Climate Action

How Indigenous expertise is empowering climate action: A case study from Oceania

Indigenous Peoples are the world's foremost experts on preserving the climate and biodiversity — listening to them is the key to protecting our planet.

Indigenous Peoples are the world's foremost experts on preserving the climate and biodiversity — listening to them is the key to protecting our planet. Image: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Amanda Young
Executive Director, Pollination
Ginelle Greene-Dewasmes
Community Specialist, Global Shapers Community, World Economic Forum
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  • Industrial-scale capitalism and mass urbanization have accelerated environmental degradation, necessitating a reconnection with nature and Indigenous expertise.
  • Indigenous knowledge systems offer holistic approaches to environmental sustainability and are increasingly recognized for their value in climate action.
  • Examples like traditional fire management and innovative applications of Indigenous knowledge demonstrate the potential for collaboration and cross-pollination between Indigenous and other practices to address climate and ecological challenges.

On Monday 15 April 2024, the largest global annual gathering of Indigenous Peoples kicked off at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, with participants calling for greater efforts to close financial gaps for Indigenous Peoples. Next month, Sydney Climate Action Week during May 13-19 will take place in Australia, a series of community-led events across Sydney from all aspects of the climate action ecosystem.

Such a coming together of stakeholders presents a prime opportunity to explore how traditional regional innovation models can contribute global solutions under a more inclusive climate agenda.

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Disconnection from nature is exacerbating climate change

Industrial-scale capitalism has accelerated the erosion of climate and ecological systems. Mass urbanization has driven economic growth and extractive industries on scales previously unimaginable. Sadly, these trends are increasing. Around 2007, the United Nations estimated, we had reached a tipping point in the world: more people were living in urban than rural areas. By 2022, 57% of all humans became urban based. In developed nations, a whopping 80% of citizens are urban. Both of these trends are predicted to increase.

This is reflected in how we are responding to the climate emergency. We are rapidly losing our connection to nature, with scarce nature feedback loops in citified life. This skews our perceptions and worldviews. Our academies are urban, our scientists are trained and our businesspeople, financiers, teachers, politicians are upskilled in mostly urban landscapes. Atrophied natural knowledge leaves us unequipped for dealing with the complexity of ecosystems. We need to humbly acknowledge the true experts in nature, Indigenous people, and ask for their guidance, meeting with our resources to activate this expertise.

Indigenous knowledge in climate action

“The planet’s ill health has largely come about because humans have forgotten their relationship and responsibility to country. Imagine if we could tap into the way First Nations cultures focus on deep, holistic connections to the environment to help us rethink environmental and health policies.”

Dr Veronica Matthews, University of Sydney

Although Indigenous knowledge systems have been built on millennia of lived experience, iteration and adaptation, they have too often been ignored.

Today, however, there is growing interest in the value of Indigenous knowledge systems in the wake of environmental and climate challenges. In contrast to non-indigenous value systems, indigenous value systems focus on environmental sustainability as an end in itself that is required for cultural, social and economic well-being. The knowledge we have lost is still very much alive in Indigenous worlds, built through millennia of observation and ecological management.

The world needs to reframe both the role and deep knowledge of Indigenous people as experts. Signs of this shift are already emerging. In carbon and emerging biodiversity markets, any project involving, run by or partnered with Indigenous people attracts a premium carbon credit price in recognition of the deeper integrity, provenance and permanence Indigenous people bring that mitigate greenwashing claims.

Harnessing Indigenous expertise for modern global impact

An example of superior Indigenous technology is found in traditional fire management. Western fuel reduction strategies have triggered catastrophic fires when containment lines are broken, but Indigenous people have practiced for millennia “cool burning” that allows time for biodiversity to move to safety. This knowledge is needed across Europe and North America, both of which have experienced staggering brush fires. According to Firesticks, the not-for-profit Indigenous network, “aboriginal fire management has become a priority for community, cultural, social and environmental wellbeing”. This awareness showcases an example of the acknowledged inter-relatedness of knowledge, land, culture and identity — and the prioritization of environmental wellbeing alongside the community and culture.

Alongside ancient practices sit novel applications of Indigenous knowledge. Rainstick, a novel biotech company that was inspired by the traditions of the Maiawali People of central west Queensland, Australia, has built on a 10,000-year-old practice that acknowledges the influence of lightning on how plants grow. The resulting approach combines ancient expertise with modern technology to show that indigenous knowledge is ever-changing and can be applied in new and novel ways for climate action. Another example can be found in Savimbo fair trade credits, which is Indigenous at its core — removing intermediaries to ensure Indigenous experts can attract capital to resist further incursion into precious Indigenous-managed lands by developers.

Indigenous people are also sharing their profound knowledge with each other to manage and fix the problem of climate change. In the Ampliseed network, Indigenous people managing lands as diverse as the snow-covered Boreal Forest in Canada, World Heritage Listed Coral Reefs, tropical rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon, Mediterranean habitat in Chile and Australia’s 10 vast central deserts are cross-pollinating their knowledge, navigating the climate disaster and creating global impact at the Climate and Biodiversity CoPs.

Next steps for applying Indigenous expertise

Given that 80% of remaining biodiversity is on Indigenous lands and in Indigenous hands, it is clear with the emerging biodiversity markets that Indigenous people are the primary market actors. Therefore, financing models need to evolve in order to safeguard and invest in the role of Indigenous people as stewards and equity owners of the conservation of the precious remaining biodiversity. Similarly, financing all other opportunities to cross-pollinate Western and Indigenous knowledge systems is essential.

The growing body of evidence reveals a simple truth: Indigenous people hold a key to our collective response to climate and ecological challenges.

Indigenous-led organizations are thriving by sharing this knowledge, and people and the planet are benefiting in turn.

With contributions from Harry Guinness, Head of Net Zero Strategy, Greenhouse.

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