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The NIU anthropology professor recently organized a workshop in mid-March at the University of Verona in Italy titled, “Local Knowledge and Climate Change: Fieldwork Experiences.” A dozen scholars, mostly anthropologists, shared findings of their research in 12 small communities of primary food producers around the world, spread over six continents.
Bennardo, a member of NIU’s Cognitive Studies Initiative and affiliate of the university’s Institute for the Study of Environment, Sustainability, and Energy, is directing and coordinating the National Science Foundation-supported research project.
It aims to bring local knowledge into the discourse about climate change in a significant way. Bennardo believes that what locals know about the environment in places directly affected by climate change should be an important factor in remedial interventions planned by policy makers.
“Climate change is affecting people all over the world in different ways and with differing severity,” he says. “Food producers such as farmers, fishermen and herders experience these changes directly because they interact with the environment daily. In addition, local knowledge of the environment influences their perceptions and interpretations of specific changes and what they should do in response to them.”
Each of the small communities investigated has experienced significant effects of climate change, such as desertification, shrinking glaciers, changes in seasonal weather patterns and rising sea levels. The researchers investigated cultural models of nature held and shared by community members—models that contribute fundamentally to their knowledge of the environment.
In addition to Bennardo, scholars participating in the March workshop included NIU’s Katharine Wiegele and Hidetada Shimizu, along with other investigators from American, European and Chinese universities.
Their early findings indicate that members of different communities perceive different environmental or climatic changes and interpret them in diverse ways using different cultural models of nature.
For example, Wiegele reported that changes in seasons and storm patterns in Batangas, Philippines, are explained in part as a natural “aging process” of the earth, and in part as a result of destructive actions by locals.
Eric Jones of the University of Texas at El Paso found that highland farmers in Ecuador explain decreasing land productivity as a direct result of Pachamama (‘Mother Nature’) becoming upset due to locals’ neglect of traditional farming practices.
Anna Paini of the University of Verona reported that members of an alpine community in the Italian Dolomites say glaciers are retreating, woodland is increasing and more animals are disturbing local gardens. For the first time ever, they say, they can grow tomatoes. But locals focus on human activities, especially emigration and the abandonment of traditional farming practices, as the major cause of these changes.
Hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert, Namibia, have always dealt with subsistence uncertainty, according to Thomas Widlok of the University of Cologne, Germany. Widlok reported that while highly irregular rainfall and the failure of some resources have been a normal state of affairs for members of a group of hunter-gatherers known as the ≠Akhoe Hai//om, they are now experiencing growing limitations in how they can react to such ecological problems with their cultural toolkit, in particular limitations in spatial mobility and social networks of mutual support.
For the Kachin people living in a community near the China-Burma border, “the local scheme of time captures the causal relationships among people, the supernatural and physical environment,” said Wenyi Zhang of the University of Sun Yat-sen, Guangzhou, China. “In bad situations, when the synchronization has been broken, nature and climate move away, and humans are left behind.”
Similarly, Bennardo reported that Tongans in Polynesia may see their changes in garden growth as rooted in planting at the wrong time. For Tongans, “the moon makes yams grow,” and thus planting just before or immediately after full moon is very important in ensuring successful garden growth.
Other case studies were conducted by Hidetada Shimizu in Japan, Justus Ogembo in Kenya, Victor DeMunck in Lithuania, Stephen Lyons in Pakistan, James Boster in Poland and John Gatewood in the United States. Many of the researchers in the workshop noted that these food producers tend to attribute climatic and environmental changes to specific actions by people in their own communities, not to human activity on a global scale.
The scholars are now planning the next phase of the research. Before going to the field for a second time, a scientific map of the effects of climate change in each area under investigation will be compared to local perceptions.
This will help the researchers understand how local perceptions and interpretations of climate-change effects are related to specific ideologies (cultural models of nature), to behavioral traditions (such as farming or fishing) and to the actual severity of changes in these regions. They will also investigate the degree of consensus of the various interpretations within the communities themselves.
The final results will be made public and should be of particular interest to policy makers engaged in planning remedial actions to respond to the effects of climate change domestically and around the world.
Local knowledge about climate change is a necessary parameter in planning effective action directly involving communities of any size, but especially small communities of primary food producers, such as those that are the focus of this research.