Indigenous peoples’ understanding of disaster risk uses a huge body of data – traditional knowledge and folklore stretching back generations.
Cultures that have developed alongside natural hazards incorporate risk awareness and resilience measures into a range of beliefs and practices. These are based on a solid foundation of evidence from lived experience.
These five indigenous practices have used traditional knowledge, alongside modern techniques, to help manage disaster risk:
Ancient Australian Aboriginal techniques for reducing bushfire risk include cultural burning techniques known as ‘mosaic burning’.
Controlled fires in small areas burn at relatively low temperatures, reducing undergrowth and dead wood while preserving large trees and allowing wildlife to escape. These controlled burns reduce the risk of forest fires and, if they occur, limit their destructive power.
In the wake of the devastating “black summer” of 2019-2020, these techniques are being integrated into broader wildfire risk reduction efforts.
“Indigenous peoples’ burning practices have also played a critical role in the creation and management of ecosystems in North America,” explains the 2022 GAR report.
“Polycultural knowledge about these risks can sometimes be acquired through governments and institutional actors learning from the management practices of indigenous cultures that span millennia,” the report notes.
Natural flood management
In Nepal and on the Tibetan Plateau, communities use centuries-old traditional methods of flood forecasting and prevention to limit the risk of seasonal floods. These include planting flood resistant crops and digging drainage ditches and moats.
“Community-based early warning systems use environmental indicators to identify patterns associated with the onset of flooding,” the report says.
Observations of changes in cloud shape, precipitation patterns, wildlife activity, wind speeds, star positions and temperatures help anticipate floods and trigger preparations to minimize their impacts.
Residents then take preparatory measures, moving their belongings, livestock and living areas to higher ground, and stocking up on essentials.
In the aftermath of the floods, traditional remedies – such as using green coconut milk to treat diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery – are aiding healing, alongside any modern medical treatments that may be available.
A sustainable and resilient recovery
After the 2010 and 2016 earthquakes in Canterbury, New Zealand, traditional Maori knowledge has been incorporated into resilience planning.
The local Ngäi Tahu tribe worked with the government to map environmental and cultural assets and ensure a comprehensive recovery. This mapping of traditional heritage areas has helped ensure environmental restoration, biodiversity and future sustainability.
“Longer-term outcomes include the development of wealth risk models that map risks for traditional assets and the creation of wealth risk alerts that categorize graded outcomes in terms of risk exposure,” the report says.
Community early warning
Maori traditional knowledge is also being used to integrate community-based early warning systems for volcanic activity at Mount Ruapehu, based on observation of changes in flora and animal behavior, as well as digital sensors.
The approach combines traditional cultural knowledge with modern techniques, in order to preserve both traditional cultural values, as the volcano occupies a central place in the beliefs of the tribes, and physical environmental assets.
“The systems approach to understanding the connection between communities and ecosystems is increasingly understood within broader political systems,” observes the GAR report.
In Sulawesi, Indonesia, Kailli communities passed on historical knowledge to better understand natural hazards.
The local language describes a range of hazards and their causes: tsunamis, earthquakes and soil liquefaction resulting from earthquakes. Folk songs recount past disaster experiences and convey lessons learned from predecessors.
The villages include safety zones, called “kinta”, which have always been used as refuges during seismic events. Following a large-scale liquefaction event in 2018, “kinta” structures suffered less damage and vulnerability to liquefaction.
A new way of thinking about risk
Authorities around the world have begun to realize the benefits of integrating indigenous knowledge and traditional techniques into their disaster risk reduction and resilience strategies, while indigenous communities are benefiting from the integration of new technologies. in their customary approaches.
Effective disaster risk management can benefit from using indigenous knowledge alongside science, but this will require a shift in thinking about risk and knowledge.
“A first step is to move from the idea that people and systems are simply interconnected, to the concepts of interdependent and interdependent thought and action in systems,” the report asserts.
“This process requires humility, curiosity, and a new scientific respect for relational worldviews.”
Edited by Martin Field. This article is part of a series based on chapters from the RBM Report 2022. Learn more about cognitive biases and their relationship to Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) in the RBM Report 2022.