Woman from the Banna indigenous people from Omo, Ethiopia. The Banna are semi-nomadic and known for keeping bees for wild honey. Photo by Rod Waddington
Woman from the Banna indigenous people from Omo, Ethiopia. The Banna are semi-nomadic and known for keeping bees for wild honey. Photo by Rod Waddington

COP26, the United Nations’ (UN) largest conference on climate change was attended by global leaders and some of the world’s wealthiest people. The irony was the arrival of  400 fuel guzzling private jets in Glasgow, Scotland for an event whose sole purpose was for the apparent decision makers to come together and collectively tackle the issue of climate change. The negotiations were set to come to an agreement on accelerated action towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under The Paris Agreement – the global deal to cap global warming at 1.5°C. Solving the issue of the planet’s rising temperatures is critical because if the earth warms beyond 2°C, it would deliver unlivable conditions in parts of the world, and further beyond that, would risk the survival of humanity and all earth’s species. As revealed by the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2001), the global average temperature will increase by 1.4°C to 5.8°C between 1990 and 2100 if the levels of emissions are not reduced. According to the same report, the increase in temperature is largely attributed to anthropogenic activities, especially the use of fossil fuels in the developed world.

This year’s conference was deemed to be iconic with expectations of the most critical deal to date. This was mainly due to immense pressure from climate change activists and underrepresented groups including people of African descent on the issue of climate justice. The Global Southerners that least contribute to global warming are paying the heftiest price and it was imperative that they structure the COP26 deal accordingly. By the signing, the excitement of the deal had waned and it seemed that they had barely reached a compromise with the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calling for “an end to fossil fuel subsidies, the phasing out of coal; a price for carbon, building the resilience of vulnerable communities and making good on wealthy nations’ overdue pledges to generate $100 billion a year for a fund to help developing countries mitigate the impacts of climate change.” Mr. Gueterres further had a message for underrepresented groups like youth, women leaders and indigenous communities that were pushing for a more progressive commitment, “I know you are disappointed, but the path of progress is not always a straight line. Sometimes there are detours. Sometimes there are ditches, but I know we can get there. We are in the fight of our lives, and this fight must be won. Never give up. Never retreat. Keep pushing forward”.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Broadcaster and Natural Historian Sir David Attenborough at the launch of the UK hosting of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26)

Sub-Saharan Africa (minus South Africa) accounts for only 2.3 percent of total global emissions of greenhouse gases. According to Brookings, it would take the average Ethiopian 240 years to register the same carbon footprint as the average American today. The persistence of mega fauna and flora in Africa as opposed to other continents is partly attributed to what some African scholars have termed as indigenous knowledge systems(IKSs) which is a broad concept within which traditional environment conservation strategies are encompassed. IKSs can be defined as local knowledge(s) that is unique to a given culture or society. They are knowledge forms that have failed to die or disappear despite the racial and colonial onslaughts that they have suffered at the hands of western imperialism. African traditions, values and way of life were significantly transformed with the advent of colonialism and the influence of Western culture, the effects of which are still evident today and continue to be felt across sectors of African societies even decades after independence from colonial rule.

Unlike other continents, Africa’s immense natural resources were spared from over-exploitation by humans until the relatively recent arrival of the European colonizers about 350 years ago. Prior to that, traditional African practices were geared towards preserving the environment and this is evident today in the cultural infrastructure of society which is organized in tribes, clans and sub-clans, most of whom adhere to heritage constructs which also include totems. These totems and clan networks are a depiction of Africa’s millennia history of socio-cultural ties to nature. 

