Understanding the environment and climate change: The role of African indigenous
knowledge in scientific enquiry

By Paul Omondi and Collison Lore

In its latest insight report titled Embedding Indigenous Knowledge in the Conservation and Restoration of Landscapes, the World Economic Forum (WEF) acknowledges that Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) are vital to environmental conservation and climate change action because IKS are a result of complex and long-term insight.   

IKS, also known as traditional ecological knowledge, comprise knowledge developed within indigenous societies prior to the advent of modern scientific knowledge systems. Indigenous people from all over the world have engaged in patient, observational science and practice as part of their cultural sustainability activity for tens of years, holding knowledge of great value to any investments in nature and climate change.

Unfortunately, increased investment in conservation, climate change and sustainable development to limit global warming to the 1.5-degree climate target is rarely channeled towards the harnessing of indigenous knowledge.

According to the WEF report, “… the failure to consider long-term outcomes risks misaligning responses to shared long-term problems, misdirecting vital financial resources and failing to optimize impact and returns for the parties attempting to invest in nature and climate change.” Often, the failure to consider long-term thinking is attributed to unpredictability or complexity of unplanned outcomes, two areas where indigenous knowledge trumps, particularly in regard to nature-based investments.

Prof. Deen Sanders of Deloitte Access Economics explains that: “In Australian indigenous culture, we hold that we are of the landscape. Our language and culture are formed by it. It is our Mother.” This intrinsically implies that conservation and sustainable utilization of natural resources is an integral part of the aboriginal culture.

In Eastern Africa, one area of keen interest to stakeholders is Indigenous weather forecasting (IWF). Meteorological services at the grassroots level are feeble and the mistrust of external ideas in close-knit societies also undermine the acceptance of modern scientific weather forecasting. As a result, agro-pastoralists frequently rely on indigenous weather forecasting approaches. This is the case among the Turkana community in North Western Kenya.

Though IWF has been dismissed in some quarters as ‘unscientific’ and unreliable, IWF and scientific forecasting in some cases arrive at uncannily similar conclusions. Is there a way these two methodologies can co-exist as complementary sources of knowledge without being considered mutually exclusive? Agro pastoralists in Turkana, Kenya, for instance, use a combination of meteorological, biological and astrological indicators to predict the weather and to make vital agricultural production decisions. This is essential in determining community preparedness and building resilience. 

Indigenous knowledge has long been an integral part of Africa’s history and culture, and it continues to play a vital role in the continent’s present and future. One area where this knowledge is particularly valuable is in the prediction of climate and weather patterns. While scientific knowledge has advanced significantly in recent years, indigenous knowledge can complement and enhance this understanding, providing a more comprehensive and accurate picture of the state of the environment. This knowledge is passed down through generations, and is deeply rooted in the experiences, observations, and insights of local communities. It is based on a deep understanding of the natural environment and the way it interacts with human activities. This knowledge is often specific to a particular region or community and is not always captured by scientific methods.

Researchers have however noted that African indigenous knowledge can complement scientific enquiry in a number of ways, including:

  1. Long-term perspective: Indigenous communities in Africa have a long-standing relationship with their local environment and have developed a deep understanding of the seasonal patterns and weather changes in their region. This knowledge can provide a long-term perspective on the local environment, which can be used to make accurate predictions about future weather events.
  2. Identification of local vulnerabilities: Indigenous knowledge can help identify local vulnerabilities to climate change, such as areas prone to flooding, drought, or other extreme weather events. This information can be used to inform adaptation strategies.
  3. Validation of scientific models: Indigenous knowledge can be used to validate scientific models and hypotheses by providing ground-truthing data. This can help to improve the accuracy of weather and climate predictions.
  4. Adaptation strategies: Indigenous knowledge can inform the development of locally-appropriate adaptation strategies that take into account the unique cultural, social and economic context of the community.
  5. Sustainable practices: Indigenous knowledge can be used to understand the impact of human activities on the environment and to develop sustainable practices. For example, traditional land use practices such as shifting cultivation, agroforestry and pastoralism can be used to manage natural resources and maintain biodiversity.

In Kenya, scientists from the Inter International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have been working with Maasai herders to study the relationship between the behavior of migratory wildebeest and rainfall patterns. The Maasai have a traditional ecological knowledge of the wildebeest migration patterns and have been able to provide valuable information to the scientists to help them understand the relationship between the wildebeest migration and the onset of the rainy season.

In Ethiopia, scientists from the Ethiopian National Meteorological Agency and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society have been working with local farmers to develop a system of weather forecasting using indigenous knowledge. The farmers have been trained to use simple weather instruments to collect data, which is then used to make weather predictions.

In Ghana, the Kwahu Traditional Council has been collaborating with scientists from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology to use indigenous knowledge of the local weather patterns to improve crop yields. They have been using traditional weather forecasting methods to predict the onset of the rainy season, and this information is used to plan planting and harvesting activities.

In Tanzania, scientists from the University of Dar es Salaam have been working with local communities to develop a system of weather forecasting that incorporates indigenous knowledge. The scientists have been training local people to use simple weather instruments to collect data, which is then used to make weather predictions.

Overall, integrating indigenous knowledge with scientific enquiry can provide a more holistic understanding of the environment and improve our ability to predict and respond to weather patterns and climate change. It also allows for the consideration of the cultural and social context that is specific to the African continent and its people. The WEF report recognizes the intersection between indigenous knowledge and modern scientific methodologies in its framework for action that acknowledges the complementary role of these approaches.  This holistic approach advocates for acknowledgement of IKS in conservation projects; promoting indigenous-led projects that empower indigenous people and ideas; and consulting indigenous communities for insightful context.

About the authors – Paul Omondi (@omondipaul) and Collison Lore

Paul Omondi is a creative and innovative media and communications expert. He is experienced in the development and execution of communication strategies, editorial direction, creative and technical writing. He is a career journalist, business manager, and leader who is passionate about positive social impact and sustainable development, especially through the use of digital tools and innovation. Paul has a master’s degree in digital journalism.

Collison Lore is a user engagement expert in climate services and communication in Eastern Africa.

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