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Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change: Emerging Research on Traditional Knowledge and Livelihoods

This publication seeks to inspire greater discussion and research in the field of traditional knowledge, seen through the dual lens of the world of work and social justice.
Multiple Authors
indigenous peoples and climate change


As the International Labour Organisation (ILO) celebrates its Centenary, as well as the 30th anniversary of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169), this publication* shares some glimpses into traditional knowledge at work, against a backdrop of the multiple transformations underway. It highlights the unique role played by indigenous women and men in shaping a low-carbon economy and a sustainable future of work. It builds on the ILO’s previous work on traditional occupations as well as indigenous peoples and climate change, and takes forward the ILO’s strategy on indigenous peoples’ rights for inclusive and sustainable development. The ILO has been supporting traditional livelihood activities among indigenous peoples, which are largely based on a unique relationship with their lands and natural resources. The ILO also promotes new forms of income generation, if so chosen by the communities, including through supporting community contracting mechanisms, entrepreneurship, small businesses and cooperatives.

A collaboration between the ILO and the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, this publication draws on recent and emerging research conducted directly with communities across Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and the Americas. In so doing, it aims to bridge the academic and policy worlds, sharing the experiences gained by researchers and the communities themselves with policy-makers and key stakeholders, including trade unions, employers’ organizations and governments. This publication seeks to inspire greater discussion and research in the field of traditional knowledge, seen through the dual lens of the world of work and social justice.

*Download the full pulication from the right-hand column and follow the links below for further reading.

Chapter summary

Surviving Extreme Weather: Mongolian indigenous knowledge, local institutions and governance innovations for adaptation.

By Ariell Ahearn (University of Oxford)

  • This case study discusses the role of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and forms of local governance in grassland stewardship in Mongolia.
  • Herders in this region face increasing temperatures and unseasonable weather in a region already characterized by an extreme environment.
  • The case examines the intersections between traditional environmental knowledge, local institutions and practices, and government policies and programmes to encourage adaptation.
  • In particular, the Mongolian Index Based Livestock Insurance programme and the role of local governing bodies are discussed.

Traditional water management as an adaptive subsistence practice: A case study from coastal Timor-Leste

By Vanessa Burns (University of Oxford)

  • This case study presents research on traditional water management and adaptive subsistence practices in two coastal communities in Timor-Leste.
  • Situated in the Indonesian archipelago in the midwestern Pacific, Timor-Leste is highly vulnerable to environmental change.
  • Extreme weather, such as flood and drought, puts additional pressure on subsistence resources and worsens the poverty and malnutrition prevalent in rural Timor-Leste.
  • Using ethnographic and participatory methods, this study investigates how communities are adapting to the increasing severity of droughts and poor access to water.
  • Research evidence shows that custodial water practices have two main adaptive responses to environmental change.
    • First, the increased vulnerability of the coastal environment to changes in the environment places a greater emphasis on the success or failure of women’s highland water practices.
    • Secondly, women’s environmental knowledge of the highland is at the forefront of a slow retreat by agriculture, grazing and new housing away from the coast and towards highland sites.

The role of customary institutions in climate change adaptation among Afar pastoralists in north-eastern Ethiopia

By Mulubrhan Balehegn (Mekelle University) and Selam Balehey (Mekelle University)

  • Traditional weather forecasting is a method applied by many indigenous communities worldwide to forecast the weather and guide daily livelihood decisions and climate change adaptation measures.
  • The aim of this study was to investigate and document traditional weather forecasting practices among the Afar pastoralists of north-eastern Ethiopia, using focused group discussions and individual interviews.
  • The Afar traditionally predict weather and climate by observing diverse biophysical entities including livestock, insects, birds, trees and other wildlife.
    • In addition, traditional seers, when consulted by local communities or individuals, also make “probabilistic predictions”.
    • The biophysical indicators used in weather prediction are of different types.
  • No single prediction is taken at face value; weather forecasting is a dynamic process whereby information is collected by traditional observation and prediction and triangulated with alternative sources of knowledge, including the formal meteorological weather forecasting system,so as to make the safest and best informed livelihood decisions.
Afar pastoralists construct their houses from the simplest of materials in readiness to be suddenly ordered by the Adda elders to relocate themselves and their livestock (photo credit: <em>Mulubrhan Balehegn/Selam Balehey).</em>

Witsaja iki, or the good life in Ecuadorian Amazonia: Knowledge co-production for climate resilience

By Seble Samuel (CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security)

