Mr. Perry Bellegarde, a Canadian politician and indigenous people advocate, once said, “Indigenous people have made huge contributions to this country. Their biggest is in sharing the land and resources. People must understand that indigenous people should be viewed as the founding people of this land.” Countries, developed or undeveloped, are moving towards low-carbon and renewable energy sources. This momentum has severely impacted the local and indigenous communities as they have general access to energy resources such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal in their territories. The growing awareness of climate change is making several leaders worldwide rethink their reliance on conventional energy resources. Relevant research shows that such problems and adversities are caused due to the non-consultation of indigenous communities in adopting and implementing energy alternatives. This Article shall study the role of the impact of climate change, the meaning of traditional knowledge and how traditional knowledge can be used to combat climate change as well as the development of necessary energy alternatives.
The world’s climate is in turbulence. It is evident from the observations of widespread heatwaves, oppressive droughts, uncontrollable wildfires, spiking temperatures, and unforeseen floods. Australia’s mainland is observing increasing bushfires causing extensive disruption to living beings. The melting ice caps and glaciers are affecting the lives of polar bears due to global warming at the North Pole. These scenarios across the world have become a norm and obvious signs of Climate Change.
Goal 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals states that the global temperature has risen above the pre-industrial level, amounting to glaciers melting and sea level rising, displacing millions of people into poverty and hunger. It has been observed that by 2030, an estimated 700 million people shall be at risk of displacement by drought. To combat the rising issues of Climate Change and its devasting impacts on livelihood, the United Nations (also referred to as “UN”) hasprepared the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development consisting of 17 goals. It is also recorded that the years from 2015 to 2021 have been the warmest years of all time.
Who are Indigenous Communities?
There isno universal definition of either ‘Indigenous communities’ or ‘Tribal People’. The United NationsSpecial Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People has stated that groups that are referred to as ‘Indigenous communities’ are often referred to as ‘Tribal People’, ‘Scheduled Tribes’, ‘Janajatis’ or ‘Adivasis’ in various regions of the world. The Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the Communities of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has clarified the concept of ‘Indigenous communities’ by expanding on the concept of nomadic and pastoral communities. ‘Indigenous People’ are distinct social or cultural groups that share mutual ancestral ties to land or resources where they inhabit, occupy, or have been placed. This definition has been given by the World Bank. The natural resources on which they relyare often linked to their own cultures, livelihood, spiritual well-being, etc. As per theestimates of the World Bank, there are around 480 million Indigenous people worldwide, and they make up 6 per cent of the global population. These communities often lack formal recognition of their natural resources, land, territories, etc. The continued legacy of lack of inequality or exclusion of Indigenous communities to impacts such as climate change, natural hazards, or disease outbreaks like COVID-19. These communities are also responsible for safeguarding world’s80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity.
What is Traditional Knowledge?
Traditional or Indigenous Knowledge can be defined as “such indigenous information or sciences, folklore, expertise and such other techniques or practices that are clarified, assisted and proceeded on from one propagation to another within a class or community, often forming part of its dignifying or indigenous identity.” Generally, Traditional Knowledge is described as traditional or cultural expressions, know-how, practices, skills, innovations, etc. Accordingto Section 3 of the Indian Patent Act, 1970, any invention which is an effect or result of such Traditional Knowledge, aggregation, or duplication of such properties of traditionally known components is non-patentable in India. As per World Intellectual Property Organisation (also referred to as “WIPO”), Traditional Knowledge can be protected either defensively or positively. Defensive protection aims to bar the people outside such communities from the acquisition of Intellectual Property (also referred to as “IP”) over vested Traditional Knowledge. Positive protection further ensures the grant of such rights, which uses Traditional Knowledge to empower or control the use and generate benefits/profits from such commercial exploitation.
