The Ethics of Traditional Knowledge Exchange in Climate Change Initiatives

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An essay exploring the ethical philosophy behind Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives.

This article is a part of Earthzine’s Indigenous Perspectives on Environmental Change Theme. For more articles in this category, click here

"Protecting Traditional Knowledges for the Future Resilience of the 7th Generation." Image Credit: Karletta Chief 2014

“Protecting Traditional Knowledges for the Future Resilience of the 7th Generation.” Image Credit: Karletta Chief 2014


Climate scientists, policymakers and the growing community of citizens engaged in observing global change are increasingly turning to traditional knowledges of indigenous peoples to improve understanding of and strategies for adaptation and mitigation. Indigenous peoples are also recognizing the value of methods and information from western climate science, such as models, risk and vulnerability assessments and monitoring strategies.

Unfortunately, policymakers who design and implement climate change initiatives frequently overlook indigenous peoples. While they call for access to traditional knowledge to help inform choices for preparation, adaptation or mitigation in response to climate change, they have little awareness of real risks of harm when indigenous peoples share their traditional knowledges. Currently, there are few protections to ensure that traditional knowledges will remain the property of the indigenous peoples or knowledge holders who choose to share traditional knowledges. These Guidelines are intended to promote the use of traditional knowledges in climate change initiatives in such a way as to protect the rights and interests of indigenous peoples, promote greater collaboration with scientists and government professionals and increase indigenous representation in climate change initiatives such as those of the U.S. federal government.

The Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup

The Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup (CTKW) was formed in 2013 to address ethical issues pertaining to the benefits and risks of information exchange involving traditional knowledges. The Workgroup consists of indigenous persons, staff of indigenous governments and organizations, academics, and others with experience working with issues concerning traditional knowledges who felt compelled to provide information on the nature of traditional knowledges and guidance on how risks can be avoided and benefits enhanced for people engaged in knowledge exchange situations.

This philosophy is at the heart of the recently released Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives. åÊThe Guidelines were originally developed to inform the Department of Interior’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science in May 2014, and in a process to inform the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

The Workgroup is open and transparent, and invites dialogue and participation in future refinement of the Guidelines and seeks to promote respect for the rights, interests and aspirations of indigenous peoples and holders of traditional knowledges in defining their own terms for the access, use, and protection of traditional knowledges in relation to climate change.

The Guidelines emphasize the need to develop forms of protected sharing of traditional knowledges, as well as the right for indigenous peoples and holders of traditional knowledges to respectfully decline participation.

Traditional Knowledges and Climate Change

The term‰ÛÏtraditional knowledges‰Û is generic and represents multiple dimensions of dynamic knowledge systems and lifeways of diverse indigenous peoples. Traditional knowledges broadly refer to indigenous communities’ ways of knowing that both guide and result from their community members’ close relationships with and responsibilities to the landscapes, waterscapes, plants and animals that are vital to the flourishing of indigenous cultures.

Indigenous peoples’ traditional ways of knowing and living have been refined over thousands of years of experiences and relationships with living beings and places. English language phrases denoting traditional knowledges, such as “traditional ecological knowledge,” are coined in academic and policy circles that are usually separate from indigenous peoples, and often do not fully reflect the ways in which indigenous communities refer to, or think of, their knowledge and lifeways.

The Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup, then, does not seek to define traditional knowledges, as each particular indigenous peoples has the right to determine how to define their knowledges. Rather, the Workgroup seeks to support the protection of traditional knowledges, knowledge holders and the right of indigenous peoples to define their own knowledges in cases where indigenous peoples consider exchanging knowledge in relation to climate change.

First Stewards Symposium: United Indigenous Voices Address Sustainability, Climate Change and Traditional Places., summer 2014, Washington, D.C. Image Credit: First Stewards Symposium 2014

First Stewards Symposium: United Indigenous Voices Address Sustainability, Climate Change and Traditional Places., summer 2014, Washington, D.C. Image Credit: First Stewards Symposium 2014

Traditional knowledges can provide people with significant information about how climate affects the environment and impacts cultures that depend upon local ecological systems. Many indigenous peoples follow traditional lifestyles based on seasonal and inter-annual patterns of preparation, harvest and utilization, which are reflected in practices, stories and language. The maintenance of these ways of life requires the capacity to observe, record and make decisions on information about relationships among landscapes, waterscapes, plants and animals using a number of indicators. Groups who exercise these capacities in specific territories often have information on climate trends extending back through countless generations.

Traditional knowledges are valuable for informing and guiding indigenous peoples’ strategies to prepare for, adapt to and mitigate climate change.

The strategies that particular indigenous peoples used historically to identify, understand and cope with environmental changes are reemerging as important sources of information pertaining to the climate challenges gaining wide public attention today.

