Updated: Sep 22
Cultural heritage is a valuable resource in the fight against climate change. In particular, the knowledge and practices of Indigenous and local communities can provide valuable insights into how to mitigate and adapt to environmental threats. However, these practices have often been ignored or marginalised by Western science. This article explores the importance of cultural heritage for climate change science, and provides examples of traditional practices that offer lessons for climate policy.
Indigenous Knowledge Systems: Sharing Characteristics with Western Science?
The exact position of Indigenous knowledge systems within the scientific community is currently the subject of debate. While some scholars argue that Indigenous knowledge shares some characteristics with Western empirical science, others see it as a distinct and valuable knowledge system in its own right. Regardless of where it falls on the spectrum, it is clear that Indigenous knowledge can offer important insights into environmental threats and sustainable practices.
Examples of Traditional Practices
The following examples illustrate some of the traditional practices that have been used to address environmental threats and offer lessons for climate policy:
Folk songs to revive ancient water storage methods: In Sri Lanka, women have harnessed folk songs to revive ancient methods for designing and governing water storage systems. By strengthening resilience to drought, these practices offer valuable insights into how to manage water resources in a changing climate.
Inuit-led net-zero emission homes: In Nunavut, Canada, an Inuit-led initiative is building "net-zero emission homes" using traditional materials like snow, stone, driftwood, and animal skins. By incorporating these materials into construction, the homes are able to reduce their carbon footprint and increase their resilience to coastal erosion.
Māori cultural relationship with the environment: In Aotearoa New Zealand, the city of Auckland's climate plan recognises the Indigenous Māori cultural relationship with the environment, including the rights of non-human species. By incorporating traditional values and practices into climate policy, the city is able to create more sustainable and equitable solutions.
Stone tidal weirs as an alternative to plastic fishing gear: In Japan, stone tidal weirs have been used to trap fish close to the coast as an alternative to expendable plastic fishing gear. However, this practice is at risk of disappearing as more villagers abandon traditional practices and move to cities.
Honghe Hani rice terraces: In China's Yunnan province, the Honghe Hani rice terraces use a water management system that is capable of withstanding intense drought. By cutting grooves into a wood barrier at the top of the surrounding mountains, villagers are able to manage water flow to each area. Despite its demonstrated climate resilience, the practice is at risk of being lost as more villagers abandon traditional practices.
Stone walls to prevent erosion: In the Philippines, the Igorot people have used stone walls to support their rice terraces, and more recently, to prevent erosion in settlements on hillsides. As increased rainfall caused by climate change worsens erosion, the use of stone walls offers a valuable tool for buttressing hillside communities.
These examples demonstrate the potential for cultural heritage to inform climate change science. They show that traditional knowledge and practices can offer important insights into how to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. However, they also highlight the importance of preserving cultural heritage, which is at risk of being lost as communities abandon traditional practices and move to cities.
Incorporating cultural heritage into climate policy is essential for creating sustainable and equitable solutions. By recognising and valuing traditional knowledge and practices, we can create a more comprehensive and effective response to climate change. As the examples above illustrate, traditional practices offer valuable lessons for how to manage environmental threats and adapt to a changing climate.