Natural Disasters and Indigenous Peoples Traditional Knowledge

A Way to Protect Ecosystems and Promote Resilience.

There are around 370 million indigenous people in the world and they make up less than five percent of the total human population; however, they manage over 25 percent of the world’s land surface and support about 80 percent of the global biodiversity, and they are considered the ultimate guardians of our world’s ecosystems. Their millennial knowledge is rooted in generations of hunting and agricultural practices, sustainable water and land use, leading to the conservation of biodiversity. Today, we consider their traditions, customs and practices fundamental for environmental protection and disaster risk management. Their unique skills and knowledge are no longer undervalued or ignored and many are included in numerous modern studies tackling natural disasters’ prevention.

Because they inhabit some of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet, they have managed to develop exceptional approaches to cope with the extreme variations of weather. Their deep understanding of the surroundings is a practice embedded in their day-today lives and it is the reason to their resilience to climate-related natural hazards and disasters. However, rapid environmental alterations and major natural catastrophes usually happen in rural contexts where the repercussion are disastrous, and indigenous communities that cannot adapt rapidly enough to these changes are the ones to pay the price.

Nowadays, the relationship between indigenous knowledge and natural disasters is reflected in risk reduction and natural hazards’ prevention plans, disaster education and early warning systems planning. Numerous countries are including consultation and cooperation with indigenous communities in the elaboration of national plans. Nevertheless, many are afraid that all this knowledge could disappear forever.


Modern disaster reduction technology used alone has proven that traditional knowledge is useful in local cultural and socio-economic frameworks. The general idea is that modern technology reduce communities’ ability to support themselves, and making them more and more dependent on external forces. All over the world, recent disasters confirmed the modern society’s failure to take care of the people and made communities feeling abandoned. Traditional principles adapted to modern society usually develop higher resilience, helping greatly communities worldwide. It is believed that ultimate disaster reduction actions should incorporate both modern technology and traditional knowledge.

The recognition and respect of the rights of indigenous peoples is addressed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is inviting the international community to further involve indigenous peoples in strategies for disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, and protect indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge, practices and traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation of biological diversity.

Many are the examples of how indigenous knowledge prevented natural disasters and helped in the preparation of action plans to mitigate disasters, and governments are starting to see more and more the need to invest in this millennial expertise. For instance, the Australian government extended its support to the Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs), the Indigenous Rangers and it gave Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the possibility to continue their efforts to protect and conserve the biodiversity of their lands.

In Canada, the government is supporting the Indigenous Guardianship Program, in which indigenous communities have the right to manage their territories according to traditional laws and practices.

In Europe as well, the official recognition of the Havukkavaara forest in North Karelia in Finland opened the possibility to develop a community-based conservation program to help sustain traditional lifeways.

In Africa, Namibia specifically, the government recognized indigenous community-based natural resource management, resulting in the establishment of 82 conservancies, covering about 20 percent of the country’s surface area, and 32 community forests, saving animals from poaching and extinction .

In Japan, the use of indigenous wisdom and skills have reduced, but the country invested in the past years in traditional knowledge to help mitigate natural hazards. Flood disaster happen every year, especially in the delta area of the Gifu prefecture. Controlling the flood was impossible, yet, the communities developed very advanced assessments through knowledge, tradition and cooperation within the community. In early 19th century, a system of mutual assistance, cooperation and monitoring, helped the communities survive the floods. Bamboo planting and ring dykes construction, also served to protect the villages from the inundations. Still today, to reduce erosion, special structures are built on the riverbanks as well as elevated houses called “Mizuya” used by families in case of flooding.

Not counting industrial accidents and pollution, every year Papua New Guinea experiences around two to three natural disasters and in the past 30 years alone, it has been hit by major catastrophes such as flooding, volcanic eruption, tsunami, landslide, and drought. The country is also one with the highest number of indigenous communities living traditionally. With a millennial knowledge of hazards’ prevention that has evolved over generations, today their expertise is employed by local organizations to mitigate hazards .

The latest disasters faced by India over the past decades, taught us how important is traditional wisdom when it comes to save lives. Traditional indigenous architecture play a major role in people safety during natural threats. Kashmir, in northern India, is very different from any other part of the country and climatic conditions vary from temperate to artic cold desert. Even though the area is a high seismic hazard zone, the communities living in this region had to adapt to the poor soil condition and learned how to build steady houses over the years. Their traditional architectural techniques is what saved many lives during the Kashmir Earthquake in 2005. Kashmir’s two types of constructions are the Taq and Dhajji-Dewari system, which are known today as earthquake safe construction practices. In the Taq system, timber pieces are places horizontally as runners inserted into the stonewalls, stopping the construction from cracking and keeping the building together during an earthquake. The Dhajji-Dewari system is very similar; however, the timbers are placed horizontally, vertically and crossed to keep the building even steadier. The Kashmir earthquake confirmed that traditional techniques for house construction in the region were safer than modern techniques employed at the time.

In 2006, heavy rain and flooding brought down the Barmer District of Rajasthan in western India. The region is mostly deserted and finding water is extremely difficult for local communities. Houses are still built with local materials and the construction technique are passed down from generation to generation. The huts are circular with a thatched roof and people learned to orient the house in such a way that allows the wind to ensure good ventilation since temperatures in this region reach about 50 C. It is understandable the general astonishment when the rains swamped completely the area in just few days; however the local communities showed incredible resilience and spirit of adaptation.

The assessments done in the region after the disaster underlined the importance of traditional wisdom in these situations, in which eco-friendly construction materials and expertise has been tested over generations and permitted to save lives during the floods.

On the 2nd of April 2007, at the Solomon Islands 52 people lost their lives due to an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.1 and its consequent tsunami. Studies demonstrated that the number would have been significantly higher if not for the appropriate reaction of the indigenous coastal populations.

Most of the victims were immigrant Gilbertese and they did not react promptly to the withdrawing of the waters because they had no memory in their culture of such an event. On the other hand, the indigenous Solomon Islanders experienced numerous tsunamis in their lifetimes, and responded quickly after the earthquake.

Another similar case are the three islands Simeulue, Nias and Siberut in Sumatra, Indonesia. All three are very different culturally and socially, however they all experienced earthquakes and tsunamis, and their traditional knowledge played a critical role during the earthquake measuring 7.9 on the 12th of September 2007.

Their effective communication, traditional architecture and prompt response to the first wave of earthquake, diminished the fatalities tremendously during the disaster. Today, indigenous knowledge is included in effective tsunami and earthquakes response education .

If governments have a larger knowledge of ‘risk information’ compared to local communities, indigenous communities have richer local knowledge. The coexistence with modern alternative is crucial in the protection of local communities that can become more prone to disasters. This can be successful only if there is the active involvement of local communities and explanation of the benefits given by modern technology. Meanwhile governments and academia should recognize the importance of traditional practices and techniques.

In conclusion, indigenous communities have such an intimate connection with their natural surroundings, that their wide knowledge of nature and the environment is essential in increasing communities’ resilience of facing potential natural hazards’ impacts and environmental change. Indigenous people are those who save the world from apocalyptic migrations due to drought, heat waves, storms and floods, and we should all learn from them how to properly respect the Earth. Indigenous knowledge allowed communities to survive disasters over the centuries, however, because of modernization progresses indigenous practices are not always valued. When devastating disasters remind us of the force of Nature, more occurring in current times, indigenous practices are remembered once again as valued models of endurance.


cover photo: Waving palm trees iStock.com/imagedepotpro