By Zoe Cormier
Understanding local people’s perceptions of climate shifts and the perceived impacts on their landscapes and livelihoods could help researchers address the gaps in climate science. This could lead to better strategies aimed at protecting the most vulnerable communities, according to a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
“Climatic data is not always as accurate as people would like to believe it is; weather stations are expensive, can be sparsely distributed, and thus the data can be incomplete,” explained Manuel Boissière, presenting new unpublished findings at a recent conference in Montpellier, France.
“Local knowledge can be used to fill information gaps to give a more complete picture of what is changing in people’s territories - either climatic or other changes,” he added.
In remote regions, local knowledge can complement meteorological data in understanding and analysing extreme events, such as flash floods, extreme heat and high winds, he said.
In Indonesia’s Papua province, Boissière and his colleagues interviewed people in six villages in the Mamberamo Raya Regency, spanning an area from the mangrove swamps by the ocean to the swamps and mountainous regions upland. They gathered detailed information on what changes people believed were taking place in their territories, such as whether the seasons seemed unusually dry or wet, or if the forests seemed to be shrinking or growing.
“This type of research is particularly important to understand how climate variability or changes affect people. The first impression we had in this case was that livelihoods were not very sensitive to climate, because of low seasonality, adapted production systems and the fact that swamps and mangroves act as ‘buffers’ that protect people,” said Boissière.
“However, our research revealed that while communities did not perceive much variation in temperatures and the amount of rainfall during certain months or years, they did notice that extreme events, such as floods, occurred more frequently in the last decade than in the previous ones,” said Bruno Locatelli, a CIFOR-CIRAD scientist also working on the study.
Perceptions are also important in identifying where the priorities for policy makers should lie, according to Boissière. “Local people can give us more detailed and locally relevant information on the things that actually affect their lives,” he said.
For example, villagers overwhelmingly did not think climatic events were key drivers of changes in their livelihoods and landscape. Instead, they identified infrastructure development, economic activities and new settlements as the main factors.
“This helps understand what policies can be developed in terms of land use planning, natural resource management and adaptation,” Boissière said.
Consulting local people helps to get their views into decision-making processes and to plan better for an uncertain future.
Climate models can vary in their predictions. All of the 16 models Locatelli looked at predicted an increase in local temperatures over the next 80 years, but their estimates for precipitation were less consistent. Most show an overall increase in rainfall, while others predict a decrease.
“We have to accept that the future climate is uncertain. This is why we have to understand how communities are adapting to both excess and lack of rainfall,” said Locatelli.
The study is part of a broader research goal to understand how to integrate local priorities into land use plans, and how local people can play a role in decision-making.
The research used participatory mapping of important resources and local land uses to support policy makers in planning development projects in the region.
Boissière said future research on climate change adaptation programmes should use both the gaps and the similarities between local and technical knowledge to guide research objectives and as a basis to engage better with local people.
Zoe Cormier is a writer for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). CIFOR carried out this study in collaboration with Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD) and Conservation International (CI), with financial support from the Agence Française de Développement (AFD).