By Alfred Nyakinda

The involvement of indigenous communities and the youth, who are among the most affected by climate change, was given priority at the interfaith Laudato Si’ environmental conference held at the United Nations in Nairobi this week.

Participants stressed the urgency of mitigating the effects of environmental degradation before they become irreversible.

Speakers at the opening ceremony. Photo Credits: Josephat Kariuki/United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Joseph Moeono-Kolio, Pacific Climate Warriors, Samoa, said “The threat to my common home has immediate daily effects to my actual home. Think for a moment what that would be like, to know that there is a time limit on your country and one day you’ll have to leave, and you’ll never see it again.

“That feeling of dread is now a part of our lives. That, in essence sums up the situation in the Pacific”

The conference, organized on the fourth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, with the theme Laudato Si’ Generation: Young people caring for our common home, emphasized the role of traditional knowledge in fighting climate change.

Moeono-Kolio reminded the gathering of the importance of leaning on the wisdom of indigenous people, who have not only cared for our common home but provide a link to that sustainable way of living that needs to be recaptured.

“Ecosystem-based approaches are at the heart of indigenous people’s land use system and are constantly being innovated,” said Edna Kaptoyo, Indigenous Information Network, Kenya, “They possess intimate knowledge about their environment and are uniquely capable of adapting and mitigating climate change.”

She went on to give the example of nomadic communities in Kenya, whose lifestyle enables access to and allows for regeneration of ecosystems in areas where resources are scarce in space and time.

The gathering also highlighted biocultural community protocols (BCPs), which help guide the usage of community-owned resources and traditional knowledge, and have had success among the Khoisan in South Africa and the Mariairano of Madagascar.

These protocols attempt to merge the customary law, national law and international law in a document that will make sense to the community and to investors who approach the community, according to Cicilia Githaiga of Natural Justice, Kenya, an organization which is advocating for their use in the country.

She stated, “They help communities define their rights, duties and responsibilities. These responsibilities and rights are spelled out in a document and this is good for posterity because it is evidence that can be handed down from generation to generation as part of inter-generational knowledge translation.”

“When an external stakeholder visits the community, through the biocultural community protocol they’ll be able to know who to approach first and how to go through the structure of the community to get free prior and informed consent.”

She gave the example of the Endorois community in Kenya which realized there were benefits they were supposed to share from the Lake Bogoria National Reserve, from which they were evicted in 1973 by the government.

On appeal to the African Commission, a decision was made in favor of the Endorois. As they needed to protect their resources and also share in the benefits, they embraced the idea of BCPs to benefit over time.

In addition, an interactive discussion at the conference on indigenous people’s role in environmental conservation brought out the fact that science is the traditional knowledge of our time and emphasized the importance of passing on knowledge from the past to the next generation.

Elliot Bakole (CYNESA) addresses the gathering.

Summarizing the discussion, Elliot Bakole, a member of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA) from the Democratic Republic of Congo said “Traditional knowledge has been corrupted today by technology. The assumption is that the children are educated and they no longer want to listen to their parents and vice versa.

“Children try to challenge the thinking of their elders. That is the paradigm shift and the need to balance technology and tradition.”

He also stated that indigenous youth require greater opportunities for involvement in environmental conservation efforts.

The conference, however, recognized the role that young people play in advocating for change and the impact their efforts has already had.

“We are at a better place because of the vibrant youth, the innovative youth, that we have.” said Fr. Innocent Akum.

The participants further called for greater collaboration between religious organizations and people in indigenous communities, many of whom subscribe to one of the religions represented.