Consider the following examples of traditional knowledges in relation to tracking climate change trends and adaptation strategies:

  • Oral history of Navajo elders are compared and contrasted with western scientific data about projected and current impacts from climate change, such as declining snowpack and changes in precipitation. Traditional knowledge documented orally according to the cosmology, seasons, and cultural practices can provide baseline information regarding ecological changes that other scientific records cannot.
  • Lakota ‰ÛÏwinter counts‰Û are pictures representing histories or calendars of events each year. One scholar correlated an entry called The Year the Stars Fell with a meteoric storm from November 1833.
  • In January 2012, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium developed the Local Environmental Observer Network (LEO) to foster an exchange of information between Tribal members and researchers about current environmental changes. Observations are posted to a publicly accessible map and technical experts, including research scientists and agency managers, review the information and engage with Tribal members about the implications and possible responses based on their observations.
  • The M€ori of Aotorea/New Zealand manage their wetlands as water and food sources. The M€ori’s knowledge of wetlands allowed them to adjust their root storage crop depending on the conditions, from kumara (sweet potato in warm and dry conditions) to taro (wet and tropical conditions). The M€ori can use this knowledge today to effectively change root storage crop if conditions become drier or wetter.
  • In Clyde River, Nunavut, in the Arctic, Inuit hunters reported significant changes in wind persistence (specifically, the likelihood that wind conditions one day are followed by similar conditions the next day) using multiple traditional observations to determine that the wind was becoming less persistent and predictable. While these observations were not supported by a local research station, further inquiry revealed the indigenous observations as relying on more variables that are not considered by weather station measurements.
  • In 2013, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal (CSKT) Council passed a resolution to develop a climate change strategic plan. Adaptation strategies are guided by local assessments of vulnerability to climate impacts, and are tied to strategies for forest and resource management. Traditional knowledges inform Tribal understanding of climate change impacts, as well as pathways for adaptation. The plan notes, for example, that Tribal people ‰ÛÏhave used fire to help maintain the health and productivity of the ecosystem.‰Û and the reintroduction of periodic prescribed fire is noted as among the priorities for the forestry sector.

Why are Ethics of Traditional Knowledges Exchange Needed?

Earth observers—such as climate scientists, academics, policymakers and employees of state and federal governments—may have a tendency to focus only on the value of traditional knowledges of indigenous peoples as sources of data. That is, traditional knowledges can benefit efforts to understand and adapt to climate change only because they provide baseline data and strategic information that other people—such as climate scientists—do not normally have access to in their databases. Yet, people who see the value of traditional knowledges through the lens of data can be oblivious to some of the risks indigenous peoples face when they share traditional knowledges about climate change. Inappropriate sharing of traditional knowledges in relation to climate change can pose similar ethical consequences to that of more commonly known situations involving genetic research (see, for example, the work of Sterling).

Traditional knowledges often involve information about the location, timing of availability, values and uses of culturally-significant species, hunting and gathering locations, and sacred places. Traditional knowledges often do not differentiate among ecological, social, religious and familial knowledges and can have deep spiritual or cultural significance to the knowledge holders, their community, and even their indigenous nation.

Consider some examples of ethical issues. Sharing traditional knowledges about water levels may disclose locations where some indigenous peoples engage in subsistence activities associated with water, such as to slake thirst during times of scarcity, fishing and gathering of plants for household or medicinal use, or spiritual bathing and cleansing sites. If this information becomes public, then it will disclose the resources utilized and locations of harvest to groups of people who may also want to utilize scarce and valuable resources. In some cases, individuals have used such information to deface and desecrate spiritual sites.

On a similar note, sharing traditional knowledges may also disclose the fact that indigenous peoples have plants, animals and sacred places in locations that are part of their ancestral territory. Sharing traditional knowledges could disclose the location and importance of these areas, which can encourage other people to ignore the priority of indigenous practices and to infringe on indigenous use by over-consuming or misusing plants and animals in these areas. For many indigenous peoples, even when they have treaty rights, they lack the jurisdictional authority to enforce regulations against overconsumption of a plant or animal by others.

Furthermore, stories often include valuable ecological information, yet also include descriptions of sacred information, cultural practices or places. These aspects of knowledges are carefully placed together in order to create a story that is useful and enduring—extracting data from these stories destroys an intricate construct for imparting important cultural and ecological information and may publicize secret or sacred knowledge.

For indigenous peoples, sharing traditional knowledges involve more than providing access to raw data. Traditional knowledges are part of living indigenous governance systems that regulate and protect indigenous ways of life, including cultural practices, subsistence gathering and harvesting and strategic planning. indigenous governance systems often struggle to fulfill their regulatory and protective functions when certain knowledges are made public or privatized for individual or corporate gain. In this sense, when knowledge is valued as part of a particular governance system instead of only as raw data, the ethics of sharing reflect the traditions and values of the governance system. When knowledge is valued as raw data only, it is often assumed that the data should be shared as widely as possible so as many people across the planet can use it for their own benefit. The data from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, that documents concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an example of how raw data can be shared so that humans everywhere can be aware of increasing or decreasing trends. When knowledges cannot be disentangled from a particular form of governance, there are strong ethical reasons in some cases why it should remain private.

