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Merging science, traditional knowledge could benefit climate adaptation

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 10 Jul 2012 15:21 GMT
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GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AlertNet) – A conservation and research organisation in Guyana is teaming up with indigenous people to benefit the country’s forest communities and provide insights into weather and climate change.

A team of water experts this year has begun research to determine the effects of climate change on two ecosystems – tropical forests and savannah wetlands – straddled by the Iwokrama reserve, an area of 371,000 hectares (917,000 acres) in the centre of Guyana.

People living on reserve are using their traditional knowledge of the land to help the researchers, and at the same time learning new ways to strengthen their food and economic security.

Isabella Bovolo, resident scientist at the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development (IIC), an international organisation established in 1996 by the government of Guyana and the Commonwealth Secretariat, said that the goal of the research is to examine the changes likely to take place where the two ecosystems border each other as temperatures warm.

 “We are expecting that any effects of climate change will be more prominent at the boundary because we have the forest and the savannah meeting. Whether the forest is advancing or the savannah is advancing, we would see that at the boundary first,” Bovolo said.


The centre, based in the capital, Georgetown, has a field station at Kurupukari on the Essequibo River. Bovolo believes that by providing indigenous people in the area with information about how the climate change is affecting water systems, the research may enable them to adopt more sustainable ways to farm or fish in coming years.

Current climate change projections for regions such as the Guianas – a group of small countries on the northeast shoulder of South America - are not very precise, according to Bovolo.

“They tend to indicate that temperatures will increase. All models seem to agree on that,” she said. That “will affect a lot of the biodiversity in the two biomes.”

Where rainfall is concerned, there is no agreement among the models for the Iwokrama area, Bovolo said. The projections suggest rainfall could increase or decrease by as much as 35 percent.

She hopes her centre’s work could help make those projections more precise and help people trying to adapt to the changes plan for them more effectively.


Sydney Allicock, an Amerindian community leader from North Rupununi, believes it is important for science and traditional indigenous knowledge to work together on solutions to problems, including those caused by growing population pressure on forests and savannahs lands.

Allicock emphasised that local communities have traditionally used their environmental knowledge to live in a sustainable way.

 “The Amerindians have lived off the forest and savannah lands for many, many moons, and to do that they have to try as much as possible to understand the laws of nature,” he said. “We know exactly what time there will be spawning of fishes, when it is going to be high season, when the trees are bearing fruit.”

That knowledge allows the community “to manage and monitor and just take enough for our survival,” Allicock said.

He believes that indigenous peoples have a wealth of information that could be shared with scientists. He remembers a team of researchers who in 1994 spent three weeks in the Iwokrama forest searching unsuccessfully for a certain species of frog. After the scientists consulted with local Amerindians they were able to find the frog in two days, Allicock said.

 “They could have easily come together with us (sooner) and things would have been better for them,” he noted.

Bovolo sees practical benefits for local communities in the research that is now underway.

“We are trying to establish what will happen in the event of big droughts or floods, the effects of El Nino/La Nina situations and other factors,” she said. “It will affect the communities because their livelihoods come from farming and cassava growing. They know that lots of their crops are susceptible to flooding.”

IIC has established weather stations at Iwokrama Field Station, the Kurupukari crossing and at Bina Hill Training Institute at Annai. There are rain gauges between these places to see how rainfall transitions between the areas. The researchers are also monitoring water quantity and quality in several rivers.

Allicock said scientific research done on the Arapaima species of freshwater fish also is helping Amerindian communities create harvesting plans for the fish.

 “You need both scientific and local understanding,” Allicock said. “Both sets of information could support the other for understanding more about how you could develop a system where all could survive.”

Johann Earle is a Georgetown-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.

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