Who knows what about climate change?

Bringing rural farmers and herders to bring them into the scientific fold. Photo: ILRI/ Dave Elsworth

by Jeremy Cherfas, Bioversity International

Climate science is of great value to pastoralists; they can use it to avoid and manage risks. And long before there were climate scientists, pastoralists were making use of what they knew to decide when to move and to where. What can scientists learn from traditional knowledge? And how might pastoralists benefit from climate science?

“Often our traditional knowledge is ignored,” Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim told the audience at a Learning Event on the integration of traditional knowledge with atmospheric science during Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2011.
Hindou is a woman from Chad, a member of the 250,000 strong M’Bororo pastoralist people, who move with their flocks through Cameroon, Central African Republic, Niger, Nigeria and Chad itself. She is also a representative on several organisations of indigenous people.

She told the Event of the challenges faced by her people and others, who need to move further with their livestock at the same time as their freedom to move is increasingly curtailed.

“We are losing our livestock, having to change our lifestyles, and our distinctive needs are not being addressed,” she said.

Listening to her, now as in the past, was Cheikh Kane, a technical advisor in the African Center of Meterological Applications for Development, based in Niamey, Niger. He has been involved in projects to provide early warning and advisory services, and has worked with poor rural farmers and herders to bring them into the scientific fold. To that end, he has worked with women and men in the region to train them to make meteorological observations, such as reading a rain gauge, and text the results back to the scientists to improve their information.

Kane explained that from a climate scientist’s point of view, the rains on which Hindou’s people depend “are the West African monsoon, which normally runs from June to October” and which itself depends on currents in the Gulf of Guinea and much else besides.

“We try hard to predict how much rain the monsoon will bring, the onset of the season, the days of rain,” Kane said. That relies on scientific work, and now includes observations from trained citizen scientists. The forecasts are disseminated in the form of bulletins that are “very technical, no use in the field”.

So Kane wants to know how he can serve the pastoralists better.

“We need feedback from the field. Do they know what we do? And what are their needs?”

The range of phenomena that rural people make use of to predict weather patterns is vast indeed. Moses Ndiyaine, a Maasai from Tanzania, talked about the appearance of the stars and the behaviour of goats as two sources of information about rain, to those who know how to interpret them. He also mentioned a tree that farmers keep an eye on, because two weeks after it flowers, the rains come.

And that raises an interesting question. Over the centuries, people have noticed correlations between natural events and weather patterns. If climate is changing rapidly, will those same correlations remain useful? The tree may still flower as it always has, but if precipitation patterns have changed, the rains will not necessarily follow in two weeks time.

This is an area ripe for further cooperation and study. It is often precisely because the old patterns no longer hold that farmers know that climate is changing. Documenting traditional knowledge, training citizen climate scientists, and making sure that the two realms of knowledge respect and acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses could help to provide pastoralists with even better prediction systems and scientists with a deeper understanding of climate change.