Traditional Knowledge holds a greater recognition internationally and has also been acknowledged by various international instruments, including but not limited to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (also referred to as “UNDRIP”), Convention on Biological Diversity (also referred to as “CBD”), Nagoya Protocol, Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Generic Resources, etc. The identification of the rights of people associated with Traditional Knowledge, who are mainly Indigenous communities, is a need of the hour. Such communities are conserving biodiversity by imposing endurable methods that deserve recognition and compensation. Moreover, de-energising the people on such issues by creating public awareness is integral.
Brundtland Commission, in its 1897 report “Our Common Future”, responsibly coined the term “sustainable development” as “to have a profound ability over human beings to sustain the resources available for generations to come”. It is integral to note that traditional knowledge is construed as knowledge being inherited from ancient roots of ancestors, often informal or oral in nature. Traditional knowledge comes with an ability to adapt to the deep transformations which affect the world of work.Such knowledge and occupational workings cut multiple sectors, including agriculture, forestry, hunting, fishing etc. and fuse environmental sustainability and economics.
Role of Indigenous Communities in Climate Change
Indigenous communities have been far ahead of their times when it comes to the optimum utilisation of their resources. TheUN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent reports have acknowledged the vital role and impact of indulging local and indigenous knowledge in the adaptation process.
Experts have credited Brazilian forest tribes involvement in indigenous knowledge application. It has recorded30 times lesser emissions due to near-zero deforestation compared to forests which are outside such protected areas.Konda Reddis tribal communities in the state of Andhra Pradesh grow different varieties of crops in order to minimise the risk of crop failure caused by climate change or natural calamities.The Amazonian region to the East of Ecuador is home to indigenous communities such as Huaorani, Sarayaku Kichwa and Sapara. It has helped combat climate change by resisting the deforestation of lands and protecting the forests. They have fought climate change by resisting occupation and deforestation in the area and becoming aware of their responsibilities towards forests.Dzumsa of Lachen in the state of Sikkim has also managed to overcome the challenges posed by climate change by employing conventional traditional knowledge. In North America, various Indigenous communities are stepping together to enact against climate change. TheKaruk Tribe of Northern California has released a climate adaptation plan to solve issues regarding California’s wildlife problems. TheTulalip tribes of Washington state are helping urban dwellers to lower the river temperature, aid the salmon population and redirect electricity generation. TheJamestown S’Klallam tribe in Washington is helping in the removal of invasive butterfly bushes from banks of Dungeness River to protect Salmon population.
As per theUnited States Environmental Protection Agency (hereinafter also referred to as “EPA”), Indigenous populations in the United States are more vulnerable to the health impacts of Climate Change than the general population due to higher rates of medical conditions, a special connection with the natural environment, institutional barriers and lack of reliable infrastructure. These communities include, among others, the Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders. TheMembers of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency and Department of Transportation are combating the issue of climate change by referring to indigenous communities and their solutions. The representatives of various states of the United States of America visited 11 communities and their representatives duringClimate Week, including the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing.Waqui, one of the Tribal leaders, stated that Indigenous people have solutions to sustainability and pollution reduction.
Until the very recent century, the indigenous people were characterised and sympathised as the victims of the effects of climate change than the agents of environment conservation. Indigenous people have been impacted more due to climate change than others since rainforests, grasslands, shrublands, mountain ranges, tropics, oceans, rivers, lakes, etc., are their home. Various Indigenous people are becoming environment refugees and advocates due to the increased frequency and intensity of climate hazards such as floods, hurricanes, typhoons, etc. However, these communities are putting a brave front before these challenges by mobilising and collating their in-depth knowledge of territories that they have been familiar with for generations.Indigenous knowledge operates at a much finer spatial and temporal scale than science. This includes understanding environmental variability and devising methods to cope with it. By being active drivers of global conservation, observing changing climates, adapting to impacts and contributing to global mitigation efforts, Indigenous knowledge has been making an important contribution to climate change policy and Sustainable Development Goal 13 on climate action.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (hereinafter referred to as “UNESCO”) has also implemented a programme called theLocal and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Programme (hereinafter referred to as “LINKS”), which promotes local and indigenous knowledge as well as aims at inclusion in global climate science or policy processes. LINKS is a programme which strives to strengthen indigenous people or local communities to foster engagement with scientists or policymakers to acknowledge the impact of climate change.
