Indigenous knowledge has helped guide Pacific Islanders’ resilience and adaptation to changing climates for centuries, but it is still often overlooked.
When cyclone season blows into Vanuatu each year, the residents of north Pentecost Island draw on generations of local knowledge to scan nature for signs of any impending storms. They’ll look for changes in the sky, wildlife and plants to indicate the approach of a cyclone. This knowledge is also used to predict the onset of abnormally dry periods.
If a seabird, locally known as Mansiroboe, flies over land it indicates a cyclone is near the island. These ocean birds only come on land during cyclone events looking for places to hide from the wind. Subtle changes in plant life are also scrutinised for changes. Abundant or early blossoms or fruit on trees are two indicators cyclones will occur in the upcoming season. In the days before a storm, fast moving low clouds, calm seas and surface winds are all signs a storm is usually imminent.
“When I saw the signs, I told my family and the people [across the] communities. We collected firewood and clean water and prepared our houses by putting coconut leaves, bamboo and banana stems on roofs,” a man told researchers following the devastating Cyclone Pam in 2015.
It was vital to collect water and food because all the rivers, streams and oceans would become polluted by run-off and high winds destroy gardens and fruit trees. These preparations helped to sustain families during and after Cyclone Pam and other tropical cyclones including category 5 Cyclone Harold which ripped through Pentecost Island in 2020.
Indigenous knowledge is a critical resource to be integrated with scientific knowledge to improve our understanding of how ecosystems function, environmental health and the impacts of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for it to be recognised as a core knowledge base to build locally appropriate climate adaptation strategies.
But in the Pacific, it is often overlooked.
While there is growing recognition of its value, adaptation policies and interventions frequently prefer Western scientific knowledge and focus on addressing individual climate risks through technical fixes directed by foreign experts and funding agencies.
This approach overlooks local people’s resilience and capacity to adapt to social and environmental changes, demonstrated by the long history of managing climate risks through practices such as moving within and between islands, the pooling of resources, diversifying livelihoods and inter-island resource exchanges.
When it comes to ways to better adapt to climate change, Pacific Island nations are often represented as vulnerable and backward. Experts and funding bodies frequently focus on the construction of hard (engineered) adaptation works, such as seawalls and other coastal defences to address the risks of coastal erosion, inundation events and sea-level rise. This technical, one-size-fits-all approach fails to account for nuanced understandings of climate change as well as diverse adaptation strategies from island to island.
Over the last two decades, a small but growing number of studies have highlighted how many Pacific communities use Indigenous knowledge to reduce their vulnerability to environmental risks and changes. Such knowledge about local environments allows people to monitor and identify changes in environmental conditions and inform decisions about how to sustainably use resources and maintain livelihoods.
Vanuatu is classified by the IPCC as one of the most highly vulnerable countries to the negative impacts of climate change — sea-level rise, more intense extreme weather events and changing rainfall and temperature. Two pieces of legislation in 2016 and 2020 addressing climate risks mentioned Indigenous knowledge in passing, but failed to acknowledge its importance — it is the basis of the communities’ place-specific adaptation that can provide crucial lessons in the development of new locally-led climate plans and projects.
On Pentecost Island, the stems of cassava plants, banana and taro leaves are cut to ensure crops are not destroyed by winds of oncoming cyclones. But other crops are particularly climate resilient. Traditional foods including sweet potatoes and yams both produce tubers in the soil safe from strong winds and the heat of the sun, which are particularly valuable during droughts. The fast-growing Vovohe tree (Ficus wassa) is frequently used as a food source following cyclones as it bears fruit from the stem near the roots rather than on the branches which are less prone to being destroyed. Wild taro is another crop locals say is capable of surviving extreme weather and climatic events.
Most villages in north Pentecost have traditional buildings known as gamali, built in sheltered areas from forest materials. The thatch roofs extend to the ground and are less likely to fly off in high winds, unlike buildings with corrugated iron sheet roofs. A study of housing on Pentecost in the wake of Cyclone Harold in 2020 found traditional housing sustained less damage than modern homes. Modern buildings were also difficult to repair due to the cost and time involved in sourcing and shipping building materials to the islands.
Vanuatu’s climate adaptation policies have been described as, “inflexible and inappropriate” due to “predetermined agendas, prescriptive funding conditions, and insufficient consideration of local realities” which can benefit from drawing on these existing Indigenous wisdom and lessons. Reconsidering the diverse and multiple experiences of climate change across the island, residents can empower and transform their future.
Sustainable, equitable and effective adaptation needs to move beyond the language of inclusion to actions that empower Indigenous peoples’ diverse knowledge and experience and their priorities about how they live with and adapt to changing social, ecological and climatic conditions in coming decades.
Allan Rarai is Climate Services Manager at the Vanuatu Meteorology and Geo-Hazards Department. He has a Master of Science from Auckland University and has a wealth of experience in Traditional Knowledge research on weather and climate building in Vanuatu.
Meg Parsons is an Associate Professor at Auckland University. Of New Zealand Māori (Ngāpuhi), Lebanese, and Pākehā/European heritage, she is a historical geographer whose research examines how Indigenous communities understand and respond to social and environmental changes.