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Indigenous Peoples' Biocultural Climate Change Assessment Initiative

The United Nations Permanent Forum at its Seventh Session of the Permanent Forum held from 21 April to 2 May 2008 recommended that "...the United Nations University – Institute of Advanced Studies, university research centres and relevant United Nations agencies conduct further studies on the impacts of climate change and climate change responses on indigenous peoples who are living in highly fragile ecosystems".

The impacts of climate change on indigenous communities are significant. The cultures that support TK around the world are often living in marginal ecosystems, such as the Arctic, mountains, deserts and small islands. These marginal ecosystems are often the sources of key ecosystem services (e.g., role of mountain ranges in sustaining water balance) and are critical for maintaining the overall resilience and adaptive capacity of social-ecological systems are most vulnerable to climate change and will suffer the greatest change often for the worse as a result of climate change.

Importantly, the TK of indigenous peoples is proving critically valuable service to the global community. Observations of ecosystem change by indigenous peoples are acting as a sentinel like warning system for climate change. More importantly, the long-term place-based adaptation approaches developed by indigenous peoples provide valuable examples for the global community of low-carbon sustainable lifestyle, critical to developing local adaptations strategies in the face of climate instability. For example, the Inuvialuit of Northern Canada have observed delays in the autumn freeze, and changing sea ice distribution. Changes in sea ice distribution in turn alter the habitation patterns of seals. Such ecological observations are informing scientists and form part of the science base of studies such as the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA).

The ACIA, a project of the eight country Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee notes that climate change is foremost a human and cultural issue. The ACIA further notes that the study confirms mainly what Inuit already knew. The ACIA stresses “ the importance of intensifying natural and social science research on impacts and adaptation, including studies to enhance understanding of fundamental processes and sustainability, procedures for integrating indigenous and local knowledge into scientific studies, and partnerships between Indigenous peoples, local communities, and scientists in defining and conducting research and monitoring associated with Arctic climate and ultraviolet radiation changes”. The ACIA also encourages national and international organisations to take into account the science findings of the ACIA in their programmes.

Paradoxically, indigenous peoples who historically have responded to climate pressures—and who know best how to do so—are now the most marginalized voice in the climate debate. Indigenous peoples continue to be culturally, politically, socially and economically marginalized and, as far as climate change is concerned, they are mentioned only as helpless victims of changes beyond their control. In particular, their knowledge systems have not been recognized as critical to the development of measures for adapting to climate change. Their participation has been limited to discussions about how to link their territories to carbon markets.

While knowledge about the impact of climate change on plant and animal species and ecosystems has grown substantially, knowledge and understanding of the finer scale/community-scale level about climate change's consequences and adaptation/resilience capacity for interdependent social-ecological systems, including local food systems, livelihoods, and cultures, is extremely limited.

In recent years, indigenous peoples have been recognized as powerful knowledge holders on climate change and key actors for developing policy to mitigate and cope with its effects. Indigenous peoples are increasingly aware of climate change as a threat to culture and livelihoods and mobilising to participate in the climate change processes. Challenges and opportunities face indigenous people in engaging effectively in the climate change processes.


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Citation / Reference: 
United Nations University - Informing International Policy on Traditional Knowledge