News & Views

Listening and Learning with the People of the Land

By Jeffrey Campbell, Director of Grantmaking

When Shagre Shano Shale speaks about climate change at international conferences and global meetings, everyone listens. A hush falls on scientists and advocacy groups alike as Shagre, a traditional Indigenous elder and an experienced farmer from the Gamo region of Southern Ethiopia, speaks the unadorned truth, disarming in his honesty and humility and steeped in a deep knowledge of a landscape and a set of relationships that bind people and the land together. He worries about the changing nature of the wind, the fickle and fluctuating rains, the variations in temperature. He says the crops are confused and that it is his fault! It is at this point that the audience usually turns dead silent, as Shagre explains that he is no longer paying the kind of close attention to his community, to the signals of the plants and to the ceremonies and celebrations that have marked the agricultural calendar with meaning and vitality.

Shagre’s predicament reflects the larger breakdown in the relationship between humans, and between humans and non-humans, the land and natural processes. His statements are more powerful because they possess an immediacy and a directness that is lost in abstruse scientific treatises, and the haughty wordplay of global declarations. Shagre’s sentiments are disturbing because they do not attempt to simply pass the blame to others, and his wise self-assessment is even more effective in making others turn inward and examine their motives, behavior, footprint. The talks of a life-long Ethiopian farmer are so strong because they come from a real intimacy with the crop and plant varieties, the birds and animals, the water and the rituals in the place he comes from.

At The Christensen Fund, we believe that voices like Shagre’s and the millions of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities that still practice and transfer traditional knowledge, and are dynamically adapting this knowledge on a daily basis, are absolutely critical components of an environmentally sensible future for the planet. We know that the distribution of biological diversity closely matches the distribution of languages and cultural diversity – and that complex biocultural landscapes that combine humans and non-human systems maintain vital ecological processes.

“Living in our territories and practicing traditional knowledge allows us to achieve what scientists call resilience to climate change,” says Alejandro Argumedo, coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples’ Biocultural Climate Change Assessment (IPCCA), an international initiative that works with Indigenous communities to amass the Native knowledge on conditions and trends in the critical ecosystems in which they live. Alejandro was at a recent symposium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. as part of an exhibition of participatory video and photography there on Indigenous Voices, put on by Christensen grantee – Conversations With the Earth. The Christensen Fund, in collaboration with The Ford Foundation and the UNDP Small Grants Program of the Global Environmental Fund, are supporting Alejandro to coordinate a network of Indigenous People Assessments. Through separate funding to the United Nations University – Traditional Knowledge Institute, we are able to ensure that traditional knowledge is fed into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose lead authors are very keen to combine such grounded assessment with their more scientific research-based data.

Our grantmaking works to ensure that the international discourse on climate change mitigation and adaptation includes the needs, wishes, knowledge and advice of Indigenous peoples and local communities. Through our Global Program, we are supporting the development of practical tools rooted in Indigenous knowledge and wisdom to assess the impacts of climate change on local communities and landscapes. We support Indigenous participation and representation in climate change fora in our regions and around the world to ensure that the voices of people like Shagre, and of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities who are normally marginalized and under valued, are recognized as being a key part of the solution.

Sarah James, an elder of the Gwich’in people in Alaska, offers an optimistic vision of the future in a quote included in the exhibit at the Smithsonian. “There is a solution,” she says. “It’s not the end of the world yet. One thing we have to do is gain back respect of the animals, for all nature. We pray and give thanks for everything we use. But if it’s going to work, it has to be both Western and traditional. We have to meet halfway—and we need to find balance.”