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May 14, 2023

Promoting Community-Based Participatory Research with Indigenous Youth about Intergenerational Knowledge Transmission on Climate Change

By Marisa O. Ensor, Research Fellow, Collaborative on Global Children's Issues

There is increasing evidence of the critical role of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) for climate change adaptation and mitigation. TEK refers to the body of knowledge, beliefs, traditions, practices, institutions, and worldviews developed and sustained by Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in interaction with their biophysical environment. The necessity to consider different knowledge systems, including TEK, has been established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their fifth assessment report.

As the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recently noted, “around the world, Indigenous youth are leading initiatives to address challenges by blending Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and practices with new technologies and resourceful networks.” Working with Indigenous youth requires adhering to strict ethical standards. To advance common goals, it is imperative to avoid the extractive approaches of the past in which TEK was gathered and used for profit with no benefit to those who owned the knowledge in the first place. With its emphasis on collaboration with local communities as full and equal partners in all phases of the research process, community-based participatory research (CBPR) is a promising model for research with Indigenous youth.

Indigenous Youth and the Intergenerational Transmission of TEK

Together with their families and communities, Indigenous youth live in some of the most remote areas in the world: jungles and forests, mountains, deserts, and the Arctic tundra. They subsist off the land and waters through farming, herding, hunting, fishing, and gathering for their main food supplies, and they play an essential role in biodiversity conservation. Through their daily practices, IPLCs have accumulated a specialized TEK that encompasses Indigenous worldviews, reflects their intimate relationship with their environment, and offers nature-based solutions to today’s concurrent “polycrises.” TEK is neither monolithic nor static–there is no single Indigenous or local belief system dictating the correct treatment of nature, or the most effective way of coping and adapting to the impacts of climate change.

The intergenerational knowledge transfer of TEK responds to changing environmental conditions, with younger generations adopting, adapting, and re-interpreting the aspects of their communities’ TEK most directly relevant to their survival. Transmitted from elders to youngsters over generations, TEK offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data with longitudinal and landscape-specific precision and detail. This information is critical for ground-truthing climate models and evaluating climate change scenarios developed by scientists at much broader spatial and temporal scales. Furthermore, TEK provides a crucial foundation to support the sustainability and resilience of social-ecological systems at the interconnected local, regional, and global scales.

The cultural transmission of TEK from generation to generation forms the basis for the livelihood and well-being of IPCL communities. Many of these communities have a heightened sensitivity to climate change, political instability, and food insecurity. Their high dependence on the land, severe socioeconomic inequalities, and lack of representation in decision-making spaces combine to increase their vulnerability and hamper their adaptive capacity. For Indigenous youth in particular, questions of identity, culture, and their future in a warming world are steeped in uncertainty. Many are responding to these challenges by making their voices heard.

As bearers of TEK, Indigenous youth are capable of navigating both traditional Indigenous peoples’ cultures and lifestyles as well as those of modern societies. Their critical potential in bonding traditional capacities with Western scientific knowledge and innovative approaches enhances their communities’ ability to respond to changing climactic and social contexts. Having this unique ability to "walk between both worlds" offers Indigenous youth the chance to effectively contribute to creating a more sustainable, resilient, and interdependent system for future Indigenous and non-Indigenous generations.

Community-based Participatory Research

Traditional models of research with IPLCs, particularly those following “outside expert” approaches, have proven to be poorly suited to facilitating positive change. Community-based participatory research, on the other hand, recognizes the importance of involving the members of a study population as active and equal participants. CBPR entails academic-community collaboration in which decision-making power is shared among partners in all aspects of the research process, and it is well-suited to research with IPLCs. The benefits that CBPR generates for community partners have been well documented and include enhanced community empowerment, co-learning between community members and scientists, informing community organizing efforts, and linking research to policy and programing.

CBPR is an approach to research, not a specific method or research design. It encompasses an array of research methods intended to transform the scientific enterprise by engaging communities in the research process. CBPR studies can involve quantitative methods (surveys, environmental audits), qualitative methods (focus group discussions; life histories; in-depth interviews), visual methods (ethnographic mapping; photovoice), and other participatory exercises in various combinations.

Conducting CBPR entails a more time-consuming process than other research designs and requires a long-term commitment on the parts of the research team members. The CBPR approach also requires special attention to ethical considerations. These include the evolving and collaborative nature of the research, which makes it difficult to obtain true informed consent and may impede confidentiality. Additionally, some biocultural knowledge, including TEK, may be considered sacred. Sharing this knowledge with outsiders unable to understand the context may be seen as eroding the cultural identity of the community. One way to overcome these challenges is to have local representatives approve anything that is to be published or disseminated some other way.

Overall, many of the ethics questions that relate to conducting CBPR with adults apply equally to research with young people. Both external researchers and community members must ensure that any potential risk in research is minimized and that adequate protection of young people–as well as adults–is ensured. At the same time, the ethical implications of silencing and excluding young voices from research about their knowledge, views, experiences, and participation must also be considered.

A recent review of the literature on CBPR with Indigenous youth concluded that Indigenous youth themselves tend to highlight connection to culture as a major strength, and youth often identify a need for programming centered around their cultures and communities. Seeking to democratize research from a top-down, expert-driven process to one of co-learning and co-production, CBPR represents a helpful strategy to address Indigenous youth’s unique challenges and opportunities in responsive, creative, and sustainable ways.

A Call to Action

There is growing recognition that Indigenous perspectives should be front and center in climate change responses. The inclusion of the world’s nearly 500 million Indigenous people and the TEK they bring to the table will be essential to ensuring that those who are the most heavily impacted by climate change have central roles in decision-making processes.

During the UN Forum Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP27 and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Convention of the Parties (COP)15, held in late 2022, Indigenous advocates underscored “the loss and damage to Indigenous rights” and the ongoing need for global action on climate change. While numerous challenges remain in 2023, Indigenous-led strategies are increasingly recognized as critical to ending further biodiversity loss, which requires more effectively responding to the negative impacts of climate change.

Indigenous youth have a unique perspective on climate change and serve as some of the most influential voices in the climate action and biodiversity conservation spaces. Indigenous youth can help to identify effective mitigation and adaptation strategies by incorporating Indigenous knowledge, cultural practices, and values. Providing meaningful opportunities for Indigenous youth and their communities to co-produce solutions to our common crises thus generates the best available knowledge to make decisions that are going to be favorable for all of humanity–not just IPLCs, but all of us.

Dr. Marisa O. Ensor is an applied environmental and legal anthropologist currently based at Georgetown University’s Justice and Peace Studies Program. She is also the current chair of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association’s Gender Interest Group and a research fellow in Georgetown University’s Collaborative on Global Children's Issues.