Climate change and the traditional knowledge of indigenous people: what can we learn?

Written by Tzu-Ming Liu.

Image credit: President Tsai visits Siyapen Nganaen, a tribal elder in Orchid Island by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Due to Taiwan’s geographical location and geological properties, the country is particularly at risk of the impact of climate change. Some apparent phenomena of climate change are that the frequencies of extreme precipitation events. Furthermore, extreme typhoon intensity is increasing. These phenomena have caused giant landslides, extensive landscape changes, and severe casualties across Taiwan. Many of the giant landslides occurred on the lands inhabited by indigenous peoples, and thus they suffer from the most adverse impacts of climate change. Indigenous peoples are, but not the only, climate victims.

The indigenous peoples’ severe suffering from climate change can be observed through the impact of Typhoon Morakot, which is the deadliest typhoon to impact Taiwan in recorded history. Typhoon Morakot bore down on Taiwan on August 7, 2009. Consequently, Siaolin village—a village of the Pinpu tribe—was wiped out and around 500 villagers were buried alive by a catastrophic landslide due to the typhoon. A similar tragedy also happened in Nangisalu Village, Maya Village, and Takanua Village. Not to mention the villages of the Bunan tribe and the Kanakanavu tribe. Hence, because critical infrastructure—including a district office fire station, a medical clinic, a police office, primary schools, and a road in Nangisalu, Maya and Takanua—were all covered in mud, the Government planned to relocate the villages’ victims to a neighbouring district. Somehow, the ancient tribe-land of the Kanakanavu was “recovered,” and critical infrastructure was rebuilt on the land.

The story behind the reversals on disaster restoration policy is that the Government enforced habitation on flooded land, and the ancient tribe-land was where they lived before the enforced relocation. The turn-around on these disaster restoration policies implies that the Government amplified the cost of extreme weather events associated with climate change. Furthermore, such flip-flopping on disaster restoration policy provides a clue that local indigenous communities are not just climate victims but are also part of the solution. Indigenous local communities can bring practical knowledge, which is rooted in the physical and cultural environment of their communities, for adapting to climate change.

Still, research on traditional knowledge and climate change in Taiwan is relatively young. It is not yet possible to give detailed information to support the main idea mentioned above. Nevertheless, even though direct evidence is lacking, it is still possible to draw a somewhat convincing argument about indigenous traditional knowledge and climate change by gathering pieces of information from various sources. A particular possible case is the Tao (officially called the Yami) on Lanyu (or Orchid Island). This is an island located along the eastern coast of Taiwan. Anthropological studies in Japan have a long history dating back to the late nineteenth century. Thus, we can find natural disaster-related place names across studies. One can observe severe damage to those places with natural disaster-related names. Hence, I used the Topographic Database of Irara, Orchid Island (Pong so no Tao, meaning the Island of Tao) (Yu and Hu, 2007) and the devastation of Typhoon Tembin (2012) to demonstrate findings in what follows.

Typhoon Tembin struck Orchid Island and left severe damage to infrastructures such as sea and airports. The only gas station was smashed with all refuelling equipment blown away by strong winds. The island’s only supermarket, the Credit Departments of Farmers’ Associations, was also damaged. However, the previous names of these places have revealed knowledge of disaster risks such as what happened during the onslaught of Tembin. The destroyed harbour, gas station, and supermarket were located in an area where they are named “Ji-Rako a Poas,” “Ji-Igang,” “Do-Sanoson,” “Ji-Malatood,” and “Do-Makararahet so Kawan” by the Tao tribe. These names mean, “large scale landslide,” “flood,” and “surge waves” (Yu and Hu, 2007). Still, because the Government did not grasp this encoded cultural knowledge and built bulk public facilities on environmentally sensitive land, the vital facilities were doomed to disaster from the very beginning.

Another piece of evidence on the role of the Tao’s traditional knowledge in adaptation to climate change can be seen from the difference in typhoon-caused damage between modern houses and traditional houses. Tembin caused serious damage to modern houses in Orchid Island. However, again, surprisingly, no traditional houses were damaged by the typhoon. Traditional houses of Tao are semi-underground houses, some above the ground and the other underground. Most of the Tao’s traditional houses were destroyed after a former officer was mortified to see their compatriots living half-underground in 1967. Consequently, these residents were forced out of wooden and stone structures into concrete houses. Today, only some remain in Ivalino and Iraraley.

These traditional houses, which hitherto mortified officials, are exceeding all expectations. Hence, it is not surprising for these abodes to hold a possible solution for mitigating the negative impacts of climate change on Orchid Island. Recent research proves that the Tao’s traditional houses can generate wind shelter effects for avoiding structural damage through experiments. Lin et al. (2010) wrote “(t)he results show that for the purpose of resisting strong winds, the Yami selected their settlement sites by avoiding the strong winds. In addition, they also arranged their dwelling units into certain patterns in response to the local wind with their vernacular wisdom.” We believe that if the traditional houses were not dismantled, and if the modern houses were built according to Tao’s traditional wisdom of building, then damages of extreme weather on Orchid Island in a changing climate should be less than what we currently observe.

Climate change is causing a wide range of impacts on society and the environment universally. Taiwan, of course, is not exempt from the worldwide trend of influences of climate change. Hence, the observation of significant adverse effects of climate change in Taiwan. However, these negative effects should not all be viewed as the total consequences of climate change. At least some damage was caused, or even amplified, by the Government. Therefore, we believe that indigenous traditional knowledge is available to help adapt to these climate problems. Based on the case of the Tao in Taiwan, we believe indigenous peoples should be involved and given support to use their traditional knowledge in preventing and mitigating climate-related hazards.

Tzu-Ming Liu is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Economics and Natural Resource Management at the Graduate Institute of Marine Affairs, National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan. His research focuses on spatial econometrics, natural resource economics, tourism economics, climate change adaptation, and indigenous traditional environmental knowledge.

 This article is part of the special issue on energy and environment.

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