There are nearly 7,000 known languages in the world today. It is predicted that half of these, in many cases vessels of indigenous cultures, will vanish over the next 50 years.
This has been much on the mind of Brigitte Baptiste, who took over this year as director of the Colombian Environment Ministry’s Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute. Although rigorous assessments of indigenous vulnerability have been few and far between, she says, climate change is known to cause shifts in the growth of flora and fauna in local ecosystems, from animal migrations to natural cycles like pollination.
In some places, the shifts in ecosystems require indigenous cultures to rapidly adapt or perish as their traditional means of subsistence becomes harder to sustain.
For example, the Wayuu, who have lived for centuries in Colombia’s arid northwest, depend on the glacially fed Rancheria River as well as two rainy seasons to support a culture rich in fishing and animal husbandry. But glacial retreat means that the river is often at lower levels than it used to be, and seasonal weather is becoming both less predictable and more violent.
Over longer arcs of time, Dr. Baptiste explained by e-mail, indigenous knowledge keeps pace with change, assuring the viability of the community. But in the case of rapid climate change, “if this adaptive capacity, already embedded in the fabric of local cultures, fails to give quick answers, the youngest members of the community may jump out of the tradition.”
Many indigenous youths are already resettling in urban areas because of tribal displacement and the allure of rising economies, a phenomenon exemplified by the Nukak-Makú people of Colombia. Climate change will only compound the problem, Dr. Baptiste said.
She raised this concern in August at Colombia’s Second National Climate Congress.
At first glance, the loss of cultural diversity may seem insignificant in comparison with climate changes like sea-level rise, ocean acidification and mass extinctions of plants or animals. But just as biophysical diversity improves the resilience of natural systems and acts as buffer against adverse conditions, cultural diversity offers a resilient knowledge base for adapting to and counteracting the effects of climate change.
The little-known Kauai Declaration, a two-page document signed by 41 of the world’s preeminent ethnobotanists, states that every culture “represents a distinct philosophical and pragmatic” approach to nature. Each cultural loss therefore diminishes understanding of the world and therefore adaptive capacity, it suggests.
Yet cultural knowledge can in some cases be rediscovered. In the dry and salty high planes of southern Peru, for example, an agricultural technology from 300 B.C., once lost, has again taken root because of its local suitability. The waru waru are a patterned series of earthen berms, raised beds and interstitial canals that make salty soils productive and protect against flooding, drought and frost.
The technology disappeared after the decline of the Tiahuanaco culture around A.D. 1100. Archaeologists rediscovered the system in the 1980s, and a formal waru waru restoration project took root in 1991.
Since its recovery, this traditional technology has become a valuable and widespread agricultural safeguard against increasingly common climatic extremes.
Nascent efforts toward fortifying and preserving indigenous cultures are gaining traction on most continents. In Africa, the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee helps a network of 150 indigenous groups devise local and regional responses to climate change.
In Europe, the Institute of Development Studies is establishing an Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Change Research Network that aims to “look in greater depth at the learning, exchange and valuing of indigenous knowledge on climate change,” according to Blane Harvey, one of the project’s three directors.
North American scientists are collaborating with Inuit leaders to gain an understanding of changes in the Arctic and the potential impacts on native livelihoods.
In Colombia, Dr. Baptiste said that the Humboldt Institute recently introduced a national initiative to include all of the indigenous groups who own common lands in a broader debate about biodiversity management. Indigenous groups hold at least half of the country’s remaining wild forest.
Nonetheless, Dr. Baptiste cautions that at least in Colombia, most discussion surrounding the preservation and dissemination of indigenous culture remains little more than political oratory divorced from concrete action.
Walsh, Dylan. 2011. "Climate Change Takes a Toll on Cultures". New York Times. Posted: September 27, 2011. Available online: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/climate-change-takes-a-toll-on-cultures/