Traditional Knowledge and Climate Change:
An initial exploration


Hari Srinivas
Research Notes Series E-200. August 2023.


Traditional knowledge refers to the wisdom, practices, and beliefs developed by indigenous and local communities over generations. When it comes to climate change, traditional knowledge offers valuable insights and potential solutions. Indigenous peoples have often developed sustainable land and resource management practices that promote ecosystem resilience and mitigate climate change impacts. Their knowledge includes diverse strategies for adaptation and mitigation, such as agroforestry, water management techniques, and biodiversity conservation methods.

Alternate names Some alternate names for the term, "traditional knowledge" include:

Indigenous knowledge, Native wisdom, Local knowledge, Ancestral knowledge, Ethnoscience, Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), Cultural knowledge, Intergenerational knowledge.

Traditional knowledge emphasizes the interconnectedness of humans and nature, fostering a holistic approach to environmental stewardship. It recognizes the importance of maintaining ecological balance, preserving biodiversity, and respecting the Earth's cycles and rhythms.

Integrating traditional knowledge with scientific approaches can enhance climate change solutions. Collaborative efforts that involve indigenous and local communities can lead to more effective and culturally appropriate strategies. This cooperation respects their rights, acknowledges their contributions, and ensures equitable and inclusive outcomes.

Recognizing the value of traditional knowledge and promoting its integration into climate change policies and practices can support sustainable development, strengthen resilience, and foster a deeper understanding of our relationship with the environment.

Defining Traditional Knowledge

Traditional knowledge (TK) is knowledge, know-how, skills and practices that are developed, sustained and passed on from generation to generation within a community, often forming part of its cultural or spiritual identity.

While there is not yet an accepted definition of TK at the international level, it can be said that:

  • TK in a general sense embraces the content of knowledge itself as well as traditional cultural expressions, including distinctive signs and symbols associated with TK.
  • TK in the narrow sense refers to knowledge as such, in particular the knowledge resulting from intellectual activity in a traditional context, and includes know-how, practices, skills, and innovations.
Traditional knowledge can be found in a wide variety of contexts, including: agricultural, scientific, technical, ecological and medicinal knowledge as well as biodiversity-related knowledge.
- World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

There are several examples from Asia where traditional knowledge has been used to develop climate change solutions. Here are a few notable ones:

  1. Community-based Forest Management in Nepal: In Nepal, the concept of community forestry has been successfully implemented, drawing on traditional knowledge and local governance systems. Indigenous communities actively participate in forest management, using their traditional knowledge to restore degraded forests, promote sustainable harvesting practices, and mitigate climate change impacts.

  2. Indigenous Agroforestry in India: In parts of India, indigenous communities have practiced agroforestry for centuries. Agroforestry combines agricultural crops with trees to optimize land use and enhance ecosystem services. Indigenous farmers have integrated traditional knowledge of crop diversity, soil management, and tree planting techniques to develop resilient agroforestry systems that contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

  3. Traditional Water Management Systems in Indonesia: In Indonesia, traditional water management systems known as "subak" have been employed for centuries in Bali. Subak involves cooperative water allocation for irrigation, based on a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. These systems promote sustainable water use, enhance soil fertility, and contribute to climate resilience in agricultural practices.

  4. Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Philippines: Indigenous communities in the Philippines possess rich traditional ecological knowledge that has proven valuable for climate change adaptation. Their knowledge of native plant species, forest management practices, and watershed protection has informed local initiatives to restore degraded ecosystems, conserve biodiversity, and reduce vulnerability to climate-related hazards.

  5. Traditional Rice Cultivation in the Philippines: In the Philippines, indigenous communities practice traditional rice cultivation methods known as "tara-tara" or "sipa-sipa." These methods involve planting rice varieties that are well adapted to local conditions and use organic farming techniques. These practices contribute to climate resilience by conserving water, preserving soil fertility, and maintaining traditional crop diversity.

  6. Indigenous Forest Management in Malaysia: Indigenous communities in Malaysia, such as the Orang Asli, have traditional forest management systems that have been crucial for conservation and climate change mitigation. Their knowledge of forest ecosystems, including the identification of medicinal plants, sustainable harvesting practices, and fire management techniques, has been integrated into forest conservation programs to protect biodiversity and maintain carbon stocks.

