Indigenous knowledge of a changing climate: An ethnoecological perspective from Bolivian Amazonia

Indigenous knowledge of a changing climate: An ethnoecological perspective from Bolivian Amazonia


Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona & University of Helsinki

Indigenous peoples are increasingly facing threats resulting from a changing climate. Given the unprecedented rates of ongoing climate change, there is scholarly debate on whether these threats might also undermine the adaptive capacity of indigenous knowledge. Due to its strategic position bridging the natural and social sciences, ethnoecology is well-placed to examine to what extent indigenous knowledge is adaptive in the face of rapid climate change. This work is the result of a three-year interdisciplinary study aiming to understand the relations between climate change and the Local Environmental Knowledge held by a native society in Bolivian Amazonia: the Tsimane’ hunter-gatherers. Facing rapidly changing social-ecological conditions and with the scientific discourse on anthropogenic climate change still largely inaccessible to this group, the Tsimane’ constitute a suitable case study for casting light on how climate change is captured in the social memory of indigenous peoples. The main argumentative line of this work is that Global Environmental Change has direct expressions at the local scale, including changes related to climate, the ecosystem and the availability of natural resources. This research involved qualitative and quantitative data collection during 15 months of fieldwork in 23 villages of the Tsimane’ Territory. I used a number of methods common to ethnoecological research, including participant observation, focus groups and systematic data collection. I specifically conducted semi-structured interviews on environmental change perceptions (n = 300 adults), knowledge tests to assess individual levels of Local Environmental Knowledge (n = 99) and a randomised controlled trial (n = 442). Additional climate data were sourced to obtain scientific estimates of climate change in the study area. The results of this work show that the Tsimane’ identify a wide array of local indicators of climate change. Such indicators could help to fill gaps in instrumental records of Global Environmental Change. This work also shows the existence of a significant overlap between Tsimane’ indigenous knowledge and scientific climate change records, as well as the instrumental role that local perceptions play in sparking collective responses for adapting to change. However, my findings also illustrate how Global Environmental Change challenges the adaptive capacity of Local Environmental Knowledge by widening the temporal gap between the rates of change in the ecosystem and the rates of change in the knowledge held by indigenous societies. This work brings new insights to the theoretical discussion on the effectiveness of Local Environmental Knowledge in the context of rapid and unprecedented changes. Results of this work stress the importance of devising strategic plans to support the resilience of indigenous knowledge in the face of ever encroaching climate change.



I am an ethnoecologist working on indigenous knowledge of a changing environment. I submitted my PhD in September 2015, and I am starting a post-doctoral fellowship at the Global Change and Conservation Group of the University of Helsinki (Finland). My PhD research explores the interface between Local Environmental Knowledge and climate change. I spent 15 months of fieldwork living with the Tsimane' hunter-gatherers of Bolivian Amazonia. I am interested on the concept of knowledge co-production: striking a balance between science and other ways of knowing. My research shows the potential of integrating different knowledge types for improving understanding of climate change in Bolivian Amazonia.

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