Traditional Knowledge (TK) and Climate Change

Traditional Knowledge (TK) is accumulated over generations and passed on by word of mouth and through direct experience. TK has played an important role in cultural activities and cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples and is acquired through many years of observations and experiences and is used in everyday activities.

Indigenous Traditional Knowledge Systems and Worldviews

Indigenous peoples who have close relationships with the land are keen observers of the natural environment due to their reliance on it for economic, cultural, social and subsistence ways of life. Extensive studies have been completed on the extent and intensity of land use by northern Indigenous people and their knowledge of such aspects as animal behaviour and biology harvested vegetation species and ecological relationships (ACIA, 2004; Watson et al., 2003; Ashford and Castleden, 2001; Moller et al., 2004). Other studies have been completed for Indigenous communities in the southern regions of Canada that have identified similar issues. Indigenous people rely upon a complex set of indicators to illustrate the state and health of the natural environment and to enable them to operate within it (Fenge, 2001). The relationship with the environment and its associated set of indicators is Traditional Knowledge that is passed on through generations. Traditional Knowledge (TK) of the land by Indigenous peoples was once dismissed by many experts as anecdotal and unreliable but is now broadly recognized as legitimate, accurate and useful. Federal statutes and international agreements, such as the 1997 Canada Oceans Act, Species at Risk Act, Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, Convention on Biological Diversity, The Arctic Council, The International Arctic Science Committee, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and other United Nations bodies recognize and use Traditional Knowledge in reporting and decision making. Indigenous peoples repeatedly offer to share what they know of their environment with the hope and expectation that their observations will assist others to improve humanities engagement within the environment. Passing information and hunting-based skills from one generation to the next provides a partial picture of the past rarely provided by comprehensive scientific monitoring programs (Fenge, 2001). Traditional monitoring methods may be qualitative but they complement science-based approaches because they are founded on observations over long time periods, incorporate large sample sizes, are inexpensive, invite the participation of harvesters as researchers, and they sometimes act as checks for scientifically observed resource and ecosystem change. Federal and Provincial strategies for adaptation measures for the protection and preservation of non-Indigenous communities cultural knowledge will be ineffective and insufficient to protect the Traditional Knowledge of Indigenous peoples.

Traditional Knowledge Systems (cont’d)

The passing of knowledge and teachings from generation to generation in the wake of constant and devastating climate changes directly impacts Indigenous communities ability to implement and maintain the protection of their rights on these lands and territories. Traditional Knowledge is an evolving knowledge base as information and observations are always being added. There is an understanding that the environment is always evolving and is not static, therefore Traditional Knowledge cannot be considered static. In the face of climate change however, Traditional Knowledge is being challenged as a result of the rapid rate at which global temperatures are rising and the effects this has on rapid changes in the environment. The understanding of the environment as a system may start to be challenged due to the high variability brought about by climate change. Many Indigenous peoples are expressing concern over the changing environment. Many of the traditional ways of life and traditional activities are threatened. Much of the knowledge held by the communities is environmentally-based. Methods of predicting weather and environmental conditions are being threatened. The surrounding environment is changing so rapidly that the evolution of Indigenous traditional knowledge systems cannot keep up. Traditional Knowledge observations on changes in distribution, abundance, and diversity of biological species help to shed light on the real concerns of climate change for Indigenous peoples. The use of Traditional Knowledge in climate change studies helps to identify ecological baselines from oral histories for areas where scientific baselines are not available. Its use also allows for ecological impacts of climate change to be linked with the social and cultural impacts of climate change for Indigenous peoples. Similar to Arctic Indigenous peoples, southern Indigenous peoples observations and knowledge about the environment provides an important source of information to climate change. These observations need to be documented in order to provide the same kinds of information for southern Indigenous peoples as Arctic Indigenous peoples have provided for their environment. The passing of knowledge and teachings from generation to generation in the wake of constant and devastating climate changes directly impacts Indigenous peoples and communities’ ability to implement and maintain the protection of their rights on these lands and territories.

The Effects of a Changing Environment on TK

Climate change will bring variability to precipitation levels, temperatures, weather events, and other physical processes associated with ecosystems. This variability in the environment is threatening the predictability of traditional knowledge for Indigenous peoples. The effects of climate change on the predictability of traditional knowledge in northern and southern Indigenous communities is likely similar to the situation in the Inuvialuit population in Sachs Harbour because of a similar reliance on the environment for many aspects of their livelihoods. For instance, several observations from Indigenous people located below the 60th parallel, indicate increased incidences of milder winters, changes in wind and precipitation patterns, less snow in the winter and changes in ice-depth; however, more Indigenous communities need to be engaged in this type of discussion in order to identify the whole range of climate change impacts according to communities who are currently experiencing the effects of a changing climate. The unpredictability of traditional knowledge presents problems for traditional activities, especially for the hunting and harvesting of wildlife and plant species. Hunters are finding it hard to predict ideal hunting conditions or migration patterns of birds and wildlife species.

The Effects of a Changing Environment on TK (cont’d)

The unpredictability of traditional knowledge also presents safety issues for Indigenous peoples. Traditional knowledge of ice conditions is becoming less reliable with variable snow and ice conditions, which threatens the safety of fishers and hunters who travel on the ice for harvesting winter food species. Preliminary research on three Inuit communities on James Bay indicates that hunters from these communities take increased risks when traveling on the land, particularly along the coasts, due to changes in the climate. Hunters in these areas are taking different routes to avoid danger but this adaptive strategy may not work overtime, as increasing temperatures create more instability on the ice. The same is likely true for First Nations although we located no specific studies on this. Changes in plant and animal distributions are affecting the Traditional knowledge and activities that take place in the environment. As the climate changes, there is disruption of natural communities leading to changes in animal and plant distribution.