  7. Traditional Water Harvesting in Rajasthan, India: In the arid regions of Rajasthan, traditional water harvesting techniques known as "johads" have been employed for centuries. These structures collect and store rainwater, replenishing groundwater and providing a reliable water source during dry periods. Traditional knowledge of johad construction and maintenance has been revived and integrated into community-led initiatives for water conservation and climate resilience.

  8. Indigenous Knowledge in the Himalayas: Indigenous communities in the Himalayan region possess extensive traditional knowledge related to climate change adaptation. Their knowledge includes forecasting weather patterns, managing water resources, and developing resilient agricultural practices. This knowledge has been leveraged to implement community-based adaptation strategies, such as the construction of check dams, terracing, and promotion of traditional crop varieties.

  9. Traditional Fishery Practices in Southeast Asia: In coastal communities of Southeast Asia, traditional knowledge of sustainable fishing practices has been instrumental in fisheries management and climate change resilience. Indigenous fisherfolk have developed techniques such as fish sanctuaries, seasonal fishing bans, and community-based marine protected areas. These practices promote fish stock conservation, maintain marine biodiversity, and enhance community resilience to climate-related impacts such as sea-level rise and coral bleaching.

  10. Integrated Mangrove-Aquaculture Systems in Vietnam: In coastal areas of Vietnam, traditional knowledge has been employed to develop integrated mangrove-aquaculture systems. These systems combine shrimp or fish farming with the cultivation of mangrove trees, which act as natural filters and provide habitat for various species. The traditional knowledge of local communities regarding the selection of suitable species, water management, and ecological interactions has been integrated into the design and management of these systems, promoting sustainable aquaculture practices and biodiversity conservation.

  11. Floating Raft Aquaculture in Vietnam: In parts of Vietnam, traditional floating raft aquaculture techniques have been practiced for centuries. These systems involve the cultivation of fish and shellfish in floating baskets or rafts in freshwater bodies such as ponds, lakes, or rivers. Indigenous communities have passed down their knowledge of fish species selection, feeding practices, and water quality management, allowing for the sustainable production of fish while minimizing environmental impacts.
There are several institutions and networks that are actively working on integrating traditional knowledge into climate change solutions. Here are a few notable ones:

  1. Local Biodiversity Outlooks (LBO) - LBO is a global initiative led by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities working in partnership with the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). LBO aims to amplify the voices of indigenous peoples and local communities and integrate their traditional knowledge into biodiversity conservation and climate change policies.

  2. Tebtebba Foundation - Tebtebba Foundation is an indigenous peoples' organization based in the Philippines that works on issues related to indigenous peoples' rights, sustainable development, and climate change. They actively promote the integration of traditional knowledge into climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies and advocate for the recognition and respect of indigenous peoples' rights.

  3. International Indigenous Peoples' Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) - IIPFCC is a platform that brings together indigenous peoples from around the world to engage in international climate change negotiations. The forum works to ensure the meaningful participation and inclusion of indigenous peoples in climate policy-making processes and advocates for the recognition and protection of traditional knowledge.

  4. International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples (INMIP) - INMIP is a network that focuses on the impacts of climate change on mountain ecosystems and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples living in mountain regions. The network promotes the integration of traditional knowledge and indigenous practices into climate change adaptation strategies and advocates for the rights and well-being of mountain indigenous communities.

  5. Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) - AIPP is a regional organization that works on promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples in Asia. AIPP actively engages in climate change issues and supports the integration of traditional knowledge and indigenous perspectives into climate change policies, resilience-building efforts, and sustainable development initiatives.

  6. Indigenous Peoples' Climate Change Assessment Initiative (IPCCA) - IPCCA is a global network of indigenous peoples' organizations and communities that focuses on assessing the impacts of climate change and documenting traditional knowledge and practices for climate change adaptation and mitigation. The network aims to empower indigenous communities in shaping climate policies and strategies by showcasing the effectiveness of traditional knowledge in addressing climate change challenges.

