Role of indigenous knowledge systems on climate change

Organic fertilizers not only provide essential nutrients to plants but also improve soil structure, water-holding capacity and microbial activity.

On August 9 every year, Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world in commemorating the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year’s commemoration will be held under theme “Indigenous People as Agents of Change for Self-Determination”.

The day is meant to recognise and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population. In the context of climate change, the day presents a rare opportunity for State actors to recognise the role played by indigenous knowledge and practices in stewarding the environment and combatting climate change and its impacts.

The United Nations acknowledges that indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) providecritical insights and sustainable solutions to addressclimate change.  The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) acknowledges the role of traditional knowledge in addressing climate change impacts and adaptation.

As anexample, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises that indigenous knowledge and local knowledge systems are vital as they can complement scientific knowledge to enhance the understanding of climate change impacts. The Paris Agreement, adopted under the UNFCCC in 2015 also recognises the need to respect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples in climate action.Zimbabwe can also reap benefits by harnessing IKS to build adaption and resilience programmes. 

IKS are shaped by years of observation, adaptation, and resilience in the face of environmental challenges. They are distinctive knowledge, practices, values, and beliefs developed by local people based on their relationship with nature. IKS include information about plant and animal behaviour, weather patterns, and ecological indicators which can be used to monitor weather and adapt to climate change. This knowledge is rooted in theappreciation and understanding of weather patterns, ecosystems, and sustainable resource management techniques.

Indigenous communities have developed ways of adapting to environmental changes. These knowledge systems, also known as village wisdom, are meant to build resilience and sustainability by focusing on practices that allow them to cope with unpredictable weather events, changing seasons, and other climate-related challenges. For example, in Zimbabwe farmers have devised traditional agricultural practices such as crop diversification, water harvesting, and soil conservation to enhance resilience to droughts or floods.

Village wisdom also encompasses a wide range of agricultural techniques, including crop cultivation, soil management, pest control, water conservation, and livestock rearing.

In Eastern Kenya, there are some traditional climate forecast experts who use animals’ intestine to predict weather events and conflicts. A story is told that they expertly foretold the May rainfall in Kenya which the modern climate services got wrong. By integrating these practices into mainstream climate change strategies, communities have managed to enhance their adaptive capacity and reduce vulnerability.

One example of village wisdom in agriculture is intercropping, which involves growing two or more crops together in the same field. This technique is based on the observation that certain combinations of crops can benefit each other by reducing pest infestations, improving nutrient uptake, and maximising land use efficiency. For instance, planting leguminous crops alongside cereals can enhance nitrogen fixation in the soil, leading to increased fertility and higher yields.

Climate-proofing agriculture is crucial in enhancing the resilience and productivity of farming systems while minimising their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

The use of organic fertilizers, such as compost and manure, instead of synthetic fertilizers is an example of village wisdom. Farmers have long recognised the importance of maintaining soil health and fertility for sustainable agriculture. Organic fertilizers not only provide essential nutrients to plants, but also improve soil structure, water-holding capacity, and microbial activity. By using organic waste materials locally available, farmers can reduce dependence on costly external inputs while promoting environmental sustainability.

Crop rotation is another practice rooted in village wisdom. Over the time, farmers have realised that continuously growing the same crop in a field can lead to decline in soil fertility and an increase in pest and disease pressure. To mitigate these issues, they have developed crop rotation systems where different crops are grown sequentially on the same piece of land over several seasons. This helps break pest cycles, improves soil structure, reduces weed pressure, and optimises nutrient utilisation.

In addition to these practices, IKS also  encompasses broader principles such as conservation of biodiversity and preservation of traditional seed varieties. Farmers have recognised the importance of maintaining a diverse range of crops and livestock breeds to enhance resilience against pests, diseases, and climate variability. They have also preserved and exchanged traditional seed varieties that are well-adapted to local conditions, ensuring a continuous supply of genetic diversity for future generations.

Medicinal plants and home remedies are crucial in addressing health challenges exacerbated by climate change.

As climate change affects ecosystems and biodiversity, indigenous communities have relied on their knowledge of medicinal plants to treat various ailments caused by changing environmental conditions.

Traditional healers play a crucial role in preserving this knowledge and administer healthcare services based on natural remedies. By promoting the use of traditional medicine, communities can reduce their reliance on pharmaceuticals and contribute to the conservation of biodiversity.

Totems play a crucial role in wildlife management. Totems can be an animal, plant, object, or even a natural element that holds special meaning and serves as a spiritual guide or protector. These cultural symbols are deeply rooted in traditional knowledge and practices, serving as important tools for understanding and conserving wildlife populations.

They represent a spiritual connection between human beings and animals, symbolising the interdependence and interconnectedness of all living beings and serve as a means of identity, representing values, beliefs, and ancestral heritage of a particular group.Through totems, indigenous cultures maintain a deep respect for nature and its inhabitants, recognising the need for sustainable practices to ensure the long-term survival of both wildlife and human communities.

Eating one’s totem is believed to invite bad omen. This means totems provide guidance on sustainable hunting practices, habitat conservation and species protection.

These examples highlight how indigenous knowledge systems offer practical and sustainable solutions to climate change challenges.

By recognising and integrating indigenous knowledge into climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, policymakers and researchers can tap into a wealth of village wisdom that has been successfully applied for centuries.


While IKS have long been recognised for their valuable insights into sustainable resource management and environmental stewardship and have been effective in many contexts, they are not without limitations.

While communities possess deep knowledge about their local ecosystems, including weather patterns, plant and animal behaviour, and natural resource management techniques, this knowledge is often specific to their immediate surroundings and may not be applicable or transferable to other regions or global contexts. Climate change is a global phenomenon that requires understanding and action at local to international level. Therefore, relying solely on IKS may not provide a comprehensive understanding of the weird nature of climate change.

One of the problems with IKS in addressing climate change is their lack of scientific validation. Climate science is a multidisciplinary field that borrows from various scientific disciplinesso to tackle it requires a scientific enquiry where scientists analyse historical climate data, conduct experiments and develop models. Indigenous knowledge is often based on observations which can be ineffective to understand how the climate has changed in the past and how it may evolve in the future.

However, it is important to note that these limitations should not undermine the significance and relevance of IKS in addressing climate change, but rather highlight the need for a holistic approach that combines both indigenous and scientific knowledge systems.

The wealth of indigenous knowledge is such that, were it courted, it could provide precious solutions to build resilience, food security and sustainability.

By recognising the value of indigenous knowledge and working collaboratively with indigenous communities, we can develop more effective and holistic strategies to address the challenges posed by climate change.

  • Chiduku is a communications, public policy and governance expert with interests in agriculture, climate change and environmental issues. He writes in his personal capacity.  — [email protected] or +263775716517.

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