The contributions made by the Indigenous people include the challenges against oil and gas extraction in their ancestral lands, desertification, further enlargement of monocrop plantations, promotion of sustainable production, etc. Due to myriad experiences with adverse effects of climate change, the Indigenous people inhabit wide-ranging difficulties pacing with the modern lifestyle. The doctrine of state sovereignty over such biological resources is equally important. It shall help the associated people protect such knowledge and resources.
The International Labour Organization (also referred to as “ILO”)has listed six unique risks that unite the experiences of Indigenous communities in the context of climate change and environmental sustainability. The risks are listed hereinbelow:
i. The Indigenous communities are amongst the poorest of the poor.
ii. Such communities depend on renewable natural resources, which are mostly at risk due to climate change or economic or social extremities.
iii. Such resources are most likely vulnerable and exposed to climate change.
iv. There exists gender inequality within the Indigenous communities, and women are deprived of equal rights.
v. Such communities have a high migration rate due to climate change.
vi. Such Indigenous communities are often excluded from the rights over their traditional or local knowledge and excluded due to a lack of proper recognition and economic vulnerabilities.
As we approach the era of globalisation and mass development, it is high time that we recognise the role and impact of Indigenous communities. Observing the skills of such Indigenous communities and knowledge systems, one can unleash innovation, create green jobs and environmental-based enterprises and strengthen climate action. The Indigenous inputs, surveillance and elucidation help advance climate change. The Indigenous responses to climate variation help change livelihood practices, socio-economic adjustments, and engagement of several livelihood activities in the maintenance of plant varieties. Engagement of Indigenous Communities from different communities in complex international negotiations is also a priority.
Kanyinke Sena, the Former Chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, stated that the biggest challenge in the integration of Traditional Knowledge with climate change is faced in African countries. The hindrances and obstacles include the absence of legal frameworks, lack of documentation and disinterest of key decision-holders. However, such obstacles can be overcome by utilising WIPO’s capacity-building toolkit used rigorously by Research Scholars, Academicians, and Environmentalists to understand the Traditional Knowledge of different communities.
Amalgamation of Indigenous Communities with Green Technology to combat Climate Change
As people rapidly move towards the path of information and communication technology, Indigenous communities also need innovative solutions. Digital mapping is indeed an influential part of this since it acts as a bridge between disempowered communities and those in power. In the area of San Diego, a Southwestern region of the United States, a project set out to connect underserved tribal and rural communities called“Tribal Digital Village”.At present, the world is also fuelling towards the concept of “greening”, which explains environmental consciousness and global attitudinal shift by human beings.
The amalgamation ofIndigenous knowledge and technology has helped in forming an Application called SIKU, which means “sea ice”. The Global Warming has caused the melting of the northern cap of Artic. The new technology and generation old wisdom and knowledge have helped in keeping the Inuit communities safe from thinning of ice. SIKU Application has helped in blending the sensor data with satellite imagery to guide Inuit people to keep up-to-date about the sea ice melting. In Kivalliq Region of Canada, the tribes are being harassed by the Canadian government to study the links between climate, vegetation and caribou to address food security issues. Further, in Australia, aCabrogal woman called Mikaela Jade provides Artificial Intelligence training to indigenous communities to amalgamate Machine Learning and geospatial technologies. Indigenous and local communities of various African countries, including Ghana, Kenya, Congo, etc., have developed an open-source software called Sapelli, designed to create digital icon-based applications for collecting GPS-tagged data points accompanied with photo or audio data presented to decision-makers or dominant authorities. The Navajo Nation is another similar initiative to promote community revitalisation. This project developed in the southwest United States is also conducting a feasibility assessment for wind energy generation on tribal lands. In Ecuador, the Siekopai tribals have helped NGO Digital Democracy map their ancestral land for agribusiness and oil development. The local women of East Timor are working in close tandem with an NGO to create a marine protected area governed by theirtraditional wisdom.Ibaloi tribals of Philippines have adopted participative video-making to create films about their experiences with climate change.