  7. International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) - ICIMOD is a regional intergovernmental organization that works on sustainable mountain development in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. ICIMOD promotes the integration of traditional knowledge and indigenous practices into climate change adaptation and resilience-building efforts. They collaborate with local communities and partners to develop innovative solutions that draw on traditional knowledge while incorporating scientific research and policy expertise.

Capturing Traditional Knowledge

Capturing traditional knowledge requires a respectful and participatory approach that involves close collaboration with indigenous peoples and local communities. Here are some suggested methods and best practices for capturing traditional knowledge:

  • Community Engagement: Engage with indigenous communities and local stakeholders from the outset. Build trust, establish relationships, and ensure their meaningful participation in the knowledge capture process. Seek their consent, involve community leaders and knowledge holders, and respect their intellectual property rights and protocols.

  • Oral History and Storytelling: Traditional knowledge is often transmitted orally through stories, legends, and narratives. Conduct interviews and storytelling sessions with community elders, knowledge holders, and practitioners to document their experiences, practices, and observations related to climate change and environmental management.

  • Participatory Mapping: Utilize participatory mapping techniques to document indigenous territories, resource areas, and significant ecological features. Combine traditional mapping methods with modern technologies such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to create spatial representations that capture traditional ecological knowledge.

  • Ethnographic Research: Employ ethnographic research methods to understand the cultural context and practices associated with traditional knowledge. This may include participant observation, fieldwork, and in-depth interviews to gather detailed insights into indigenous perspectives, beliefs, and practices related to climate change.

  • Knowledge Exchange Workshops: Organize knowledge exchange workshops or community gatherings where indigenous peoples can share their traditional knowledge and practices related to climate change adaptation and mitigation. These platforms provide opportunities for intergenerational learning, dialogue, and the transfer of knowledge.

  • Collaborative Research Partnerships: Foster long-term research partnerships with indigenous communities and local organizations. Co-design research projects, ensure equitable sharing of benefits and knowledge, and involve community members as active collaborators and co-researchers throughout the process.

  • Documentation and Archiving: Document the captured traditional knowledge using appropriate media, such as written records, audio recordings, photographs, videos, and digital platforms. Develop accessible and culturally appropriate archives that respect community protocols, intellectual property rights, and privacy concerns.

Appendix 1:
Further information -

Appendix 2:
Traditional Knowledge and the UN

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as various UN agencies and international organizations, recognize the importance of traditional knowledge in addressing climate change:

IPCC reports acknowledge the value of traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation and mitigation. It recognizes that indigenous and local knowledge systems provide valuable insights into climate impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation strategies. They emphasize the importance of integrating traditional knowledge with scientific knowledge for more comprehensive and context-specific climate solutions.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recognizes traditional knowledge as a critical resource for climate action. They advocate for the incorporation of traditional knowledge into climate change policies, strategies, and projects to enhance resilience and sustainability. It emphasizes the importance of engaging indigenous peoples and local communities in decision-making processes to ensure the recognition and protection of their rights and knowledge.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) acknowledges the contributions of traditional knowledge to climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. They highlight the need to respect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities and recognize their traditional knowledge as an essential component of climate action. The UNFCCC encourages the inclusion of traditional knowledge in national adaptation plans and the sharing of experiences and best practices among countries.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recognizes the importance of traditional knowledge in biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation. They emphasize the need to integrate traditional knowledge into policies and practices related to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The CBD promotes the equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of traditional knowledge and encourages the active involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities in decision-making processes.

UNESCO: UNESCO recognizes the significance of traditional knowledge in sustainable development and climate change resilience. They promote the safeguarding and promotion of traditional knowledge systems, including indigenous knowledge, as part of their efforts to preserve cultural diversity and foster sustainable practices. UNESCO highlights the interconnections between cultural and natural heritage, acknowledging the role of traditional knowledge in fostering sustainable relationships with the environment.

UNEP: UNEP recognizes the value of traditional knowledge in addressing climate change challenges. They emphasize the need to integrate traditional knowledge into climate change policies, strategies, and actions to enhance environmental sustainability. UNEP encourages the active involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities in decision-making processes related to climate change, considering their traditional knowledge as a vital resource for effective and context-specific climate solutions.

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Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org