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Seeds of change: How indigenous women’s ancestral knowledge can bolster climate security

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

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For Lola Cabnal, a Mayan Q’eqchi environmental leader from Livingston, a small town in northeast Guatemala, near the Gulf of Honduras, climate change has made local rain patterns and temperatures erratic and unpredictable. “My community this year experienced strong floods and droughts, as well as increased heat and illnesses,” she told Politically Speaking. To manage the resulting water shortages, she explained that her community has been sharing the cost and maintenance of a generator, which pumps water from a cistern.

Cabnal, who started working with rural indigenous communities 30 years ago, is the Director of Public Policy Advocacy at Ak’Tenamit, an indigenous-led Guatemalan non-profit association that works with young indigenous women and men from low-income rural communities. It also promotes formal and informal education, in oder to improve living conditions and reduce the gender inequality gap. Cabnal underscored that the recent increase in global fuel prices has meant that her community is forced to ration water for personal and agricultural use. “Average household expenditure on fuel has doubled, but not everyone can afford it. When the community lacks water, tensions increase,” she said, noting that climate change can be a socio-political risk multiplier in already vulnerable areas.

Indigenous peoples, who are often directly dependent on ecosystems to meet basic needs, are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by marginalization linked to ethnicity, gender, low income, or combinations thereof.

The United Nations’ Work with Indigenous Peoples and Climate Security

The UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) has been working closely with the UN Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues (IASG) to integrate an indigenous perspective into its work on climate, peace and security. Earlier in 2022, a DPPA staff member was granted a sabbatical leave, with the support of adelphi — a German think tank — to focus on the nexus between climate, peace and Indigenous Peoples. During the sabbatical, she was able to speak with Cabnal about her work and community. Laura Flores, Director of the Americas Division in DPPA-DPO and the departments’ focal point on indigenous issues, noted that “working with indigenous women on climate issues presents many challenges but also offers unique opportunities for peacebuilding. We seek support from Member States to foster more climate security initiatives that empower indigenous women.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), researchers and Member States alike have referenced the crucial role that Indigenous Peoples and local communities play in preserving ecosystems and preventing deforestation — both vital to the global struggle to combat climate change. In 2021, for the first time, a Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO) report highlighted how measures building on Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge to mitigate and adapt to climate change (and protect wildlife and biological diversity) reduced extreme poverty, food insecurity and social conflict in Latin America and the Caribbean.

On 9 August 2022, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples aims to raise awareness about the role of indigenous women in the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge. Across Latin America, indigenous organizations are planning month-long events, culminating with the International Day of Indigenous Women, celebrated on 5 September. Despite the crucial role indigenous women play in their communities as breadwinners, caretakers, knowledge keepers, leaders and human rights defenders, they often suffer from discrimination based on gender, class, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Indigenous women and girls have been particularly affected by climate change degradation, which has forced women to travel longer distances to collect fuel, food and water, leaving them more vulnerable to security risks and gender-based violence. The lack of access to traditional medicinal herbs has elevated the health risks faced by women and girls, including maternal and infant mortality.

Indigenous Women and the Role of Ancestral Knowledge in Climate Security

Cabnal notes that “indigenous women in my community have played a key role as custodians of ancestral knowledge” and are becoming front-line environmental defenders advocating for indigenous practices to adapt to climate change. In Guatemala, Indigenous Peoples have increased their resilience to climate change through ancestral practices such as seed exchange, adjustments to agricultural calendars and the implementation of different crop systems, like the milpa system, in which maize is cropped among other species.

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