using indigenous knowledge and Western science to help address the impacts of climate change

Traditional owners in Australia are the creators of millennia of traditional ecological knowledge – an understanding of how to live in changing environmental conditions. Seasonal calendars are one of the forms of this knowledge best known to non-indigenous Australians. But when the weather changes, these calendars are cut off.

How? Take the example of wattle trees that bloom at a specific time of year. This previously indicated the start of the fishing season for particular species. Climate change is causing these plants to bloom later. In response, the traditional owners of the Yuku Baja Muliku (YBM) village near Cooktown have to adapt their calendars and make new connections.

It’s not all. The seasonal timing of cultural fire practices is changing in some areas. Changes in precipitation and temperature change when high-intensity (hot) burns and low-intensity (cold) burns occur.

The seasonal connections vital to traditional landlord culture are decoupling.

To systematically document the changes, co-author Larissa Hale and her community worked with Western scientists to pave the way for a traditional owner-centered approach to climate impacts on cultural values. This process, published last week, could also help traditional landlords elsewhere develop adaptive management for their indigenous heritage.

A traditional YBM owner showing wattle flower which was an indicator species for good fishing.
Author provided

Climate change threatens the First Nations: their perspectives must be heard

Australian First Nations people face many threats from climate change, ranging from the impact on food availability to health. For example, rising seas are already flooding the Torres Strait Islands with devastating consequences.

The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Impacts and Adaptation found in the chapter on Australasia that climate-related impacts on Aboriginal and island peoples in the Torres Strait, their country and their cultures are “pervasive,” complexes and compounds “.

While it is important that these impacts are recorded, the dominant source of the data is the academic literature based on Western science. Impacts and pressures that traditional landlords see and manage in their country need to be assessed and managed from their own unique perspective.

Traditional owners have survived and adapted to climate change during their 60,000+ years in Australia. This includes the sea level rise that flooded the area that is now the Great Barrier Reef and the extreme variability of rainfall. As a result, they developed a refined sense of nature’s variability over time.

Drone shot of the Annan River
YBM’s traditional owners and scientists examining freshwater mussel populations on the Annan River near Cooktown.
Author provided

So what have we done?

Concerned about the changes they were seeing in their land and sea country around Archer Point in northern Queensland, YBM staff worked with scientists from James Cook University to create a new way to assess the impact on cultural values.

To do this, we tapped into the values-based, science-based, community-centered approach of the Climate Vulnerability Index. It was the first time that this index was used to evaluate values ‚Äč‚Äčthat are significant for indigenous peoples.

YBM people responded to key inquiries to evaluate changes to their values, including:

  • What did the value look like 100 years ago?
  • What does it look like now?
  • How do you expect it to be in the climate future around 2050?
  • What management practices relate to that value and will they change?

We then discussed what problems have emerged from these climate changes.

Using this process, we were able to identify issues that directly affect how YBM people live. For example, traditional food sources can be affected by climate change. In the past, freshwater mussels in the Annan River were easy to access and harvest. Extreme temperature events over the past 10 years have contributed to mass deaths. Mussels are now much smaller in size and tend to be far fewer in number.

Annan River Freshwater Mussels
Freshwater mussels were more common.
Author provided

Through the process we have also documented that changes in precipitation and temperature altered the time that certain plant foods appear. This is especially true of plants that depend on cultural burns to flower or sprout. This in turn has meant that the picking and harvesting times have changed.

bushfood found in the YBM country
The timing of some bushfoods is changing.
Author provided

These climate-related changes challenge existing traditional bodies of knowledge, altering the connections between different species, ecosystems and weather patterns across the land and sea country.

A key part of this process has been the development of a mutually beneficial partnership between traditional ecological knowledge holders and Western scientists. It was essential to establish a relationship based on trust and respect.

Walking the country first – seeing rivers, mangroves, beaches, headlands, bushes, wetlands, and looking at the Sea Country – helped researchers understand traditional owners’ perspectives. It was important to honor experience and knowledge (especially that held by indigenous elders and rangers). Indigenous cultural and intellectual property protocols were recognized and respected throughout the evaluation.



Read More: Our Earth is Burning, and Western Science doesn’t have all the answers


Respecting and working collaboratively with traditional owners as expert scientists in their own knowledge system was critical to success. Any effort to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into climate change assessments must protect sensitive traditional knowledge.

As climate change will continue and accelerate, we must work together to minimize the resulting impacts on the cultural heritage of First Nations peoples.



Read more: Why the Australian government needs to listen to Torres Strait leaders on climate change


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