Guidelines for Ethical Conduct

The CTKW developed a set of proposed guidelines for tribes, scientists and government professionals when working with knowledges and content with strong cultural and economic values for indigenous peoples. These guidelines are intended to examine traditional knowledges in relation to climate change within the context of potential risks to indigenous peoples in the U.S. for sharing traditional knowledges in federal and other non-indigenous climate change initiatives.

The guidelines focus on two formative ethical principles: ‰ÛÏCause No Harm‰Û and ‰ÛÏFree, Prior and Informed Consent.‰Û Broadly, these principles establish a foundation for equitable and productive relationships, recognizing that each tribal community has its own laws and governance systems that guide and structure how different facets of traditional knowledges are treated by indigenous and other entities, and more broadly regulates interactions. The ‰ÛÏCause No Harm‰Û principle involves the identification and avoidance of risks that could lead to loss or harmful misappropriation of traditional knowledges.

The United Nations Declaration of Rights of indigenous Peoples and the Convention on Biodiversity, as well as other intergovernmental organizations, international forums and national-scale policies recognize the concept of free, prior and informed consent as a fundamental principle to respect the rights and self-determination of indigenous peoples when negotiating or entering into agreements with governments, businesses and others. Tribes in the United States possess inherent sovereign rights as sovereign governments that existed before the formation of the United States, not as stakeholders with rights granted by the federal government.

The CTKW developed eight guidelines intended to provide specific measures that government agencies (non-indigenous), researchers, indigenous peoples and holders of traditional knowledges can follow in conceptualizing, developing, and implementing climate change initiatives involving traditional knowledges. These guidelines are intended to promote the use of traditional knowledges in climate change initiatives in such a way as to protect the rights and interests of indigenous peoples, promote greater collaboration with scientists and government professionals, and increase indigenous representation in climate initiatives.

Guideline 1 emphasizes the need for clear and open communication, particularly the use of terminology. Key terms and concepts coined in non-indigenous academic and policy circles often fail to fully reflect the ways in which indigenous communities refer to, or think of, their knowledge and lifeways. Guideline 2 recognizes that indigenous peoples and holders of traditional knowledges have a right to participate in federal interactions regarding traditional knowledges on their own terms, including the right not to be involved or to share. The guideline also emphasizes that indigenous governments and individual holders of traditional knowledges must work together to decide when it is appropriate to share or bring traditional knowledges to initiatives started by people of other nations and heritages. Guideline 3 concerns the importance of working collaboratively to determine and communicate risks for indigenous peoples and holders of traditional knowledges.

Guidelines 4-6 focus on the structure of interactions involving indigenous peoples in climate change initiatives. Guideline 7 emphasizes the importance of recognizing epistemic diversity, or the role of multiple knowledge systems. That is, agencies and research organizations should recognize the role and interaction of traditional knowledges and multiple knowledge systems in climate change research and adaptation and vulnerability assessments. These entities also should recognize that multiple knowledge systems may exist within one indigenous people and among different holders of traditional knowledges. These knowledge systems may conflict with one another. The agencies and research organizations need to work closely with all parties to ensure that all traditional knowledges are protected and credited appropriately.

Guideline 8 involves the development of guidelines for review of grant proposals that recognize the value of traditional knowledges, while ensuring protections for traditional knowledges, indigenous peoples, and holders of traditional knowledges. Many federal, state and other grant programs are including criteria in proposal review that recognizes and awards points to applicants that incorporate traditional knowledges within their proposals. While this demonstrates awareness of the importance of traditional knowledges in climate change initiatives, it poses a risk of non-substantive involvement by indigenous peoples and knowledge holders who are unaware of potential abuse or misappropriation of traditional knowledges.

These guidelines are a work in progress. The CTKW invites dialogue and participation in future refinement of these guidelines. More information about the CTKW and guidelines can be found at

Author’s note

Inquiries about this essay can be made to Kyle Powys Whyte ( Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup participants, in alphabetical order, are: Karletta Chief, University of Arizona; Ann Marie Chischilly, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals; Patricia Cochran, Alaska Native Science Commission; Mike Durglo, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; Preston Hardison, Tulalip Tribes; Joe Hostler, Yurok Tribe; Kathy Lynn, University of Oregon; Gary Morishima, Quinault Management Center; Don Motanic, InterTribal Timber Council; Jim St. Arnold, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission; Carson Viles, University of Oregon and Tulalip Tribes; Garrit Voggesser, National Wildlife Federation; Kyle Powys Whyte, Michigan State University; Daniel Wildcat, Haskell Indian Nations University; and Sue Wotkyns, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals.