Klima Kabisayaan: Indigenous peoples and climate change

By Paula Bernasor


What does a red-orange sky mean? Have you ever noticed why there are more ants inside the house before it rains? These are just two of the common indigenous knowledge I discovered over a disaster risk reduction discussion in high school. I got excited knowing this information. Each time I see the sky turning to this color, I would always tell everyone about it. 

I was such a big fan of meteorology, especially during high school. Despite this, I often scoffed at some of the traditions that were told by the old. I did not really have an in-depth understanding of the role of indigenous knowledge nor did I realize the necessity of understanding what our indigenous ancestors knew about our planet. 

I often heard of the line, “Matud sa mga katigulangan, basta ingon ani, naay mosunod nga katalagman.” I did not really mind these as I would think that there was no scientific basis to this claim. This is often the problem now when advocating for the inclusion of indigenous knowledge in our Local Climate Change Action Plans (LCCAPs). 

Indigenous peoples manage about 40 percent of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact ecosystems worldwide and are legally recognized as owning at least 12 percent of the world’s forest area. Yet, in many parts of the world, indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) do not have tenure of the forest land they live on, despite the fact that when they do, they are better able to conserve it. 

It was only until the past decade as the typhoons and disasters worsened that I started questioning, “What did our ancestors know about weather and climate? If they could tell when a typhoon is coming, how well did they prepare?” As I searched through the web, I ran into several indigenous communities in the Philippines.

How much do you know about our local indigenous people and their knowledge? 

The Mangyans of Romblon use trees and the movement of birds as a sign of odd occurrences in the weather. When the leaves of the ayutay turn white and its branches are splintering, this is an indication of bad weather in the coming days. 

Fisherfolk in Rizal use indigenous knowledge to ascertain if there is an approaching storm— the absence of fishes in shallow waters is an indicator of an incoming downpour of rain.

The Agta commonly applied their indigenous knowledge in hazard prediction and early warning. Among the early warning indicators that the Agta identified were related to animal behavior and changes in the atmosphere and the natural environment, which enabled them to prepare for heavy rains and approaching typhoons. With the help of their local resources, the indigenous knowledge of the Agta also involved the building of emergency shelters,  constructing multipurpose structures, and stockpiling food and equipment. By depending on their local practices, resources in their environment, and networks for preparedness, response, and recovery when it comes to disasters, the Agta were one of the ethnic groups in the Philippines best able to endure powerful typhoons.

A study showed related cases of indigenous knowledge in Albay, where animal behavior was observed—specifically, terrestrial animals such as rats, snakes, and even crabs coming out of the ground and scampering to other areas before a typhoon arrived. Celestial bodies are also observed in the area, such as the position and color of the moon and stars. Fishermen from Albay even utilize such knowledge to their advantage for their fishing. Before a volcanic eruption, wild pigs and even chickens can be observed running away from the Mayon volcano, an early warning sign for those living at the volcano’s base.

The Mamanwa indigenous peoples of Basey consider themselves as  ‘forest dwellers’  or mga tawo hit bukid (people of the forest). In general, they consider themselves to be highly connected with nature and the immediate environment they live in. Here are some of the local indigenous knowledge and practices of the Mamanwa in the Philippines before, during, and after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013:

  • They use batingaws (warning bells), locally called karatung;
  • Fishermen look at the leaves of star apple trees (caimito)—if seen inverted from the trees there will be a natural hazard approaching (e.g. typhoons);
  • If frogs are submerged in the waters, the weather for the next few days will be fine. If the frogs emerge from the waters, it is a sign that there will be a typhoon or storm incoming;
  • Timos (crickets) appear in numbers in houses and if the Timos are seen flying outside, there is a natural hazard on the way; and
  • If the seaweed is seen in an upright position, there will be either an approaching drought or typhoon; if the seaweed lies flat, there will be good weather.

