If knowledge is power, then what?

By Sarah Pentlow

On the second week of UNFCCC COP 25 in December last year, Cuso International and Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact convened Indigenous Women leaders, policy makers, and civil society representatives who met in Bangkok to share knowledge and build connections within the Southeast Asian region around the growing concern over the climate crisis. Among many of the themes to emerge from the Climate Smart Women Connect: Climate and Gender Justice for Indigenous Women in Asia conference, the significance of Indigenous Peoples’ and Indigenous Women’s knowledge was reiterated throughout, with particular emphasis on the fact that to date it has largely been undervalued, under-utilized and yet holds tremendous potential for communities affected by climate change.

In the 16th century, English philosopher Francis Bacon said that “knowledge is power” and this idea has been restated in various forms by many others since then. This begs the question, if knowledge is power then how is it being obtained, used, and shared, by Indigenous Peoples as well as the international community and secondly, what difference is it making or has the potential to make?


During the conference a range of presenters addressed these questions from various angles and a few of the key learnings are as follows:

Obtaining knowledge: In a Western or Northern context one typically would expect to obtain knowledge through the classroom or in formal trainings and workshops. However, the findings from the research revealed that in many Indigenous communities obtaining new knowledge comes informally through exchanges with neighbours, media and occasionally from NGO or outside organizations.  In one example from Laos it was mentioned that knowledge exchange occurs between women while they are working — traveling to the fields or collecting non-timber forest products, and while on vacation or “playing together” in the village. It is an active process that may happen simultaneously as women are engaged in other activities. Therefore, learning methodologies that require long periods of concentration may not be appropriate in this context.

Using knowledge:  Indigenous Knowledge systems are an integral part of basic survival as well as maintaining Indigenous cultural practices.  Knowledge is primarily used within communities to facilitate adaptation practices in the face of climate change. However, this knowledge and associated practices have not been considered within the base of evidence informing climate policy.  There is a need to increase the spaces within wider society so that Indigenous Knowledge can be used to influence policy and is valued as a key source of information. Within the groups represented at the conference, women are primarily the key holders of knowledge within their communities and so creating platforms for them to utilize their knowledge within leadership roles is key.

Sharing knowledge: A culture of learning and knowledge sharing exists amongst Indigenous Women as they share with each other and pass on their knowledge of farming and adaptation practices from one generation to another.  This positions them as agents of change to sustain and transfer the knowledge to younger generations. However, there is a gap between this local knowledge exchange and wider national and international interventions.  A presentation from UN Women highlighted that Indigenous Women have started to become more prominent within their policy work, however this is a new initiative and there are no reports yet on these efforts. Among Indigenous Women there is a large desire to bridge this gap and within the 18 key messages and recommendations to emerge from the conference, half of them relate to knowledge sharing; creating platforms and spaces for knowledge exchange; more open spaces for community learning, documenting and disseminating Indigenous knowledge and ensuring there is access to information.  One of the challenges which continues to remain is around language: there is a huge diversity of languages among Indigenous Peoples in Southeast Asia not only between countries but within respective countries. One of the participants stated, “We want to connect more with other countries, however, due to language barrier, it’s difficult to connect and discuss further.”  Added to this, the reality that much of the information around climate change, human rights and gender equality exists primarily in English poses further challenges for Indigenous Peoples to be informed.

So what relevance do these observations hold in the face of a growing climate crisis?  Examples were provided during the conference of what can happen when Indigenous Knowledge is not considered within the policy-making process: the creation of conservation areas or protected forests whilst on one level can be seen as helping to safeguard the environment, can in fact have negative repercussions for the Indigenous Peoples who live within those environments.  This has in cases driven people to migrate thereby increasing vulnerability and has forced communities to seek new sources of livelihood. An example was given about how seed exchanges among Indigenous communities are a strategy for adaptation, and yet in Indonesia there are laws against such practices. When decisions are made over natural resources without the perspectives of those who inhabit the lands, the lands become exploited which accelerates the production of carbon emissions; if the rights of Indigenous Peoples were respected and perspectives included, there might be a slowing of these processes.

As a result of the conference, participants were motivated to take action and expressed how helpful it was to realize that others are experiencing similar challenges.  When you think you are alone in your struggles it can be easy to fall into a sense of despair. The act of gathering and sharing knowledge has the potential to build collective power. When asked what follow up actions they would take as a result, responses included ideas like creating a women’s group in their village to network with other women’s groups throughout the country, documenting traditional knowledge and working closely with NGOs at the national, provincial, and regional levels to disseminate priority challenges and needs on Indigenous issues.  “After attending the conference, I have realized that women in other countries also have the same challenge we do in Myanmar and learned from them….. Therefore, we have to work together at a policy level on women’s participation in climate change decision-making processes and input our challenges.”   If knowledge is power, then collective knowledge is the “power with” that will ignite a new movement in response to the most pressing issue of our times.

Sarah Pentlow works as a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion consultant for Cuso International.

For more information there will be a webinar on January 28 entitled “What Next? Climate and Gender Justice for Indigenous Women in Asia after COP 25.”  Further details and the registration link can be found here. This webinar is in partnership with Cuso International and Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, with support from the Stockholm Environment Institute, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and Global Affairs Canada.