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Combining indigenous knowledge and modern science

SEI’s work in Bali brought together farmers’ traditional knowledge and technical meteorological information for more effective climate adaptation.

Photo: Natalia Biskupska / SEI.

Date published
20 May 2020
A story from
Indonesia

This impact story is from our 2019 annual report.

SEI has built new relationships and greater understanding between Indonesian farming communities that rely on centuries of indigenous knowledge, and national Indonesian agencies that generate climate science and forecasts. Better relationships between users and providers of climate information is key to greater uptake of climate information and, in turn, greater resilience to climate risks.

Leveraging two distinct types of climate information

Farmers in the Jembrana District of Bali use the sky, sun and clouds as guides to decide when to plant, when to harvest, and when to dry crops. They listen to the sounds of insects and frogs, and track ant populations, which may indicate oncoming rain. They plan activities in the fields during the year according to the sasih, the traditional Balinese calendar, and conduct ceremonies to pay respect to the gods and to their environment. Year on year they see the climate changing, noting, for example, that durian now flowers two or three times a year rather than once. Since the El Niño in 2015, they have observed changes in seasonal weather patterns, with more erratic rainfall and drought periods that wreak havoc with their farming schedules. How does this ancient trove of knowledge fit into the contemporary context of responding to climate change?

Staff from Indonesia’s Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG) help farmers interpret climate forecasts in Bali. Photo: su-re.co

A platform to improve adaptation planning and decision-making

SEI addressed this question by working in partnership with a local think tank, su-re.co, with connections to vulnerable agricultural communities, and Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture and the Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG), which has expertise and insight in setting up climate field schools for rice and other commodities. Through these partnerships, SEI ran eight climate field schools involving coffee and cocoa farmers, representatives of NGOs, and agricultural extension officers in Bali, Bajawa in Flores, and Kupang in West Timor.

In 2019, these schools evolved into the School of Climate and Living Tradition (SaLT), a platform to help integrate indigenous knowledge and practices with conventional climate services. The resulting modules include an introduction to weather and climate, meteorological instruments, agro-ecosystem observations, and measures to enhance understanding of climate information and indigenous knowledge. SaLT built partnerships, launched exploratory dialogues, built bridges between local and scientific communities, and enabled learning – helping farmers in vulnerable communities to interpret climate science, and teaching climate scientists at the national level about the needs of indigenous farmers.

“Before, climate information was too general, and we didn’t trust it. Now we know how to read it properly for our contexts.”
—Local farmer in Jembrana, Bali, Indonesia

Scaling up and out

The programme is scaling up to reach other indigenous communities throughout Southeast Asia. In October 2019, SEI, working with the Samdhana Institute, held a regional forum on the role of rights-based knowledge in sustainable development in Indonesia. Around 120 participants represented more than 20 indigenous communities from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Vietnam and Taiwan. Participants released the Yogyakarta Declaration, highlighting the importance of their indigenous knowledge and practices. The forum was supported by the human rights commissions of Indonesia, Philippines and Timor-Leste.

Fostering interaction

Farmers have begun to reach out to extension officers and BMKG for more information. In turn, extension officers and BMKG are disseminating information to farmers who previously had often been regarded as “too remote” to help. SEI’s work demonstrates that meteorologists and local farmers can work together to enhance adaptation planning and practice. The SaLT platform provides opportunities for indigenous people to articulate their agenda when responding to the challenges they face, and has the potential to scale up to help improve adaptation in agricultural settings across the wider region.

SDG 1

No poverty

We work to understand the confluence of factors – the social, environmental, political and economic circumstances – that keep people in poverty.

SDG1 co-benefits. SDG1 is connected to SDGs 13 and 2.

Connecting to the SDGs

Tracking of SDG 1 indicates that global poverty is declining, but not fast enough. More than 70% of the world’s poor live in rural areas and rely on agriculture for a living, yet many of the technical solutions put forward to reduce rural poverty around the world look good on paper but fail to attract the intended users. SEI’s engagement in far-flung areas in Indonesia directly addresses the mission of “leaving no one behind”, a key principle underlying all SDGs.

The work also contributes to SDG 2: Zero hunger, especially target 2.5, to maintain genetic diversity of plants and wildlife; and SDG 13: Climate action, specifically in terms of targets to strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity, and to improve education, raise awareness and build institutional capacity to respond to climate change.