Climate science must listen to indigenous voices

By Dev Nadkarni

One of my most cherishable memories at the University of the South Pacific is that of a visit to the journalism students’ newsroom by a small group of quaintly dressed people, some of them wearing heavy furs and thick skintight leather jackets, rugged blankets and heavy boots. And it was a sweaty 36 degrees on a humid Suva summer day!

Sami leader at USP
Sami leader at USP

The group, which was visiting the university, joined in the celebrations that the students had hosted to welcome me into the journalism programme, and sang and danced and yodeled for the better part of an hour with great abandon. They even joined the students in a meke – all the time looking perfectly at home in their incongruous garb, while many of us were fanning ourselves with handkerchiefs.

We had heard that they were members of an indigenous people scattered across several countries that girdle the Arctic Circle in the farthest northern reaches of the globe, called the Sami people. But that’s about all that we knew about them. It was pre wifi and smartphone days and it was futile googling, what with the glacially paced half an MB internet connection that served the university.

The leader of the group, a tall fit man in his forties who spoke English quite eloquently, told us all about the Sami after the singing and dancing, over sandwiches and fruit juices. Many of us have known the Sami as Lapps from Lappland, terms they look upon as pejoratives and never use by themselves. Like all indigenous peoples they are ancient and the extent of their domain predates modern nations. Some 160,000 Sami people are spread across Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia today and are one of the few recognised indigenous people from Scandinavia.

He told us that they were on a goodwill tour of the world, visiting more than 35 countries meeting with other indigenous peoples, exchanging notes about their cultures, ways of life and how they were dealing with the challenges that the industrialised modern world presented. They told us how they hunted, fished, lived and led their lives the long days and nights of the Arctic Circle, the -40 degree winters and the stark whiteness of the icy fastness that surrounds them. (The yodeling was apparently part of communicating among themselves and with their reindeer.)

But why were they wearing their traditional garb in the tropical heat of Fiji? That’s the only thing they ever wore, he said. And his team was proud to wear it anywhere – even in the 50 degree heat of Death Valley. They did not feel the heat and the sweat didn’t sap their energy, the team members told us, proudly, as we wondered at their sheer resolve and the positivity they exuded. When I asked them what was the secret of their extreme tolerance, he said something that I still remember clearly as ever: “We adapt quickly and well,” he said.

Climate change then wasn’t the big beef that it is now. We didn’t quite discuss it during our brief meeting. But over the years, as the issue became more mainstream and especially relevant for the Pacific’s low lying atolls that are now known to be threatened by rising tidelines, I’ve now and again thought of the Sami people and how they might be coping with changes in their neck of the woods. And I’ve wondered how they might be adapting to this new unfolding challenge.

The Sami and a warming world

The Sami people were in the news again last month with the publicity around New Zealand geologist and filmmaker Simon Lamb’s film, Thin Ice – The Inside Story of Climate Science. The film, which took six years to make, features a number of indigenous peoples around the world including the Sami. Sami elders, according to the filmmaker, have a wealth of knowledge of climate change patterns that is valuable to scientists. “It struck me that people who live close to the environment are as good as long term temperature records at detecting climatic trends, and they are all saying the same thing,” Dr Lamb was quoted as saying in the media.

Indeed. I have always believed that indigenous people – some 400 million of them scattered across the planet – need to be involved far more closely in everything that has to do with climate change. Indigenous knowledge, as distinct from scientific knowledge, might not be documented and accumulated following the tenets of the scientific method but the fact remains that it is a combination of many observed and deduced factors that are vital for a people’s survival. These powers of observation, collation and deduction need to be respected, taken on board and corroborated with climate change phenomena measured with impersonal scientific instruments.

During conversations at the grassroots level with local people in climate change challenged countries like Kiribati, one gets to know how the problem is seen from their perspective. It is quite different from what one might find on online blogs and forums building hypotheses based on all sorts of information ranging from armchair research and opinion, quasi scientific studies to controversial, unproven theories. I have found it far more fulfilling to speak to locals about what changes they have observed and using that input as a starting point of investigations or using it to corroborate other theories.

In 2012, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) published a book, Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation*. It is an excellent, well researched tome that gives indigenous knowledge the respect and attention it deserves in evolving climate change adaptation measures and strategies. It is important to take on board local knowledge because if they have survived and thrived for millennia in the harshest of circumstances, they must know a thing or two about adaptation and therefore survival.

Indigenous peoples’ voices, however, have not received such attention and respect at climate change jamborees except as news bites passed off as sideshows and protests in between deliberation sessions outside the mega venues. Governments of climate change threatened nations, more particularly those that are deemed ‘vulnerable’, need to institutionalise the participation of indigenous people, especially elderly ones, in all climate change dialogue concerning their nations. Indeed, that is the most sensible thing to do rather than implementing ad hoc measures thought out by ‘experts’ who might never have even visited these environments.

Which brings back memories of the Sami group that visited Suva all those years ago. Their gleeful demeanour and infectious energy in 36 degree heat, while wearing furs and reindeer skins, is a powerful message about their willingness and capability to readily adapt, as their leader had told me. In this case, even if briefly, they had adapted to the warmer climes of Fiji, without even a whimper. They certainly ought to know a thing or two about survival. No two ways about it – climate science needs to listen to indigenous people a lot more.

*You can read the book at