Fifth Symposium on Policy and Socio-economic Research
Second AMS Conference on International Cooperation in the Earth System Sciences and Services


Coping in Kodi: Local Knowledge about and Responses to Climate Change and Variable Weather on Sumba (Eastern Indonesia)

Cynthia Fowler, Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC

In this presentation, I discuss the knowledge and skills that people on the island of Sumba use to cope with fluctuations in climate and weather. Water and food shortages are major stressors for the vast majority of people on Sumba who are subsistence farmers. Over many generations, the indigenous islanders have developed mechanisms for adjusting to conditions caused by climate and weather that they were unable to predict because of limited access to the technology and media. Even without predictive technologies, however, Sumbanese farmers do anticipate some climate and weather patterns, such as the El Niņo Southern Oscillation, the northwest monsoon, and the annual dry season.

In this presentation, I focus especially on knowledge and techniques for managing fresh water, food, and fire. The data and conclusions that I present draw from field research with members of the Kodi and Bukambero ethnic groups who live in the three Kodi sub-districts of western-most Sumba. Ethnographic, ethnobiological, and botanical data are used to examine the responses of Kodi farmers to climate and weather, as well as to social changes affected by environmental events, and the consequences of human responses for natural resources in Kodi. With regard to local responses to climate, an example of the way Kodi people cope with the severe droughts that accompany El Niņo is by relaxing the traditional rules of conduct, such as seasonal prohibitions on pig hunting, thereby forcing flexibility into the governance of subsistence-related behaviors. This flexibility helps Kodi people adapt to the changing climate and weather.

Kodi people use discussions about the ecological conditions that are associated (from a Western perspective) with El Niņo to share information that helps them cope with climate change and as a guide for negotiating frequent encounters between themselves and foreigners. In their explanations of the late onset of the 1997-98 northwest monsoon, for example, Kodi people did not mention El Niņo nor did they link the lack of precipitation to any global natural phenomena with a particular proper name. They did, however, correlate the unusual but cyclical climatic conditions to a particular type of global cultural phenomenon: development. In this case, ‘development' refers to a constellation of activities including weakening of traditional values, violations of harvesting taboos, commodification of natural resources, mining projects, and road construction. According to Kodi interpretations, the state of the environment is a consequence of human morality, human-spirit relations, and political economies. Kodi people translate the ongoing changes within Sumbanese society and between Sumbanese and exogenous political economies into commentaries about the island's ecological integrity.

In addition to pointing out patterns in Kodi perceptions of and responses to climate and weather, I will also apply the data to questions such as: How might we improve the conditions of people who have subsistence economies and who live in marginal environments? How might we capitalize on existing systems for coping with climate change to prepare indigenous peoples for future human-induced climate change? How might we apply traditional knowledge and skills to aid people who are negatively affected by climate-related events?

Weather is social experience. Knowledge about climate and weather are interpretations of social experiences. The Kodi perceptions and management of the environment stem, in part, from uncertainty and anxiety over the capacity to literally survive in a place where water and food are so limited as well as to survive culturally as an ethnic group.

Joint Session 10, Ways of Knowing: Traditional Knowledge as a Key Insight for Dealing with a Changing Climate I
Tuesday, 19 January 2010, 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, B213

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