Mountain peoples call for support to protect traditional knowledge

Representatives of mountain communities in five countries have called for support to help them maintain traditional ways of protecting their landscapes and natural resources in the face of climate change.

Workshop participants touring the Stone Village in China (Photo: Irene Song)

More than 50 indigenous mountain peoples representing mountain communities in China, Nepal, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Peru gathered in the Stone Village, in Yunnan, Southwest China in May, 2016, to discuss the impact of climate change on their communities. 

At the end of their meeting, they issued the Stone Village Declaration, calling for urgent support for their traditional ways of managing natural resources, and setting out eight actions for the international community.  

Mountain ecosystems are hotspots of biological and cultural diversity and play a critical role as water sources, centres of origin of important food crops and biodiversity, as well as places of high spiritual value. 

Climate change is threatening these vulnerable regions and the indigenous communities that inhabit them. Indigenous mountain people are also made vulnerable by insecure land ownership, environmental degradation, outward migration and inappropriate policy regimes.

The Stone Village Declaration calls on the international community to recognise the value of biocultural heritage and the traditional knowledge of indigenous mountain peoples, as well as the spirituality that guides them. It calls for support for strengthening traditional natural resource management systems, especially in relation to water management.

Managing scarce water resources

The workshop was held in the Himalayan foothills of Southwest China, an area inhabited by the Naxi indigenous people. The Stone Village administrative area groups together a number of traditional villages. Workshop participants undertook a "walking workshop", visiting water courses and sharing tools for climate adaptation, including community-led landscape management and traditional water management systems.

Stone village communities use water management systems that date back some 1,300 years. Dr. Yiching Song, senior researcher at the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP), says: "A system of channels delivers water fairly to each village, field and household in the valley; this prevents conflicts and ensures social cohesion."

The Stone Village region has experienced severe drought for the last five years, but traditional villages have been less impacted than other communities thanks to this water management system. 

Alejandro Argumedo, program director of the Association for Nature and Sustainable Development in Peru, said: "This traditional water management system is threatened as customary laws are getting weaker; it will soon be lost if we don't act now." 

Krystyna Swiderska, IIED principal researcher said: "Half of the world's population rely on mountains for their water. The Stone Village Declaration sends an important message from indigenous mountain communities that the world needs to hear."

Despite the effectiveness demonstrated by such traditional systems, indigenous peoples tend to be excluded from research, decision-making, policy and planning for climate change adaptation. 

Participants also shared information on community seed banks, participatory plant breeding, and the development of biocultural products and services. The workshop was preceded by a bilateral learning exchange between Quechua farmers from Peru and local Naxi people to discuss plans to establish a Biocultural Heritage Territory in the area, inspired by the successful Potato Park in Peru.

The meeting was organised by ANDES (Peru), CCAP (China), INMIP, IIED and the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Programme.