  • Through the stories and perspectives of the Sapara Nation, located in the Ecuadorian Amazon, this research illustrates local insights and perceptions of environmental change, as well as the onset of the external drivers – natural resources extraction and ecological conservation programmes – influencing the livelihoods and territories of this region.
  • Through participatory resilience workshops, grounded in the framework of the Indigenous Peoples Biocultural Climate Change Assessment Initiative (IPCCA), this research explores themes of territory, hunting and fishing, medicinal plants and agriculture, spiritual worlds and climate prediction.
  • This journeying into traditional ecological knowledge systems illustrates perceptions of time that are cyclical, relational and rooted in the environment; predictions of climate grounded in the insights of dreams, surrounding temperatures and the presence of flora and fauna; and autonomous, resilient Indigenous knowledge systems.
  • These approaches reveal a radically altered environment, one of unpredictable winds and rains, altered wildlife patterns, disappearing species, destroyed habitats and the onset of new illnesses, complicating food sources, traditional livelihoods and mobility.
  • In response, the Sapara Nation is crafting its own vision for its livelihoods and territories, in the midst of a changing climate.

Seeing like the herder: Climate change and pastoralists’ knowledge – insights from Turkana herders in northern Kenya

By Greta Semplici (University of Oxford)

  • This case study explores indigenous knowledge of climate change in drylands, drawing upon ethnographic research among Turkana herders in northern Kenya.
  • It warns against the danger of a univocal and acritical focus on climate change, de-contextualized from local knowledge, practices and performances.
  • It argues that a good starting point for understanding changes in the climate is to incorporate local perceptions into analysis by exploring local meanings of space and time, how people and places relate to each other, and how local knowledge is built, transmitted and, most importantly, changed over time.
  • By taking these elements into account, not only may views of climate change differ to include longer-term and multifactorial explanations, but the views and understandings of local strategies may also acquire a renewed value.
Knowledge transmission to younger generations, Lorengelup, January 2017 (photo credit: Greta Semplici).

The revitalization of shamanic health care in Suriname

By Daniel Cooper (University of Oxford)

  • Climate change poses significant health risks for indigenous peoples.
  • Traditional medicine can play an important role in mitigating these risks, especially in remote areas detached from national health-care systems.
  • Recognizing the challenges and opportunities for intervention, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is working to revitalize shamanic healing in the rainforests of Suriname, a small country on the north-east coast of South America.
  • After a review of the literature on climate change, the physical and human geography of Suriname, traditional and intercultural medicine, and shamanism, this paper draws from fieldwork, interviews, and other sources to analyse the ACT’s Shamans and Apprentices Program.
  • Not only does this partnership combine traditional and modern medicine, but it also works to empower indigenous communities through mapping, training, and the documentation, transfer, and preservation of indigenous knowledge integral to the maintenance of this fragile and abundant Amazonian biome.
  • Ultimately, the case study serves as a model for other indigenous and local communities and policy-makers who aim to improve health care by blending traditional and modern knowledge and technology.

Pastoralist journalists: Producing reports, knowledge, and policy from the pastures

By Allison Hahn (City University of New York)

  • This paper examines the concept of citizen journalism as applied to pastoralists and argues that the media productions made by pastoralists must be recognized as meaningful work on par with other citizen journalist work.
  • From this argument, the paper examines the ways that national and international development organizations have incorporated the work of pastoralists in their reports, media productions and future development projects.

Augmented realities: The digital economy of indigenous knowledge

By Daniel Cooper (University of Oxford) and Nina Kruglikova (University of Oxford)

  • After a review of the literature on indigenous knowledge and the digital economy, this paper draws from diverse sources and personal communications to evaluate an indigenous tech start-up called Indigital.
  • This Aboriginal-owned and operated social enterprise uses cutting-edge digital technology to translate and augment cultural landscapes within the Kakadu World Heritage Area in the Northern Territory of Australia.
  • It aims to create a platform to showcase local sacred sites, knowledge, and technology in compelling ways that contribute to the preservation of heritage and the creation of jobs in the digital economy.
  • Participatory approaches and profit-sharing mechanisms improve the ethical dimension of augmenting cultural assets, but significant risks remain.
  • This case study demonstrates the potential and challenges of creating partnerships intended to empower indigenous individuals and communities through the introduction of digital devices and software applications that store, transmit, and augment reality.

Suggested citation

International Labour Organisation, 2019. Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change: Emerging Research on Traditional Knowledge and Livelihoods. ILO.

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