By Giorgia Magni, Education Research Consultant, and author of a background paper for the 2016 GEM Report
“The preparation for the future begins with the lessons of the past”. These are the words of Tuimoce Fuluna Tikoidelaimakotu, a young member of the Korova settlement in Fiji. The “lessons of the past” he is referring to are those embedded in the traditional knowledge of his community, which have been passed down through the generations. As the 2016 GEM Report due out on the 6 September will show in more detail, these lessons are vital to understanding how to protect the environment around us, and, as such, should be all of our responsibility to protect.
Tuimoce tells a story of how, for centuries, indigenous populations have used their knowledge to adapt to hostile conditions, managing to live in harmony with nature by finding ways to sail the ocean in search of new soils to cultivate and new water sources when their reserves began to run low. Nowadays, this traditional knowledge is more important than ever. Threatened by the negative effects of climate change and the adverse impact of industrialization, it has become vital for these populations to restore and revitalize the knowledge that for centuries has been key to their survival.
Testimonies, such as Tuimoce’s, are very significant as they show the important role played by the younger generations in the maintenance of traditional knowledge among indigenous communities. As I researched in a background paper for the forthcoming GEM Report, keeping this knowledge alive is essential to preventing its loss. Recent research on climate change suggests that the loss of traditional knowledge jeopardizes indigenous peoples’ ability to adapt, prevent and reduce natural disasters in time, thus increasing their vulnerability and risk.
Nevertheless, preventing indigenous communities from losing their traditional sources of knowledge is not easy, and formal schooling is one of the main challenges. The use of one dominant language in school, for example, can create a barrier to the inclusion of indigenous populations in schools. Curricula or textbooks that lack local relevance and devalue indigenous knowledge can clash with traditional teachings.
Attempts to integrate indigenous knowledge and practices in formal education have been made in many regions of the world, but are not enough to make a demonstrable impact. Research shows that the only way to rectify this problem is to involve indigenous communities themselves in the formulation and implementation of education policies.
Even so, despite efforts in this direction, traditional knowledge still possesses a lower status compared to other systems of knowledge. This stems from the stigma that ‘indigenous’ equals underdeveloped, a stigma that has, for centuries, permeated the rhetoric of policy arenas around the world. In these arenas, people have failed to understand that they are being presented not with underdevelopment, but simply a different concept of development from the one they are used to. The concept of development they are being asked to consider incorporates the vision of indigenous peoples and include specific principles like the rights to land and resources, culture and identity and self-determination.
Central to this vision is the notion of buen vivir in which nature is considered a living being with an interdependent, balanced and complementary relationship with humans. The community, rather than the individual, is the main reference for natural and cultural property. Harmony within indigenous communities is reached through a system of equality and respect for all members but particularly women and elders as the primary holders and transmitters of traditional knowledge. Protecting these core values have increasingly become the basis of indigenous peoples’ resistance against all sorts of development policies and projects, which have negatively impacted their populations, including some forms of education.
For centuries, indigenous populations have suffered from invasion and oppression, and oftentimes, they have seen their knowledge eclipsed by western knowledge, imposed on them through western institutions. Yet, indigenous populations have managed to survive, adapting in many ways to adverse political and climate conditions and managing to create sustainable livelihood systems. Their diverse forms of knowledge, deeply rooted in their relationships with the environment as well as in cultural cohesion, have allowed many of these communities to achieve a more sustainable use and management of natural resources, to protect their environment and to enhance their resilience. Their ability to observe, adapt and mitigate has enabled them to face new and complex circumstances that have often severely impacted their way of living and their territories.
In recent years, the deterioration of the conditions of the planet, as well as the increasing awareness of the sustainable ways of living of indigenous populations, have drawn international attention to the importance of preserving and promoting indigenous knowledge. However, this is not enough. We must explore the links between sustainable development and indigenous knowledge further, to understand how indigenous peoples in different regions of the world have been responding to ecological and development challenges. We must recognise that, owing to their knowledge systems, they too can be valuable agents in maintaining global biodiversity and building resilience to climate change.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development encompasses many issues that directly affect indigenous peoples’ lives. Lack of access to relevant education and fair justice, extreme poverty, and unmitigated climate change are only a few of the challenges that indigenous people are facing. If urgent solutions are not found, there will be negative consequences for both the survival of these populations as well as for their valuable knowledge systems. It is therefore vital that the international community starts to recognize indigenous communities as valuable allies in addressing the challenges of climate change reduction and sustainable development. We must urgently start to empower indigenous peoples to uphold and realise their rights and be involved in the decision making process for our common future, enabling them to become active agents of change.