Leveraging traditional knowledge for gender just, bottom-up climate action

Home to a vast range of diverse beings — including more than 3,200 flowering species, 100 mammal species, 550 bird species, 300 butterfly species, and others waiting to be discovered — the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is one of India’s most enchanting and unique biodiversity hotspots.

Its delicate and thriving ecosystems are, however, under threat today from the accelerating nature and climate crises. Erratic rainfall, temperature increase, extreme weather events, and irregular construction activities, among others, are reducing natural cover, increasing land infertility and soil erosion, and contributing to natural habitat destruction. More than 20 tribal communities, who have lived in harmony with and depended on the region’s natural resources for centuries, are now grappling with the consequences of climate change — most also belong to Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups.

One of these is the Irula community, a Scheduled Tribe, dependent on subsistence farming, wage labour, and collection of non-timber forest produce. Bellu, a smallholder farmer and Irula Tribe elder fondly called Bellu ‘Amma’, has witnessed socio-ecological changes in her hometown, Chokkanahalli village, and the surrounding Sigur plateau region since the 1970s. Asked about her attachment to the region, she reminisces about the crystal-clear water in the local stream — once good for kulikyurdukku and kudikyurdukku (bathing and drinking). The ecology and flow have since changed due to the construction of an upstream dam and erratic weather patterns. Bathing in the stream now causes skin allergies; drinking it often brings on a cold and cough due to yellow algae that grow on the surface in lean season. The turtles that once inhabited the river have also disappeared, and the fish have reduced both in size and number.

Bellu Amma, an Irula tribe elder and resident of Chokkanahalli village © Keystone Foundation

While articulating these changes, Bellu Amma recognises the significance of local cultural knowledge in addressing the biodiversity and climate crises. She recollects that she would follow tribal elders into the forest, as a child — and, while they would graze, she would climb trees, eat local fruits like magare palam (Canthium coromandelicum fruit), harvest greens like munne keerai (Alangium salviifolium leaves), and learn about nature. Her children, however, did not accompany her into the forest, having gone to school, and therefore did not acquire a lot of this traditional knowledge and insights.

To preserve and honour community memory, she sits with village children once a month through the tribal Village Elder programme to impart traditional knowledge about the forest, river, hills, food, animals, and birds. “I am happy about it,” she says. “They would at least carry the knowledge that I teach them.” Not knowing how to write, Bellu Amma’s journey as a natural historian has revolved around oral traditions; but, for the coming generations like her children, she thinks it is important to document knowledge so it is not lost.

The landscape surrounding Chokkanahalli village © Keystone Foundation

Putting gender justice at the centre of climate action

Natural historians like Bellu Amma aren’t alone in recognising this need. Keystone Foundation, a non-profit, has been working to document this traditional knowledge for participatory, and collective, bottom-up climate action. Through their Climate Historians project, Keystone Foundation is leveraging community perceptions and histories of adaptation and resilience to create a comprehensive database of climate indicators, derived from traditional ecological knowledge. With this, they hope to enhance climate change research and strategies, eventually impacting climate action plans for the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve.

Bellu Amma in the Village Elder programme © Keystone Foundation

This project adopts nuanced pathways to gender just climate action — building on learnings from Keystone Foundation’s Barefoot Ecologists model, started in 2008. In 2019, they started working with the women Barefoot Ecologists team focusing on agroecology, which won the UN Gender Just Climate Solution at COP27 under the transformational solutions category. Under this, local women were trained to collect and analyse data with a specific focus on agroecology — including the state of forests, waters, and farms, and then establish initiatives to improve the situation, like water projects, tree nurseries, seed banks, and community gardens.

Read more about why Barefoot Ecologists are not low-cost field assistants © Keystone Foundation

Realising the need for a specific focus on climate change, Keystone Foundation extended this model to the present Climate Historians project in 2021. In addition to two streams of knowledge (scientific methods and traditional knowledge for monitoring the ecosystems), critical components like oral histories and technology like Automated Weather Stations were included. This holistic combination is key to the project’s bottom-up intent – essential for sustained community buy-in and participation in local climate action.

 

After training locals in quantitative and qualitative research methods, Keystone Foundation now chooses Climate Historians like Bellu Amma, who are then each paired with a formally educated person from the same community. The paired individuals complement each other (with traditional and formal knowledge), facilitating documentation and use of new technologies — helping community members like Bellu Amma understand weather patterns from the latest technologies and blend these insights with her observations.

 

In 2021, Keystone Foundation conducted a pilot to test this project and document oral history traditions in Sigur, Sathyamangalam, and Kotagiri. They conducted focus group discussions with

the local community, starting with elders’ perceptions since the 1970s, with the interviews led by Climate Historians like Bellu Amma. One tangible output of this work is an ecological calendar, which Climate Historians use to facilitate discussions with community members about how to adapt livelihood activities to new weather patterns. Keystone Foundation is also planning to share these learnings through a community radio and storybooks in local languages.

 

Another key result is the integration of local women into nature conservation and climate action, helping overcome the ‘victim-saviour’ mentality prevalent in policies and actions. For example, by documenting knowledge about and uncertainties in local perceptions, Climate Historians can now impart formal climate education curricula in mainstream and tribal residential schools in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. Capacity building among tribal women also facilitates the vocabulary and tools required to communicate their vulnerabilities and needs to Government officials and foster collaborations with government authorities, to be part of the solution. This project also seeks to document climate change-related perceptions of other marginalised communities like tea pickers, wage labourers, and farmers in peri urban spaces, and build substantial climate capacity in the region with a strong gender focus.

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