Acknowledging Natural Resources Rights to address historical injustice for combating climate change: Opinions & Perspectives

You cannot tackle climate change without considering and acknowledging the redesign of land and property rights.  Such rights need to reflect humankind’s coexistence with nature and each person’s sense of belonging and understanding to a place and it’s surrounding in the land.  These rights define the relationships that connects all living and non-living elements in the world in a healthy way.  Defining these relationships must look into the diverse incentive structures – tangible and intangible, by different societies – that have always been promoting long term sustainability.”

Discussions and debates do matter.  We are seven people from different parts of the world.  Shalini Dhyani, a young woman and scientist from Uttarakhand a small mountain state in Indian Himalayan Region, is taking notes. Opposite her sits another indigenous young woman, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, from Chad.  Mike Jones, an Englishman living in Sweden after a career in Zimbabwe, sits next to Hindou.  Mesake Draniatu and Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba, two men from the Pacific Islands of Fiji, are opposite Mike.  Between them is Mark Calamia who grew up in the American South West, but worked with Mesake and Roko Josefa in Fiji.  Barbara Heinzen, a geographer complete the circle, sitting between Fiji and Chad, an American who spent half her life in London.


The room is cavernous and black, a curtained corner of a warehouse-like building at the Olympic Park in Sydney, Australia in November 2014.  We have all been attending the World Parks Congress that happens after a gap of a decade hosted by the IUCN – the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.  Six thousand people were attending the Congress, but our room is empty and silent except for us.  It is after hours.

“What is your first memory of climate change?”  Barbara asks.


She only offers the first example.  “For me, it is probably seeing snowy egrets in Manhasset Bay, where I grew up outside of New York City.  That was in the early 1970s.  Snowy egrets were normally resident further south. They may have been an early sign of climate change.”

“There was a big drought in Chad when I was born twenty years ago,” says Hindou. “Communities thought something had gone seriously wrong and made sacrifices to appease the spirits.  Muslims were praying at exceptional hours, but even after the prayers, crazy climate related events kept happening.”

“In 1975, I read about climate change in a textbook, in Zimbabwe,” says Mike.  “Then there was a big drought in the country.  Was this climate change?  When Mount Pinatubo exploded in 1991, it made things very hot and I thought, ‘this is what climate change might be like.’”

“When I was a graduate student,” Shalini begins, “there were no monsoon rains for two months and natural water sources were drying up. People belonging to Hindu religion in north India marry frogs to appease the rain Gods similarly other practices are carried out by different religions to attract rain Gods.  In the Himalayas, the Rhododendron were and are flowering irregularly, spring flowers were flowering in summer (  This was not normal variability.” These were my very first memories to realize that actually something is changing in our daily, weekly and season climate.  Things became reality when last year there was Himalayan tsunami a series of cloud burst incidents and my own house was flooded.  My climate change memories went stronger when I experienced dry arid zone of countries like in Gujarat in extreme West where I worked experiencing more normal droughts getting wetter and Himalayas my native place experiencing extreme rains and extreme droughts coupled with uneven snowfalls.


Mark Calamia grew up in the American Southwest.  “This is ground zero for climate change in the USA,” he notes.  “I spent time in the deserts: Sonora, Mojave and Chihuahua.  Each year, things were getting hotter earlier than they normally do.  The worst heat used to be in June and July.  In the 1990s, it started coming in May.  Fires are more frequent now.  In 2000, I went to Fiji and there was a major coral bleaching event.  Over 40% of Fiji’s corals were killed off.”

“That was the second time it happened,” observes Josepfa from Fiji.

Mesake continues.  “Fiji was settled 3000 years ago.  The word ‘climate change’ existed then: Raki is climate.  We are connected to nature and it signals to us.  When I was growing up, aged ten, the elders in Fiji said if you see these changes, it means the climate is changing.  Now it is becoming big.  I am now fifty-six.  As a child, I walked along the sea with my father who pointed out beyond the waves and said, ‘the sea used to be out there, far away.’  Now it is right here.  My father talked about the advance of the sea when I was a small boy.”

Each one of us remembers something that might be evidence of climate change, whether it was the rising sea in Fiji or a cloud burst in Garhwal part of Uttarakhand or irregular rains in Gujarat. What exactly, though, are we reporting?

