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  • Charlotte Owen-Burge

Nasreen Al-Amin: We have to use Indigenous knowledge



Nasreen Al-Amin, founder and executive director of Nigerian non-profit Surge Africa, on working with Indigenous and local communities to restore land -- and a key solution to building climate resilience.



I’m truly passionate about restoring land and working with local communities. I feel like whatever we do during conferences or in terms of governments implementing policies, I think if we don’t work well enough with local communities and strengthen their resilience, we’re not going to get anywhere. Because ultimately, it stops there.


Whenever we think about carbon offsetting or when we think about land restoration, we don’t think about the cities; we think about local rural communities because they’re the ones that have the land. They’re the ones that have the forests. Before anyone else, they’re the most marginalised and vulnerable to the climate crisis.


The problem we have with addressing climate change, especially among our people and within local and Indigenous communities, is a lack of awareness and education on the issue. You see, you can’t tell people to restore land, build climate resilience or teach adaptation, in my experience, without having to walk in their footsteps.


And you cannot do that without them being aware of the issue or being educated about why they need to strengthen their skills, adapt to new ways of living, or interact with nature. They need to know why, and most of the time, people are unaware of what they need to do. When governments get involved, however rare, they do not include these communities. And that is where the problem is and where we have a gap in the inclusivity and education of these communities.


If we are sincerely talking about climate adaptation and how to work with our communities, then we have to use Indigenous knowledge

I am particularly interested in Indigenous knowledge because that is what our people have used over millennia. If we are sincerely talking about climate adaptation and how to work with our communities, then we have to use Indigenous knowledge. We must learn what it is that they use within that region and community, but bind and strengthen it with modern science because the climate has changed so much over the last hundred years.


Anybody that knows how Indigenous communities work knows their knowledge is integral to their lifestyle and the food they eat, so we definitely need to respect that. But I think, as an African, there’s a balance to be struck between pushing Indigenous knowledge as a climate solution and working with the reality of what is actually on the ground, what is working.


Surge Africa goes into these communities, we initiate contact, and we talk to them. We assess the environmental impact they’re having; we test the soil, take soil samples, and go back and decide how to proceed. We then come up with a strategy of how they can adapt and take up different practices that, often based on Indigenous knowledge, can help their agriculture and even their livelihoods without them having to think about spending money.


More often than not, these communities have already identified the issues, but because they’re using old practices, even though they’re good practices, it doesn’t help them much. And when someone says they need to put more resources into it, they’re poor people; it’ll push them backwards. So, we try to put practices in place that are easy for them to adjust to without bearing any financial impact. We often teach them how to make the most of nature’s goods and services whilst not damaging their resources.


For instance, agroecology and agroforestry, which is the practice of integrating trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems, are practical and low-cost ways to manage the land. They reduce human impact whilst also being great for the environment and livelihoods because the methods are renewable, especially for small-scale producers.


Telling people what to do and how to change can be challenging because they have been practising the same thing for years and suddenly, someone is telling them they’re doing it wrong. But most of the time, because we come from the same region, we try to build compassion, solidarity and understanding because, without it, you would not have the acceptance from them to know you’re genuinely here to help.


Most of the time, it's challenging because these people are so headstrong. But one thing for sure is that they know the climate is changing. They know it. And some of them have experienced crops that have failed.

At the end of the day, besides building resilience, we want to restore degraded land. Because no matter how much we help them build resilience, no matter how many good practices they know, if there is no good land management or they’re not restoring that land, those practices are useless.


This interview was edited and condensed for clarity - 10th June 2020


Al-Amin’s recent project SurgeX Media is focused on bridging the gap between community impact and climate news by providing content creators access to media platforms. She told The Skylark: “We designed advocacy journalism to create awareness, educate and build movements. We provided easy access to media because that media barrier has largely pushed the work and voices of Africa's youth backwards. Most importantly, we're using the story-based approach to tell our African climate stories and control our narratives.


Lots of mechanisms were put into Surge X Media to address climate data and governance, youth voices, environmental racism, and ecological justice. This is because to situate climate adaptation and resilience on the ground; we must address these challenges with a single understanding that we are in this together. Then we will be able to work with the government and people at all levels to adapt and respond to the climate crisis.”


For more information, click here.

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