The power of storytelling: can traditions from the past find answers to the climate problem?

IIED has been exploring how the power of cultural exchanges can be harnessed to find solutions to the complex global challenge of climate change. And we want to hear from you to learn more.

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17 August 2018

Teresa Corcoran is communications content officer in IIED's Communications Group

At CBA12 participants talked about the different ways their cultures create inclusive spaces to reach consensus-based decisions (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)

From all corners of the globe, storytelling has long had the power to inspire action and drive change. And this year, the world has put ‘talanoa’ – a Pacific word to describe an inclusive approach to solving complex challenges, centred around story sharing – at the heart of international efforts to accelerate climate action.

Countries are being encouraged to embrace the ‘Talanoa Dialogue’, a year-long process that promotes participatory, transparent and non-confrontational exchange, where nations share stories, swap ideas and collectively decide how to strengthen their pledges to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. 

The first round of the Talanoa Dialogue took place earlier this year at the UN climate talks in Bonn and will conclude in December. Meanwhile, local, national, regional and global events supporting the Talanoa Dialogue are under way around the world

A truly inclusive process where voices from all countries are heard, including those from the most climate vulnerable countries, seems to be resonating as a way of building greater understanding of what works and therefore greater ambition. To understand why this is working so well, we wanted to deepen our understanding of how, where and when different cultures discuss issues, exchange knowledge and make decisions for the collective good. 

This year’s CBA12 event, focusing on locally-driven climate action, brought together 300 participants from 45 countries. For one of the event’s sessions we ran a talanoa on gender and climate to elicit insights into how we can deliver the Paris Agreement’s commitment to promote gender-responsive climate action. More detail on that to follow. 

Power talking

Energy in the room surged, participants became more and more animated; ideas flowed thick and fast. The power of this process was clear – but we wanted to understand why it resonated so strongly with the CBA practitioners. So in a follow-up session we asked: ‘What does the concept of ‘talanoa’ look like in your culture? How do you share stories and build ideas together?’

Richness and diversity emerged as participants shared how their different cultures create inclusive spaces to share local and traditional knowledge and how they reach consensus-based decisions that benefit everyone in the community. 

Common threads

In northern Malawi, Pabwalo means ‘a place of gathering’ – “it’s traditionally where chiefs and their subjects meet. Important information is communicated, disputes are settled, and community functions are held,” Violet Mtaza of Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet), Malawi explained. In central Malawi, Nkhani is “where all community members – traditional leaders, elders, women, men, boys and girls – gather under the Kacheri tree to share information, ideas and discuss burning issues in their local areas,” said Chisomo Mlotha from Mzuzu University.

In Lesotho, Pitso is a community gathering, called and chaired by the village chief; Musangano is a comparable meeting in Zimbabwe. In Kenya it’s Baraza – a word also used in parts of the DRC. In Ghana it’s Badwa: “A gathering of everyone in the community to discuss issues of importance – it’s an open space where anyone can set the agenda,” explained Samuel Mawutor from Civic Response and Forest Watch, Ghana. 

In Viet Nam, Ngow Am describes a “village gathering to share experience and information and make collective decisions that matter to the whole community”. In Nepal, each community has a chautari or resting place. This typically has a stone seat or shelter usually by a Pipal tree. The traditional purpose was to provide a rest stop to travellers, but they also provide a place for social gatherings and for community meetings.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner, led the session and described a cèilidh which was traditionally a community meeting in Ireland. In more recent times it has become better known for the dancing that would follow the gathering. 

We heard how richt guid blether in Scotland is a lively debate among friends discussing burning issues while in England the meeting of the local parish council followed by a visit to the pub can be where local decisions relevant to public interest are made. 

These wide-ranging examples rooted in traditions from around the world are bound by a common thread: bringing people together to share, learn and resolve issues. And so it becomes clear why the talanoa process resonates with so many as a way of tackling complex challenges such as climate change.

Taking lessons forward

The insights we gathered from the gender and climate talanoa will be submitted formally to the UNFCCC’s Talanoa Dialogue alongside these cultural understandings.

Next month, Mary Robinson and other CBA12 participants will have the opportunity to share the messages on gender transformative climate action at the California Global Action Climate Summit. While Stella Gama, the LDC group’s gender expert, will look for ways to feed them into the UNFCCC’s Gender Action Plan during this year’s climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland.

Does your culture have a process like talanoa?

In the meantime, we want to keep building on our understanding of this highly powerful process. We want to hear from you! 

  • Does your culture have a process like talanoa? How does it work and what is it called? 
  • Do you think the Talanoa Dialogue should continue to be a way of finding new climate solutions?  

We’re keen to hear your thoughts, either in the comments below or by email, on why these processes works so well and how we could keep a talanoa-inspired process alive…


This photo gallery shows images from the talanoa at CBA12 and from the follow-up session on ways that different cultures foster open and participatory discussion. Click on the first image to open the gallery.

We asked participants what an inclusive dialogue looks like in their culture (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)The Gender Talanoa at CBA12 generated lively discussion (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)Mary Robinson speaking at the CBA12 Talanoa follow-up session (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)Mary Robinson speaking at the post-Talanoa session (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)Participants described their versions of a Talanoa (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)uParticipants described their versions of a Talanoa (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)Participants described their versions of a Talanoa (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)We collected many different descriptions (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)We collected many different descriptions (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)We collected many different descriptions (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)We collected many different descriptions (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)

About the author

Teresa Corcoran (teresa.corcoran@iied.org) is communications content officer in IIED's Communications Group

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