The town of  San  Francisco in Camotes Island during typhoon Yolanda is an example of zero-casualty cases. These instances of disaster being casualty-free have one common factor that is not widely known: indigenous knowledge. 

Local indigenous knowledge and practices have been documented to play an important role in biodiversity conservation, forest and wildlife conservation, flood prevention and management, climate change adaptation, and environmental change studies.

At a global level, the role and significance of local indigenous knowledge in disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) are evidently acknowledged in the Sendai Framework for Disaster  Risk Reduction (SFDRR 2015–2030). The SFDRR called for states to collaborate with grassroots community members,  including indigenous cultural communities and the indigenous peoples to formulate  DRR  policies and strategies.

The interactions between people, communities, and places have given rise to a range of knowledge systems that are both traditional and adaptive. 

Involving communities in a participatory DRR policy and strategy formulation is critical in understanding the complexities of local and social contexts with regard to whether and how natural hazards are effectively managed. Local knowledge and practices should be used to “complement scientific knowledge in disaster risk assessment” and to create legislations, policies, strategies, and plans” for DRR at all levels. Local indigenous knowledge has yet to be widely integrated into DRR activities and be commonly used by communities, scientists, and policymakers. 

Indigenous peoples live in all regions of the world and own, occupy or use some 22 percent of the global land area. At least 370-500 million indigenous peoples represent the greater part of the world’s cultural diversity and have created and speak the major share of the world’s almost 7000 languages. Many indigenous peoples continue to be confronted with marginalization, extreme poverty, and other human rights violations.

We need to support indigenous peoples in addressing the multiple challenges they face while acknowledging their significant role in sustaining the diversity of the world’s cultural and biological landscape.

Indigenous peoples are vital to the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Goal 13 (climate action). However, they account for almost 19 percent of the extreme poor. They are also often on the frontline of conflicts over protecting nature, sometimes even losing their lives as they try to defend the forests from illegal or destructive commercial activity.

We cannot afford not to make a systemic change in the financial architecture of climate finance. Today, less than two (2) percent of global climate finance is reaching small farmers and IPLCs in developing countries. Funds need to be deployed to communities that combine ancestral knowledge and the latest innovative ideas to protect forests, improve livelihoods, and lobby for recognition of their rights and expertise. This requires us to rethink the way climate finance is delivered. 

In the Philippines, complex requirements and laws prohibit development aid from being released directly to IPLCs. At the other end of the pipeline, many local community organizations do not have legal status or the capacity to receive and manage large sums. They are often in remote areas where there are no banks and where nobody keeps receipts for transactions.

Indigenous peoples need to be truly recognized and treated as equal partners in the global battle against climate change. And they need a genuine exchange of knowledge and support to strengthen their organizations and develop the capacity to receive and manage climate funds, eventually removing middlemen.

Indigenous peoples know well about change and have proven that they can adapt to change. We must be their advocates and allies.We all need to understand the value of indigenous people’s knowledge and systems. We need to recognize their rights. We need to provide them with a fair share of climate financing.

Without bringing indigenous peoples to the table as equal partners, we cannot save the planet.




Paula Bernasor is the Visayas Coordinator of The Climate Reality Project Philippines. She is a Climate Reality Philippines Leader and Mentor, Chapter Director for Startup Grind Cebu, and a volunteer for Project Sharklink and Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project. She previously worked as an Associate for Partnerships for Rare Organisation’s Fish Forever in the Philippines. She started Project Library in the Philippines, a grassroots movement that helps underprivileged communities in remote areas gain access to books and reading materials, as well as Ocean Love Philippines, which uses social media to spread awareness on pressing environmental issues and to promote a sustainable lifestyle and the circular economy. 


Klima Kabisayaan is a space that aims to amplify the climate stories and initiatives of the more than 300 Pinoy Climate Reality Leaders in Visayas.

It is one of the monthly columns launched by The Climate Reality Project Philippines to elevate the climate discourse and strengthen climate action across all regions in the Philippines.