African Indigenous People against Climate Change

Indigenous people are among the hardest hit by climate change, but they have developed extraordinary ways of dealing with environmental degradation, and are using traditional knowledge to face scarcity.
UN Secretary General, Leonardo Di Caprio and Gertrude Clement, a young activist from Tanzania pose with indigenous climate activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim after she spoke at the Paris

Readers, if they are avid followers of international climate negotiations, may have heard of Raoni Metuktire, chief of the Brazilian Kayapo indigenous people, who rose to fame through his struggle to preserve the rain-forest and the livelihood of his people, but they may be less aware that the indigenous struggle against the devastating effects of climate change stretches well beyond the Amazon. The indigenous movement has notably found strong advocates in Africa.

Indigenous climate activists on the continent have engaged in a race against time to preserve the fragile ecosystems on which their peoples’ ways of life depend. As Dr. Mohamed Handaine, a historian and North African regions representative to the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC) explains, indigenous people are among the hardest hit by climate change. The zones inhabited by indigenous people often coincide with zones of great biodiversity, a biodiversity which is being endangered by human activity.

Indigenous people have, however, developed extraordinary ways of dealing with environmental degradation, and are using traditional knowledge to face scarcity. At a side event on the contribution of African Indigenous People to limiting and adapting to climate change at the Bonn UN climate negotiations which took place between the 16th and the 26th of May, Dr. Handaine talks of the various strategies adopted by North African indigenous people.

“The system of Agadir”, he says, “represents the genius of indigenous people”. The Agadir is a collective granary managed by indigenous tribes. In times of plenty, the Agadir serves as a storage place. In times of need, it gives indigenous people the supplies they need. The Agadir works according to intricate and strict rules. Each family has its own storage room, and entry to the Agadir is strictly monitored by a “person of trust” chosen by the tribe. The only ones allowed to enter without restriction are cats and snakes, who have their own little entrance in the form of a window and who protect the grain against mice. More than guaranteeing the necessary supply of food, the Agadir, by storing different types of seeds, is also key to preserving local biodiversity. This is something that new generations facing the devastation brought on by climate change are increasingly becoming aware of: “The Agadirs were abandoned, but now young people are actually rebuilding them”, Dr Handaine says.

Another way Northern African indigenous people preserve biodiversity is through the Agdal system. This is, once again, an enclosed space, to which entry is regulated by customary law, and where different plants are grown and protected to guarantee future sowing. “Everything within that space”, Dr Handaine says, “is entitled to respect. Birds, reptiles, plants, they are all sacred.”

Collective management of water through the system of Tanast, which ensures the most efficient distribution among tribe members, is another example of the ingenious ways indigenous people in Africa are dealing with scarcity. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an indigenous woman from the Mbororo pastoralist community of Chad and co-Chair of the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change, speaking at the same side event, argues that traditional knowledge is more helpful to indigenous people in their struggle against global warming than so called “modern science”. “Our knowledge of plants and animals is what first alerted us to the arrival of climate change”, she explains. “We saw new species arriving. In my village, we don’t even have electricity. We have to rely on our traditional knowledge”. Although she acknowledges that this cannot be a solution to all the damage caused by climate change, and that “modern science” and traditional knowledge working together could bring positive results to communities, she would like to see more recognition of the latter, and the rights of indigenous people taken more seriously by the international community.

The value of traditional indigenous knowledge in the global struggle against climate change is being increasingly recognised. Through its Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) program, the UNESCO has made the question one of its top priorities and is acknowledging the “significant role” of indigenous people “in sustaining the diversity of the world’s cultural and biological landscape”. The LINKS program aims to “advocate recognition and mobilization of the unique knowledge, know-how and practices of local and indigenous peoples in order to strengthen their capacity to make their own informed choices for a sustainable future”.

Ségolène Royal, the French president of the UN climate talks, addressing civil society members at the Bonn climate conference, also recognized the value of indigenous knowledge, stating: “This is something we are coming back to after having experienced the negative effects of unbridled industrialization”.

Despite some recognition, the indigenous demand to be included in the Paris Agreement was largely unheard by the international community, as they were only mentioned in the preamble to the Agreement. Indigenous people continue to be victims of the degradation of their environments and of land grabbing. They now hope that in implementing their plans to mitigate and adapt to climate change, national governments will hear their voices.

Giselle Bernard

Giselle is a Franco-British student of European Social and Political Sciences at Sciences Po and University College London. In Paris, she organised Model United Nations conferences, which developed her passion for international politics. She is now based in London, and her studies focus on the social and political aspects of sustainable development. She also recently became a volunteer in an association to support immigrant detainees in the UK.
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