Indigenous Knowledge Is The Missing Piece In Disaster Risk Reduction

Indigenous communities use deep-rooted knowledge to prepare for and mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters. Disaster philanthropy should embrace it.


Having grown up running and playing in California’s dense forests, rolling hills, and coastal groves, it has been gut-wrenching to watch these places go up in flames in worsening blazes year after year. While there are multiple explanations for the increasing intensity of natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes, we can no longer overlook the traditional knowledge and practices led by indigenous communities that have mitigated the impact of these crises for generations.

Funders and donors from all walks of life find themselves in a pivotal moment. The flames have reached the front door, and there is a sense of urgency to invest in the now. How can philanthropy take a proven, systems-level approach to climate change-related disasters on the horizon? How can we pick each other up and ensure that no one gets left behind in the rebuilding processes currently underway?

Indigenous knowledge, which refers to the generations-spanning approaches and practices of a culture rooted in an advanced understanding of the local environment, is a crucial part of the answer. Many of GlobalGiving’s nonprofit partners are using this knowledge to reduce the vulnerabilities to natural disasters in their communities. We have much to learn from indigenous-led organizations, including these three that are protecting lives from the Americas to Indonesia.

    1. We don’t interact with our environment, we are the environment

    Members of the Shibipo-Conibo tribe of the Amazon rainforest in Peru pass on their shared cosmovision, a particular way of viewing the world and the human relationship to non-humans, to each generation through ancestral knowledge. Shibipo see themselves as stewards of the soil, the waterways, and the animals they interact with daily, heightening their perception of risk that is often invisible to outsiders.

    The community has witnessed the degradation of these life-giving resources, as traditional forest management practices faced pressure from extractive industries and agricultural methods that placed short-term profits over soil sustainability. Local nonprofit Instituto Chaikuni weaves together ancestral knowledge and agroforestry practices to care for both the social and environmental well-being of the region through family-run food forests.

    “‘Ayni,’ the central principle that drives all aspects of daily life, is the recognition that all individuals and communities are woven into a net of interdependence,” Executive Director Stefan Kristler said.

    Instituto Chaikuni seeks to deepen awareness of the Amazon’s key environmental services on a global scale and argues that indigenous knowledge is our main tool in conserving a critical ecosystem. The organization works with small-scale farmers to build upon practices of communal work, known as “mingas,” to cultivate food forests that have regenerated 24 hectares of Amazonian rainforest thus far.

    ‘Ayni,’ the central principle that drives all aspects of daily life, is the recognition that all individuals and communities are woven into a net of interdependence.

    2. Building for the future requires traditional techniques

    In Nahuatl, a language indigenous to Mexico, “tamakepalis” means mutual aid. The catastrophic 2017 Mexico earthquakes were the catalyst for Fundación Tosepan to apply that concept and strengthen the social fabric of hard-hit Santa Cruz Cuautomatitla by re-introducing traditional building methods. Faced with the severe lack of government assistance after the disaster, and located in mountainous regions not easily accessible to large aid organizations, community leaders opted for a long-term recovery plan rooted in indigenous techniques and values.

    After the successful reconstruction of 100 homes using local adobe building materials and a seismic-resistant structure combined with the spirit of communal work, Fundación Tosepan expanded this model to other communities in Oaxaca and Morelos affected by the 2017 earthquakes.

    The organization’s guiding principle, “tlayolchikawalis,” can be translated as “actions that strengthen the heart.”

    “Our heart is always the community, and when a family goes through a misfortune, the community always supports,” Fundación Tosepan staff shared.

    3. Disaster preparedness as cultural practice

    Located in one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world, Indonesia has faced flooding, typhoons, and earthquakes for as long as humans have inhabited the islands. Most recently, the survival rates on certain islands in the path of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia prompted researchers to dive into how local knowledge passed down through songs, short poems, stories, and lullabies spared thousands of lives.

    On the island of Bali, the local nonprofit IDEP Foundation takes a similar approach to community-based disaster risk management in response to COVID-19. Traditional comedy shows, or “bondres,” are a means of sharing vital information about the spread of the virus with the community while combatting the spread of misinformation fueled by social media. IDEP’s community-based disaster preparedness efforts, coupled with a permaculture program designed to address the economic and food needs of disaster survivors, are strengthening 78 remote Indonesian villages situated in the hazard-prone Ring of Fire.

Rather than viewing the ongoing devastation of our environment as the “new normal,” imagine if philanthropy invested in proactively reducing community vulnerabilities. For too long, indigenous disaster risk reduction strategies have been passed off as inferior to modern science, even as billions of dollars are spent on disaster recovery each year. While all local contexts are different, studies have shown that integrating indigenous knowledge into disaster management can help to improve project performance, sustainability, and the community’s sense of ownership.

Now is the moment for funders to divert their attention to the indigenous-led approaches that have been proven to work at the intersection of environmental stewardship, mutual aid, and use of local resources. Managing the risks to our forests, our homes, and our environment will depend on a shift to include these missing links.

Learn how GlobalGiving supports community-led solutions in disaster preparedness, emergency response, and long-term recovery efforts around the world.

Learn More

Featured Photo: Tamakepalis: Rebuilding their dwellings in Puebla by Fundacion Tosepan A.C.

Looking for something specific?

Find exactly what you're looking for in our Learn Library by searching for specific words or phrases related to the content you need.

WARNING: Javascript is currently disabled or is not available in your browser. GlobalGiving makes extensive use of Javascript and will not function properly with Javascript disabled. Please enable Javascript and refresh this page.