Building resilience to climate change through indigenous knowledge: The case of Bolivia

Case Summary: 

Within Bolivia there are 36 indigenous groups with over 5 million people which account for approximately 60% of the country’s population. Each indigenous group has their own traditions and customs stemming from their histories. Often, indigenous knowledge includes specific and detailed knowledge of the climate they live in. With the progression of climate change and extreme weather events, indigenous groups have reported that previous methods of predicting the weather have become unreliable. The inability to predict the weather coupled with the increase of extreme weather events caused by climate change poses a significant threat to their livelihood, health, and cultures. This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that indigenous people often do not have a political voice or are denied equal standing under the law.

In 2010 Bolivia passed the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” that establishes rights of the “Mother Earth” in regard to land-use and indigenous people’s treatment. This law established 11 rights that need to be respected when dealing with nature, the Bolivian ecosystem, and indigenous people. Since the passing of this law, there has been a renewed effort to communicate with indigenous people knowledge about climate change while incorporating indigenous knowledge into broader policy making trends.

One offshoot of this effort has been to combine indigenous knowledge and scientific data to form a more complete picture of the ecology of a region. Indigenous knowledge is rich with information about the local ecosystem. But previous efforts have not been successful because Indigenous people can fear government involvement. A new effort was launched to better incorporate indigenous knowledge with climate science, and to provide better predictions and information back to indigenous groups for their planning efforts. Several new approaches were taken that resulted in lessons learned for the broader international community. These include:

  • Encouraging partnerships between scientists and indigenous knowledge holders. This was accomplished both with surveys and in-person interviews. Scientists brought climate data and, with indigenous people, constructed a history of recent environmental events and changes to understand and build-on their perception of climate change.
  • Creating policies that improve indigenous people’s status and adaptive capacity. Often Indigenous knowledge is treated as a simple data point. By creating policy that elevates their status, indigenous people can explain their knowledge providing a fuller picture of the ecosystem for climate science and predictions.
  • Promoting the use of indigenous knowledge through international initiatives. In 2009 the Indigenous People’s Global Summit on Climate Change released the Anchorage Declaration that charged with United Nations with developing formal methods for indigenous people’s inclusion in climate discussions that can inform and expand climate change practices. Indigenous people have previously expressed concern about joining international organizations for fear of losing autonomy. But inviting and encouraging their participation can lead to insights and practices to help them adapt to climate change.
Latin America and Caribbean
Action Area 
Planning and Implementation Activity 
Analysis and Data Collection, Governance and Stakeholder Engagement, Monitoring and Evaluation
Sectors and Themes 
Disaster Risk Reduction
Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN)
Sign-up for the NDC Partnership monthly newsletter and receive updates on country work, upcoming events, resources, and more.