Mother Nature Always knows Best: How Indigenous knowledge may be a Practical Defense Against Climate Change
Written by: Gyles Ward ‘21
Edited by: Jordan Feldman ‘24
Our elders often hold the answers to life’s greatest quandaries; but can they also hold the answer to climate change? While the industrialized world races against time to find novel technological solutions to the specter of global warming, the Yao elders of Northern Vietnam have already found a natural and effective alternative, indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is a collection of traditional environmental practices developed through centuries of experiential learning and empirical evidence. In the absence of technology, a number of native communities in Northern Vietnam use Indigenous knowledge as a barrier against the brutal implications of climate change on agricultural production . Could this be a strategy adopted by other agricultural economies? Can indigenous knowledge provide what contemporary science can’t; an accessible, cost effective, natural solution for developing nations?
A 2019 study (Son et al, 2019) examined the use of indigenous knowledge by the Yao people, located in the Phuc Loc commune in the Ba Be district of Northern Vietnam. Researchers focused on two villages within the Phuc Loc commune, Phieng Chi and Na Ma; home to 53 and 37 households respectively. Approximately, 88.46% of Phieng Chi households and 75% of Na Ma households are impoverished.
Climate change has made drastic seasonal weather a defining feature of Northern Vietnam. The rainy season during summer exhibits heat waves, landslides, and floods. Conversely, the dry season during winter exhibits extreme droughts and cold spells . With increasing annual mean temperatures, droughts have become exceptionally catastrophic in the last decade . Since agriculture is the primary source of income in both villages, seasonal changes have both environmental and economic implications. In fact, in 2010/2011, a series of landslides and flash floods from August to September killed livestock, demolished crops and buried agricultural fields. A few years later in 2014, a long heat surge from May to June decimated water reservoirs needed for irrigation. Temperatures hit as high as 35-40 degrees Celsius. These extreme weather events not only interrupt cultivating patterns but they also delay production, ultimately reducing annual revenue for an already poor community .
So, how does indigenous knowledge mitigate the impact of extreme weather events? The answer is twofold. Firstly, Yao farmers use native crops that have adapted to extreme environments. For instance, local rice strains, Khâu Ban (regular rice) and biaobut (glutinous rice) are drought resistant and easily grown in mountainous environments. Farmers also opt for native livestock such as tùngkía (black pig) and chàymuôn (black chicken), which are cold hardy, produce quality meat, and suffer from less disease. These alternatives are also inexpensive to harvest, and thus widely accessible to impoverished households .
Secondly, these indigenous populations forecast the weather by tracking behavioral changes in native species. This allows time to adjust farming patterns and prepare for imminent damage . For example, if bee hives are situated in a high position, the weather will be hot. Inversely, if they are low situated, the weather will be cold. Phonological patterns of certain plant and tree species also reveal weather changes. If yellow moss grows on the surface of a pond, rainfall should be expected within two days. If mushrooms (chiều bì súng) are spotted in the forest, heavy rainfall will occur after 3 days. Farmers also observe irregular occurrences in the troposphere and night skies. If the moon is seen with illuminous white rings around it, expect a dry spell. If the night sky appears red, there will be a storm .
While Indigenous knowledge has proven to be a useful strategy against climate change, it’s not foolproof. Native crops may be better suited for local climates but they don't often yield large enough quantities to furnish food demands across households. Furthermore, as the effects of climate change worsen, weather changes become less and less predictable, rendering weather forecasting obsolete. Moreover, younger generations find indigenous knowledge anachronistic and irrelevant. They're enamored by new technologies emerging from the west. So how can we both improve and sustain indigenous knowledge techniques for the future ?
Perhaps a collaboration of scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge is the perfect answer. In fact, the Yao people have already implemented such innovations. Native crops are genetically engineered to yield higher and better quality crops. For instance, arrowroot is a native crop that fares well in highlands and is tolerant of local climate; however, it has low yields due to soil inadaptability. So, farmers have started using arrowroot-DR1, which is a genetically enhanced form of arrowroot that has soil adaptability and higher yields. Additionally, more agriculture workers incorporate meteorology in their forecasting practices, using TV forecasts to fine-tune their own techniques .
This marriage of culture and science is indicative of a productive union between the Yao people and the government. Still and all, some indigenous groups resist government intervention on spiritual and ideological grounds. Indigenous knowledge is, in a way, the language of self-determination and autonomy for indigenous groups . What the relationship between the Yao people and their government models for us is that new technology can be thoughtfully and sparsely implemented in indigenous communities without stultifying their freedom. If other developing nations follow this model, it would doubtless result in a shift towards more culturally inclusive science.