“Among the Bororo of Chad,” says Hindou, “people knew there would be a big drought every thirty years. Then the droughts came more often.  … We used to have three seasons: a dry season, a rainy season and a cold season.  Last year we only had a dry and a rainy season.”

“In Gujarat,” adds Shalini, “we have frequent cycles where there are three years of droughts, then rain, then three dry years again.   People are used to that, but now there is better rain in dry areas of India and many a times floods too while rainy areas are going dry like Himalayas.  ”

Climate instability, we agree, is a better term than climate change.  The temperature of the Earth is rising, but each of us is describing an unpredictable disturbance of seasonal rhythms and expectations.


With this climate instability, comes more social instability. Suicides are rising among farmers in India due to the failure of crops and depression.  In Fiji, the bleaching of the corals has reduced fish stocks near the shore.  Women used to catch fish in the morning, coming home in time to fix lunch for their husbands.  “When there are plenty of fish in the sea, mum is happy,” quotes Mesake. “Now the men come home and wait for their lunch, getting angry with the women for being so slow.”  Similar disruptions to families are taking place in Chad among the Bororo.  In Australia, suicides have increased among farming men as rainfall has shifted by 50mm/year. “Climate change is attacking social systems,” saysRoko Josefa.

Some especially people sitting and developing perceptions at far locations see the changing climate as a new opportunity because drylands are getting more water, but Shalini disagrees. “People dwelling in these arid areas have only seen shortage and less water situations and have learned how to live with less water, their agriculture practices, livestock, food habits, utilization of resources requires less but they don’t know how to adapt to heavy rainfall. … It is just scientists who think these are opportunities or better aspects of climate change.”

Hindou agrees, saying that the Bororo herders are less interested in the amount of rain, than in its quality and its consequences.  A soft steady rain will nourish the grasses, while floods will wash away the grass seeds leaving nothing for the animals to eat the following year, or only encourage new grasses which are less nutritious. The location of pastures can also change.

Scientific perceptions of a good year are not the same those of local people whose experience of the natural world is intimate, detailed and very particular.  So whose knowledge matters here?


“In Chad”, says Hindou, “the Bororo community know how to predict the weather.  During the day, we predict rain by the movement of insects, while the direction of the wind, the nature of the wind,tells us the weather for the week. Some flowering trees are always protected because they predict the monthly weather.  The nature of the coconut’s liquid tells us the weather for the year.”  This knowledge evolved over thousands of years in daily interactions with the weather and landscape and is still responding.  “I am seeing an evolution of knowledge,” says Hindou.

Sadly, we note that the rhetoric, speed, and instability of climate change is frustrating the evolution of traditional knowledge which cannot always match the pace of events.

“Fiji,” says Mesake, “has similar knowledge systems, but knowledge never stands on its own.  It is also connected to the heart, the spirit and the land.  We call it Vanua.  If a person has a problem with his Vanua, he will get sick.  If the whole people are doing something wrong, we have a process to come back, sit down and do repentance to restore the Vanua.

“We have the same concept among the Bororo,” says Hindou.  “The word we use is Andal”. 

Does this concept exist in India, we ask?  “In Hindi and Sanskrit,” says Shalini, “the word is Prakriti that means nature”

The three Anglophones look at each other.  “We don’t have a word like that in English.”

The black room is quiet.  We are ready to leave the round table, but linger a moment longer.

Earlier, Roko Josefa had said that when we lost traditional knowledge we also lost spiritual knowledge, a loss of heart, spirit and mind.

“Our Western technology,” says Mike, “is very short term and is spreading like a weed over the world.  It overrides vanua, prakriti and andal.”

Our evening ends with that insight, a break-through for Mike and some of the rest of us.

Finally, we agree:

“You cannot tackle climate change without considering the redesign of land and property rights.Such rights need to reflect humankind’s coexistence with nature and each person’s sense of belonging to a place in the land.  These rights define the relationships that connect all living and non-living elements in the world in a healthy way.  Defining these relationships must look into the diverse incentive structures – monetary and non-monetary, in different societies – that promote long term sustainability.”

25255645453_e50b12688e_bAuthors: Barbara Heinzen and Shalini Dhyani. Experiences from IUCN World Parks Congress, 2014 Sydney Australia

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