Indigenous knowledge, permaculture, and climate change adaptation

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The traditional environmental knowledge of many indigenous peoples includes mechanisms for navigating the variability, uncertainty and unpredictability inherent in complex ecological systems. This can predispose them to adapt successfully to the effects of climate change. However, these effects, especially when they are accompanied by or coincide with social, cultural, economic and ecological change, may have impacts beyond what traditional systems can accommodate. In many places, much important knowledge has been lost, or the socio-cultural systems that support it changed dramatically. Permaculture can support the recovery of traditional knowledge, its integration with other forms of knowledge and practice, and the development of new approaches viable in present-day circumstances. Key examples include the Chikukwa Project in Zimbabwe, the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP) in Guatemala, and The Suvraga Aguyt Cooperative in Mongolia.

IMAP was founded in 2000 by a group of Kakchiquel Maya concerned about the serious environmental, social and cultural problems affecting Guatemala. Its approach blends permaculture with traditional Mayan knowledge, practices, beliefs and cosmology. Through community service, popular education, consultancy and group visits, it supports local indigenous farmers to respond to key climate change impacts such as drought and excess rainfall, loss of soil fertility and soil erosion, and increasing pests and diseases. Courses and workshops combine permaculture principles and design methods; novel techniques in areas like water management, soil protection and use of social technologies for community organisation; and aspects of tradition belief and practice like the Mayan planting calendar. Participants in courses include community leaders and representatives of NGOs from throughout Guatemala. Most transmit their learning further through word of mouth and informal peer learning among farmers, so new knowledge remains tightly embedded in traditional systems.

A particularly important areas of IMAP's work is the conservation and use of traditional seed varieties: historically selected to fit local conditions and needs, and representing a reservoir of agrodiversity that can underpin flexible production strategies and resilience to changing weather conditions. As in many other places, traditional varieties in Guatemala are themselves under great threat due to aggressive marketing of commercial hybrid seeds by large agricultural suppliers. Less suited to local conditions and with little tolerance for variability in growing conditions, they are not integrated with traditional production systems and techniques. Adoption of hybrid seeds can contribute to degradation of local knowledge and capacity for self-sufficiency, permanently locking people into dependency upon both the seeds and the high levels of external inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, etc.) required for their cultivation. It thus undermines local resilience and adaptive capacity at a systemic level, so people are more likely to require external assistance to support adaptation.[1]

IMAP's contribution to disaster relief efforts following hurricanes in 2005, 2008 and 2010 highlights how strong local capacities for risk management and response can complement centralised efforts on the part of governments and international agencies. Use of permaculture methods to provide temporary provision of food, water and shelter for destitute families created a model, refined on each occasion, on which to base future responses. Partnerships with international and local relief services and NGOs established during theis work provide a platform for future collaboration. By lobbying, developing educational resources and implementing measures to control soil erosion, it is building longer term measures that will directly mitigate the effects of future extreme weather events and strengthen local capacities to cope with and recover from them.

The Suvraga Aguyt Cooperative in Mongolia uses permaculture as a framework to combine traditional and novel expertise to adapt to changing weather conditions, including winter temperatures as low as -40°C and scarce and unpredictable rainfall, that make their traditional way of life inviable. Livestock shelters have been redesigned for heat retention, and are now heated with animal manure and insulated with furs, that in previous times were discarded. People with little or no previous experience of agriculture are now cultivating a range of vegetables for home consumption and sale, broadening their livelihood base. Abandoned Soviet era buildings have been revamped as passive solar greenhouses, creating favourable microclimates for seedling and plant growth so a greater range of crops can grow.[2]

The Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka hosts annual Permaculture Design courses that support residents to supplement their existing agricultural knowledge with suitable, culturally compatible, permaculture techniques.[3] Permaculture ethics intersect closely with villagers' Buddhist values that revere all life, an example of the links between permaculture practice and changing worldviews.

  3. Birnbaum, J. & L. Fox, 2014. Sustainable Revolution. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. Pp. 132-139.