To mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People (9 August), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is announcing a unique programme that draws upon indigenous knowledge to help deal with natural disasters.
UNEP, in partnership with the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), is implementing a project in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Kamchatka regions of the Russian Federation to document indigenous knowledge about early warning signs of natural disasters and how to cope with and lessen their impacts. The project is intended to raise awareness and enhance understanding of the application and use of traditional knowledge in natural disaster management.
The information, collected by members of indigenous communities in these two regions, has shown that blizzards, strong winds, wild fires, and floods are of most concern in the two regions. The hunters, gatherers and herders interviewed in this study described how careful observation of the behaviour of animals, and of the appearance and colour of the sky, is used as early warning of natural disasters. “When the dogs start rolling on their backs on the snow and the crows circle in flocks and then hide, a blizzard is coming,” explained a hunter from Kamchatka. “If old reindeer run in the evening, it’s a bad sign. They must be testing their legs before danger,” said a reindeer herder from Nenets. Another reindeer herder, from Kamchatka, told the interviewers: “Last year birds predicted volcano ash, which is dangerous for reindeer. They say the cleverest bird is the crow. A crow comes to me and warns me: be careful!”
More information and the results from this project can be found at www.raipon.org/ikdm
Environmental conservation and natural disaster management are important in the livelihoods of indigenous people who often live in hazard-prone areas and have built up, through thousands of years of experience and intimate contact with the environment, a vast body of knowledge on disastrous events. This knowledge is a precious resource that continues to contribute to environmental conservation and natural disaster management in these regions.
With the disruption of traditional lifestyles and settlement in permanent communities, it is a challenge to maintain the continuity of traditional knowledge through its transmission from generation to generation. One solution is to find new ways to ensure that this knowledge is not lost, including the development of products to preserve and disseminate traditional knowledge and incorporation of this knowledge into school curricula.
UNEP is currently implementing a similar project in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Swaziland, focusing on the use of indigenous knowledge in environmental conservation and natural disaster management and the development of training materials on indigenous knowledge for use in primary, secondary and tertiary education institutions throughout Africa.
In 1994, the UN General Assembly decided that the International Day of the World's Indigenous People should be observed on 9 August every year during the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People. Ten years later, in 2004, the UN General Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, aimed at strengthening “international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as culture, education, health, human rights, the environment, and social and economic development”.
The Programme of Action for the Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People contains clear recommendations such as fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources, cultural, environmental and social impact assessments for developments on sacred sites, lands and waters traditionally occupied and used by indigenous and local communities, full and meaningful participation of indigenous people in programmes and projects planned on their territories and the non-persecution or harassment of indigenous persons promoting the protection of the environment.
More information: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/en/news_internationalday2006.html
RAIPON- Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North http://www.raipon.org/
James Kamara, Acting Chief of the Disaster Management Branch, Division of Environmental Policy Implementation, UNEP: James.Kamara@unep.org