Gold Totem Staff from the Ashanti people from Ghana depicting a bird species , Photo by Cartsten ten Brink

“Totems have also been described as a traditional environmental conservation method besides being for kinship. Totemism can lead to environmental protection since most clans have multiple totems. For example, over 100 plant and animal species are considered totems among the Batooro (omuziro), Banyoro and Baganda (omuzilo) tribes in Uganda, a similar number of species are considered totems among tribes in Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic, (CAR).”- Cyril Zenda for fairplanet.org

Africa has a large traditional circular economy and many communities still use nature-based management systems passed on from their ancestors through oral tradition, traditional healing and religious ceremonies. From formalized livestock grazing systems that are still customary today to countries such as Ethiopia having 90% of the population using herbal remedies for their primary healthcare, these traditions are dependent on biodiversity in the ecosystem. The fact that this module of environmental conservationism is engrained in spiritual belief systems and bloodlines would suggest that African cultural traditions could play a pivotal role in addressing urgent contemporary issues with the most crucial being climate change. 

While in modern day Africa expert science is officially used as the main agent for environmental conservation, pre-colonial Africans deployed a myriad of “traditional” strategies enshrined in indigenous knowledge systems to conserve their natural habitat. These practices cut across most of the continent and included among many others, taboos, the philosophy of Ubuntu, folktales, totemism and conception of natural resources as common property. Among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, there is a belief that one is not allowed to kill frogs and this was a taboo to ensure that the water reservoir or well would not run dry. Taboos such as this were put in place to protect the lives of such sentient beings, and coupled with totemism they were adhered to by many Bantu peoples in Africa, both as an identity mark and an intervention to ensure sustainable use of resources. In essence, one belonged to a clan which is a group of related families; the clan had a totem which was a plant or animal. It was taboo and therefore prohibited to eat, touch or be in the presence of one’s totem, which ensured the preservation of that species.

The Banna are a semi-nomadic indigenous people that have been living in Omo, Ethiopia for millennia, Photo by Rod Waddington

Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity” also translated as “I am because we are”, is a multi-faceted philosophical system that involves logic, metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. It is an ethos that is concerned with the reinforcement of unity, oneness, solidarity and harmony among the Bantu people of Africa. The distinctive elasticity and practical nature of Ubuntu makes it applicable in almost all facets of human life, including the natural environment. The use of Ubuntu in environmental conservation in Africa was more pronounced during the pre-colonial period as the moral dimension was also extended to the natural environment. The philosophy was used to encourage sustainable use, respect of all beings (human and nonhuman) and ‘good’ relations of man with his natural habitat; a collective sense of responsibility to conservation.

Perhaps some solutions to the climate change issue could be harnessed by understanding how pre-colonial Africans lived and maybe the rest of the world could benefit from the knowledge accrued. However, what’s more certain is there is a bigger chance at winning the climate change battle if western-based conservation strategies are integrated with ‘traditional’ conservation knowledge from indigenous cultures. 

Women leaders of the Network of Women of African Descent and the National Coordination of Indigenous Women of Panama (CONAMUIP) welcoming the Executive Director of UN Women, Photo Courtesy of UN Women

The UN declared (2015-2024) the International Decade of People of African Descent, but at COP26 the representation of people of color was lacking as said by Ruth Łchavaya K’isen Miller, a Dena’ina Athabaskan, “Conferences like COP26 perpetuate structures of power that run along racial lines. Indigenous people’s struggles to attend COP26 are not the result of anyone deliberately trying to exclude them but are an example of everyday struggles these groups face in access to decision-making generally…COP … has not done enough to break down those barriers to entry.” She even described the way some of the sessions were held as “racist”.

Deliberate or not, this exclusion is counterproductive to the tremendous influence the African diaspora has on global climate change. From an underexploited trove of indigenous African knowledge to modern consumerism of which, according to Forbes, Black American buying power was worth more than $1.4 trillion in 2019- which is more than some developed countries like Spain, Mexico and Turkey. The cultural influences of people of African descent from traditional to contemporary seem to indicate the dire need for more representation of people of color in climate change negotiations.

It seems the climate change battle is not just for carbon, but for equality.

Alice Lespen is from the indigenous Randille people of Kenyas. She is an advocate for the empowerment of indigenous women and girls by advocating for their rights to their lands and territories, Photo Courtesy of UN Women

Camilla Barungi is a New York-based model, entrepreneur, and social innovator with a special interest in Pan-Africanism, sustainability, fashion, emerging technologies, and film.

(Twitter: @camillabarungi)

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