Gradually, various institutional approaches also reflect a global commitment towards the environment. For instance,WIPO GREEN is an online platform that exchanges environmentally friendly technologies. Further,the Green Initiative by ILO andGreen Framework by African Development Bank also aims at promoting and initiating green projects. Initiation of “green projects” positively impacts indigenous communities, natural resources, and ecosystems. Therefore, optimising the opportunity to blend Traditional Knowledge with scientific principles can help identify strategies and solutions to Climate Change. Therefore, the Indigenous and local communities are positioning themselves to assert their rights, initiate culturally appropriate energy solutions or attract investment for the green energy economy.
The Impact of Energy Alternatives on Indigenous Communities
The engagement of Indigenous communities is perpetually a must to attain a low-carbon future and combat the good effects of climate change.The Sami in the Arctic have successfully transitioned from petroleum to solar light technology.The Dayak Pasar in Indonesia developed a project to install clean electricity from micro-hydro to ensure sustainable development.High-efficiency wood stoves are used for the reduction of reliance on forest products in Mexico by local communities, andan extraordinarycollege has been opened in India to help rural communities become dependent by educating illiterate men and women to become solar engineers. The mission of this College is to provide vocational and educational opportunities accessible to marginalised communities around the world. The College also trains community members from remote villages to beBarefoot Solar engineers during a six-month course in India. Indigenous communities are closely linked to local biodiversity and the ecosystem. The College has also extensively worked for Indigenous communities in India and Africa to train rural solar electrification spread in Asian and American countries. Further, various indigenous territories have tremendous biomass, wind, solar or geothermal resources. Although the Indigenous communities bear the least responsibility for climate change, they have a very active role in spearheading renewable energy in developed and developing countries.
There are ongoing debates about whether energy-related climate change mitigation activities have a positive or negative impact on climate change. For instance,the Mayan community, an ethnolinguistic group of indigenous people based in Mesoamerica, have been displaced from their lands due to large-scale hydroelectric projects. Several researchers have stated that even though the energies emerging from natural resources are clean, the resources have not been equally disturbed between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Hydroelectric energy can have an adverse impact on forest and water protection. It can act as mental abuse for Indigenous communities. Other communities in countries like Mexico, the Philippines, Malaysia, etc., have been displaced due to the expansion of biofuel plantations and villages fighting to secure sustainable forests. The implementation of such renewable energy alternatives can help in the enhancement and maintenance of traditional livelihood. For instance, theNavajo Nation in the Southwest United States has been conducting a feasibility assessment for wind energy generation on tribal lands to revitalise the community.The renewable energies owned by Indigenous communities can help contribute to social and economic development and reduce carbon emissions. However, the tribes and indigenous communities near the Missouri Riverwere flooded by the construction of dams. The current development of wind power alternatives provided a great sense of local community control over the next round of energy development across the plains. Thus, due to a lack of recognition of the rights of their land and natural resources,the Indigenous people face alienation of their own rights to access basic resources which have been traditionally captured.
It is integral to strike a balance between renewable energy technologies and the benefits of the Indigenous or local communities. It is further necessary for these local communities to be open to the modern world in a way that offers social and economic benefits to these communities and creates financial or technical dependencies. Renewable energies are the ultimate solution to provide energy autonomy or reduce dependency on fossil fuels. If sensitively utilised, clean energy solutions in the form of renewable energies can help combat climate change and avoid the destructive carbon-intensive development path being followed across developed nations. Optimising the opportunity to blend traditional knowledge with scientific principles can help identify strategies and popular solutions to climate change.
The views expressed in this article are the original views of the author. The Journal has no contribution to the ideas expressed.
About the Author
Adv. Aarushi Relan is an Associate at Sagar Chandra & Associates.
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Preferred Method of Citation
Aarushi Relan, “Analysing the Role of Indigenous Communities and Traditional Knowledge in Climate Change and Energy Innovation” (IJPIEL, 4 January 2023)