Indigenous design draws from Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and brings cultural relevance and innovation to climate change adaptation. Indigenous design is also cognizant and respectful of Indigenous cultural traditions. There are several examples of Indigenous design as it relates to climate change, including practicing cultural burning and building infrastructure and architecture using local sustainable materials harvested locally.
Cultural burning is a form of slow controlled fires. The practice of cultural burning has different purposes among diverse Indigenous communities. In addition to managing wildfires, cultural burning is also practiced for “cultural and language preservation, fuel mitigation, food and medicinal plant revitalization, and habitat enhancement.” Cultural burning is a form of TEK, based on many centuries of experience among Indigenous peoples, and continues to be practiced worldwide. Australian architect, Julia Watson, uses the term “Lo-TEK” to reflect “resilient infrastructures developed by Indigenous people through Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” According to Watson, “Lo-TEK” subverts the term “low-tech,” which is a reference to outdated technology. Watson proposes that the term “Lo-TEK” is a much better description of Indigenous TEK in contemporary designs that work with nature and the climate. In turn, cultural burning is a form of Lo-TEK.
Some examples of Indigenous design in architecture include buildings that minimize environmental impact using sustainable materials like mud, bamboo, and adobe brick. Houses in the Mizoram region of Northeastern India—referred to as Zawlbuk houses—are built using bamboo, which grow readily in the local forests. The houses use “wood, leaves of trees, mud, grass, and straw” and have been known to survive natural disasters, like floods. Building with adobe brick is “an ancient construction method…dating back to 8300 BC” and a useful alternative to wood in arid regions. Adobe brick is used in building houses around the world, including in rural Kyrgyzstan and among the Pueblo in southwestern United States. This traditional construction method permits a home to remain cool during the day and for the sunbaked bricks to slowly release heat overnight, revealing the adobe brick’s high thermal mass.
Indigenous design, including climate-related TEK, is at great risk of appropriation by non-Indigenous governments and practitioners, if there are no legal frameworks to protect it. Greater respect for, and promotion of, Indigenous engagement is needed to determine if, when, and how TEK is documented and shared. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has created a toolkit to assist Indigenous communities, and those who work with Indigenous peoples, to reflect upon whether TEK practices are documented (or need to be), and if so, how to do so fairly. Given that climate-related Indigenous knowledge has been recognized by the United Nations as a way forward, intellectual property will remain an important challenge to address before more widely integrating Indigenous design in climate change adaptation planning.
In turn, any effort in advancing the application of TEK, and therefore, Indigenous design, in climate change policy will require that Indigenous peoples are not sidelined from sustainable development policy and planning processes.
By Leela Viswanathan
(Image Credit: Eric Barbeau, Unsplash)