, especially youth. Cultures and knowledge evolve constantly, and people conserve the elements they find relevant (Gómez-Baggethun and Reyes-García, 2013; Athayde et al., 2017). To ensure that customs and knowledge are conserved and contribute to strengthening the territories’ organizational, social, and environmental initiatives they must be sources of status and pride, fun to share, and provide material benefits.

Hence, revitalizing languages, customs, and traditional knowledge is another central component of an integrated strategy to mitigate climate change by protecting the ecosystems of indigenous and tribal territories. These elements contribute to the peoples’ collective identities and ensure the preservation of their worldviews, and that helps them to manage well their ecosystems and natural wealth. Revitalizing traditional knowledge does not mean abandoning other types of knowledge, simply giving the former the attention it deserves (Box 5).

Box 5 Traditional indigenous knowledge contributes to fire management in the Brazilian Cerrado

The indigenous peoples of the Cerrado and savannas of northern South America have deep knowledge about how to manage fires. They are experts in where, when, and how to use fires for different purposes. For more than 4 000 years they have been perfecting their ability to use fires to recycle nutrients, hunt and fish, control pests and snakes, get plants to flower and bear fruit, conduct ceremonies, cut trails, and keep flammable material from accumulating. They usually do controlled burns in small areas when they are not too dry. These burns encourage the growth of local plants eaten by people and wildlife and do not damage the ecosystem.

That is quite different from how European colonizers and their descendants have used fires. They burn larger areas near the end of the dry season to clear forest, expand pastures and crops, and increase pasture yields. That is much more destructive.

Some South American governments totally prohibit setting fires outside cultivated plots. However, “no burn” policies lead dry leaves, branches, and small stems to accumulate, creating propitious conditions for larger and more destructive fires. Since climate change is making droughts more frequent and prolonged, that problem is getting worse.

Brazil’s government abandoned its “no burn” approach in 2014. They modified the Forest Code and adopted a more holistic fire management policy, which allowed prescribed (controlled) burns and incorporated other ancestral practices of the traditional communities in the Cerrado and Roraima. They also established a special program for controlling fire in indigenous and quilombolo territories called Prevention and Combat of Forest Fires in Indigenous Territories (PREVFOGO). In 2015, 608 indigenous people participated in PREVFOGO’s fire brigades, which helped to protect 17.1 million hectares.

The PREVFOGO program is based partially on a previous experience in Mato Grosso with the Paresi indigenous peoples, where government officials and indigenous elders collaborated to design a fire management plan that drew from traditional knowledge about the local ecology. In its first three years of operation, PREVFOGO greatly improved relations between the indigenous peoples and government technical staff and reduced the fires at the end of the dry season in three large territories by between 40 and 57 percent. Data from sixteen indigenous territories demonstrated that the ancestral fires practices favored the presence of edible fruits and wild animals much more than the previous “no burn” approach. SOURCE: Pinello, 2011; Welch et al., 2013; Mistry, Bilbao and Berardi, 2016; Moraes Falleiro, Trindade Santana and Ribas Berni, 2016; Davis, 2018; Eloy et al., 2019; Moraes Falleiro et al., 2019.

©Felipe Werneck
PREVFOGO/IBAMA indigenous brigades fight forest fire in Porquinhos indigenous territory, Maranhão, Brazil.

Specifically, it would be important to:

  • Invest in relevant formal and informal educational systems. To make public education programs more germane, bilingual and intercultural, education programs must be reinforced and more traditional knowledge incorporated into their curriculum (Eijck and Roth, 2007; Athayde et al., 2017; De la Herrán and Rodríguez, 2017). While it makes sense to maintain some elements of the current curriculum, formal education should reaffirm traditional knowledge and not substitute for it, as often occurs (Reyes-García et al., 2010; Cámara-Leret et al., 2016; Athayde et al., 2017).
  • Promote cultural revitalization initiatives. Using innovative and entertaining methods that young people find attractive to document and share traditional knowledge can improve the social status of indigenous and tribal languages, customs, and traditional knowledge and the people who use them. This includes methods such as workshops, exchanges, multi-media programs, theater, dance, and oral story-telling (Athayde et al., 2017; Fernández-Llamazares and Cabeza 2018). Where appropriate, such processes can also incorporate new practices, designs, and knowledge (Athayde et al., 2017).

Since older adults are the guardians of much of the traditional knowledge, inter-generational dialogues are crucial (Rivera Cumbe, 2018). The COVID-19 pandemic has made them all the more urgent, since the elders and their knowledge are at great risk. Women are especially important, since they are the main depositaries of many types of traditional knowledge and are heavily involved in transmitting knowledge to the next generation (Mayorga-Muñoz, Pacheco-Cornejo and Treggiari, 2017; Aswani, Lemahieu, and Sauer, 2018).45 Both the territories’ inhabitants and professionals with other types of knowledge and cultures can learn from intercultural dialogues. These dialogues can also increase the perceived value of local cultures and knowledge in the eyes of external actors and the communities themselves.

©LOL KOÓPTE/ Fernanda López
Hands of a Mayan indigenous woman working with wood. Cooperativa Lol Koópte', Ejido Petcacab, Mexico.
  • Promote alternatives that use traditional knowledge to generate material benefits, especially for young people. Finding ways to use traditional knowledge that provide material benefits can be a strong incentive to preserve that knowledge. That may involve both traditional activities, such as hunting, fishing, and collecting and processing useful plants, as well as new initiatives such as earning income from ecological or cultural tourism, traditional medicine, forest monitoring, or sale of forest products. It is important to fund indigenous and tribal organizations that work on cultural revitalization and traditional knowledge, both to promote these activities and encourage people to see them as potential sources of employment.
©Felipe Werneck
Indigenous brigades of PREVFOGO / IBAMA plan with the indigenous community of Porquinhos, Maranhão, Brazil.
  • 45 Along these same lines, when women lose their traditional roles as keepers of knowledge related to handicrafts, household gardens, traditional medicine, cooking, and other topics they often lose status, livelihood opportunities, and self-esteem (M. Estrada, personal communication, May 15, 2020).