Climate Resilient Strategies: Innovative or Restored Systems?

The Role of Indigenous People in Resilient Adaptation Strategies

The call to action to implement climate resilient strategies at national and regional level can be intimidating, overwhelming, and seemingly impossible. Recommendations are ridden with technical jargon, vague descriptions, and lofty goals that make the transition to resilient systems feel like an impossible feat.

However, once we start to break down the language and detail out actionable points, we realize that these resilient strategies aren’t highly scientific, technical, or novel strategies at all. In fact, these strategies are embedded within the foundation of indigenous social, economic, and governance systems that have since been lost. It would be to our advantage to shift the way we think about, develop and present climate resilient strategies as restored resilient systems, rather than resilient innovations.

A Disruption in Indigenous Resilient Practices

Indigenous people have relied on the earth’s resources for thousands of years. This relationship between humans and nature creates an inherent responsibility to manage and protect resources, rooted in resiliency. Communities living off the island resources to feed their families and generate an income have been practicing resilient strategies for as long as they have been in these places.

Despite indigenous knowledge of ecological processes, their function, and ways to adapt to changing environments, indigenous practices have been abandoned due to global economic and political shifts. During the green revolution in the 60’s and 70’s, sustainable livelihood practices were disrupted and disturbed in favor of more intensive and homogenous practices. These shifts privileged large corporations and larger scale farms and fishery producers, which I discuss in greater specificity to Oceania in my second blog, “Leveraging Climate Resilient Programs to Restore Oceania’s Food System”. Over time, this shift eroded indigenous social, governance and economic systems resulting in a loss of biodiversity, poor land management, and inability to adapt to climate hazards.

Let’s unpack how this shift altered the resilient systems to become less sustainable.

Social. Historically, resilient ecological practices were passed down intergenerationally. With the onset of the green revolution, agricultural practices required the technical support of an extension officer or some other form of outside knowledge. Techniques on how to farm using new seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides needed to be taught to a largely illiterate population, forgoing the oral practice of intergenerational learning held within the community.

Governance. Government programs were rolled out to promote the green revolution. These programs ignored traditional governance systems in resource allocation and resource management decision making. It also rendered traditional law obsolete in solving disputes around land, water, and other common resources creating less cohesive communities.

Economic. The shifts to a more homogenous agricultural system replaced the value of traditional crops like cassava, yams, coconuts, breadfruit, and seaweed. This has had enormous health implications for islanders but has also created a less resilient economy, relying on a few crops, and increasing the agriculture sector’s vulnerabilities to disease and climate hazards.

Restoring Indigenous Systems: Lessons Learned from Vanuatu

Today, more than ever, Oceania will need to return to their resilient adaptation strategies in fisheries and farming to mitigate losses due to climate change. Thankfully, there’s been trends towards recognizing these ancient indigenous practices as resilient and support towards integrating their voices in climate policy. In Vanuatu, the government, international actors, and the Nguna-Pele community have created a community-led sustainable management project to protect a wide network of marine and terrestrial areas. This initiative has served as a flagship  project to demonstrate how national and regional climate-resiliency can be implemented across a diverse set of actors that recognizes and integrates indigenous practices to enhance climate resiliency strategies.

This initiative includes 16 communities and is protecting over 3,000 hectares of reefs, sea grass beds, mangrove forests, and lagoons. Traditional management practices have played a large role in their current management plan, such as the tabu. The tabu are areas that are designated as “no-fishing” zones delineated by traditional authorities to protect and help manage fish populations.

The areas then monitored and enforced by the traditional authorities, building ownership of these resources. Local leaders make key decisions on what type of ocean products will be allowed, informed by their knowledge of the local and national markets. This initiative also places a focus on educating the younger generation, so this overall process can carry over to future generations.

This bottom-up strategy is built on the foundation of local governance, social and economic systems, ensuring that contextual nuances are designed into their management plan.

The Opportunity: Restoring Resilient Strategies from the Bottom-up

The movement to enhance national and regional resiliency has the opportunity to take the lessons learned by the Nguna-Pele initiative and other indigenous systems to ensure community-led resilient strategies become the norm in all economic sectors.

There has been a push to integrate sustainable agriculture into national agricultural strategies in Oceania. This includes training farmers in sustainable methods, offering incentives to certify their production as organic, and diversifying crop markets to include a wider variety of crops. However, it is critical that these strategies include indigenous voices and systems.

Empowering farmers, fisherfolks, communities and local authorities to explore their ancestors’ practices and suggest their preferred methods for maintaining high yields, land and marine health in the wake of climate change may be more effective than continuing the top-down resilient recommendations framed as innovative strategies by international actors.

A bottom-up approach that values indigenous knowledge, abides by local governance and enforcement norms, and works within the local economy will create community-driven, resilient strategies that can be realized within our set climate resiliency goals.

Lauren is a program design specialist committed to promoting food security by co-creating innovations alongside vulnerable communities. She is a technical advisor to two program portfolios in West and East Africa. Her focus is to build up communities to be the drivers of their own change using a participatory and adaptive approach, recognizing that the barriers to food security are complex. By empowering farmers to dissect information about climate, environment, culture, market access and supply, community and household dynamics, Lauren aims to support resilient, self-reliant communities. Lauren actively works towards cultivating teams that develop effective monitoring, evaluation, and learning tools to strategically inform programming to better serve their partner communities. She's a Masters Candidate in Global Policy Studies at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Policy, specializing in evaluative methods and non-profit management. Lauren holds a BSc in Natual Resources and Environmental Science.

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