Can indigenous and tribal peoples help save the planet?
That is a question we looked into when we teamed up with the University of Oxford to research what traditional knowledge means in everyday practice and how it can contribute to addressing climate change.
We learnt that traditional knowledge and occupations cut across multiple sectors – from agriculture and forestry to fishing and hunting-gathering – and blend culture with economic and environmental sustainability. For instance, Brazilian forests managed by indigenous peoples had 27 times less emissions due to their near-zero deforestation, as compared to forests outside their protected area.
Some communities also build on their knowledge systems and customary institutions to manage natural resources and generate income, as is the case with indigenous-led cooperatives.
Modern day labour-markets, innovation and an economy that is capable of addressing climate change need such unique skill-sets.
We also noticed the ability of traditional knowledge systems to adapt to the deep transformations that are affecting the world of work. Increasingly, indigenous communities are using the latest technology alongside their knowledge systems, for example, to better understand changing weather patterns, protect forests or build green businesses.
Unfortunately the traditional knowledge, skills and competencies of indigenous peoples are seldom recognized and taken into account while awarding qualifications or matching the needs in the labour market.
Indigenous peoples continue to be among the poorest of the poor, in particular indigenous women, with little access to formal training or the economy, and often face discrimination. Such a situation severely risks undermining opportunities for strengthening climate action or achieving sustainable development – after all, the more than 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide care for nearly 22 per cent of Earth’s surface and protect about 80 per cent of the biodiversity on the planet.
It is high time we recognize and leverage indigenous peoples’ skills grounded in their knowledge systems – which can unleash innovation, create green jobs and enterprises, and strengthen climate action. This would also have many benefits for achieving gender equality, given that indigenous women are often the custodians of traditional knowledge.
As the ILO celebrates its centenary and the 30th anniversary of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) , we are striving to better understand the role of indigenous and tribal peoples, their knowledge systems and their skills in a future of work that is increasingly confronting climate change. The realities on the ground make it quite evident that the Decent Work Agenda that also promotes indigenous peoples’ rights and a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies is critical for empowering indigenous women and men as ‘agents of change’. This will be necessary to achieve the intertwined goals of climate action, sustainable development and social justice.