How is Indigenous and local knowledge being lost due to climate change? Exploring tangible and intangible cultural heritage in the face of change.

Human-driven climate change has already begun to lead to loss of life, biodiversity, social cohesion, and cultural knowledge. Indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) and cultural heritage are especially affected, especially the aspects thereof that are not embedded in physical or tangible heritage and are rather abstract. There has been a growth in the past three decades of research into local, traditional, and Indigenous knowledge associated with environmental management. Pearson et al. (2021) therefore created a novel approach by focussing and synthesising literature on intangible ILK and cultural heritage to understand how climate change drives the loss thereof.

The Pacific Climate Warriors, 350 Fiji Day of Action. Image Credits: Jeff Tan.

The authors conducted a systematic review of 100 studies to collect knowledge on the current state of research on ILK and cultural heritage, and how they are affected by climate change, along with identifying knowledge gaps and finding solutions and future research pathways.

Pearson et al. (2021) discovered four main themes of research: Indigenous socioecological systems, Indigenous and local knowledge, physical cultural heritage, and intangible cultural heritage. There was a prominent focus on studies related to physical cultural heritage, such as archaeological sites and cultural landscapes. Archaeological sites and cultural landscapes are mostly threatened by climate change, human development, sea level rise and coastal erosion. The authors argued that this research needs to be shared with government agencies for them to act on, and more documenting and digital archiving of cultural heritage could occur for cases of unavoidable loss.

Indigenous socio-ecological systems are being affected by climate change all around the world. Pearson et al. (2021) found that both voluntary and involuntary relocations in the Arctic, delta and island landscapes represented the ways in which Indigenous cultures and knowledge were being impacted by climate change, and why cultural preservation efforts are desperately needed to prevent further losses.

Intangible cultural heritage in the form of cultural practices and traditions, cultural identity, and sense of place are all being altered by climate change impacts. The authors argued that cultural heritage is significant for resilience and social cohesion capacities to be maintained, therefore this loss is particularly concerning. Climate change was found to strongly affect livelihoods, the land itself, and the way that people associate and identify with the land and culture. Pearson et al. (2021) outlined that since culture is intrinsically linked to place, traditions, and practices, when places change due to climate-induced displacement, relocation, and landscape changes, intangible cultural losses ensue.

The authors also emphasised the role that Indigenous and local knowledge plays in adapting to climate change, and therefore the well-documented loss of such knowledge due to globalisation, climate change and lingering effects of colonisation, is particularly concerning. Aspects of indigenous knowledge such as traditional weather forecasting, traditional medicine, and culturally significant species are suffering due to the impacts of climate change.

Pearson et al. (2021) found that overall, climate change was having severe and detrimental impacts upon Indigenous socioecological systems, including intangible and tangible cultural heritage, although the latter was better documented. Emergent literature is exploring intangible cultural heritage, and ILK systems are gaining recognition as an important climate adaptation tool. The authors highlighted that looking into past and current losses documented in empirical research is needed in order to develop culturally appropriate management and adaptation solutions and prevent further cultural heritage losses in the future.

Learn more about Indigenous and local knowledge and cultural heritage by reading the full article by Pearson et al. (2021) here.

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