Using indigenous knowledge to adapt to climate change

Gerson Kaapehi
Gerson Kaapehi

Indigenous knowledge is often thought of as part of our heritage, and irrelevant to modern agriculture. However for some people it has provided valuable skills that are helping them to survive in today’s drought-prone world. As conditions worsen, adapting to climate change may mean adjusting your lifestyle.

For farmers like Gerson Kaapehi in Otjozondjupa region, that has meant diversifying his farming methods. Depending on the time of the year, you can find a variety of crops on his farm such as beans, peanuts, cowpeas, ground nuts, pumpkins and Kalahari nuts. These crops are adapted to the arid Kalahari conditions and therefore require less water and have a long life span, making them easier to store. He also collects wild fruits such as berries which have now become part of his family’s diet. He has changed from millies to mahangu as his staple food, which is more drought resistant and thrives better than millies. He says that “I do not really enjoy mahangu but I have to adapt, otherwise my stomach is going to run empty.”

One crop that is unique to the area is the Kalahari nut. The Hereros depended on it for food and water when they fled into the Kalahari Desert during the war of resistance against the Germans. As well as bearing nuts, the plant builds a water reservoir underground. Although it takes years to mature, Kaapehi patiently plants it in his village because he thinks it is worthwhile investing in the future. He believes that good things come to those who wait.

Although most people in his area are cattle owners, Kaapehi has diversified his farming. In the past he only used to farm with cattle and sheep, but now he has a variety of livestock and poultry which includes chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys and cattle. He mostly farms with local cattle breeds such as Bos Taurus and Bonsmara, which unlike European breeds are heat and drought tolerant and able to walk long distances to water points. He also cross breeds the local cattle with other breeds such as Brahmans, which are bigger in size, to improve the meat quality, saying that, “I use the Brahmans only to make my cattle bigger, but the mother should be a local.”

He has proven that diversification and utilisation of indigenous knowledge can be the way forward to adapt to climate change. This is important because bush encroachment is a catastrophe that has taken over the rangeland, resulting in an imbalance between bush and grass. The density of woody plants, especially invasive species that do not even have local names, has increased. These species now outnumber indigenous plants.

Seeing that he has had positive results, Kaapehi is now encouraging fellow farmers to integrate traditional methods into their farming systems and diversify according to their areas’ climatic conditions. Indigenous knowledge from his forefathers and success-based examples from others have given him valuable lessons. As a result, he now gives training to his community on the utilisation of indigenous knowledge.

Kaapehi has just attended a climate change workshop on adaptation and mitigation, aimed at training members of conservancies and community forests how to write project proposals to access grant funding to address climate change. One of the projects Kaapehi has suggested for his area, including Ozohani conservancy where he lives, is the use of bushes and invasive species. He believes there is potential in making use of these undesirable plants to produce poles, and to turn the remainder into fodder for livestock, which can then generate some income for the conservancy or its members. Pointing a finger to emphasise his point, he says: “My main, main suggestion is the utilisation of indigenous knowledge.

Victoria Amon
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Bush encroachment
Bush encroachment