04 December 2023

AI for Climate Change: Using artificial and indigenous Intelligence to fight climate change

By Livia Martinescu

The connection between indigenous communities and local lands

The most recent United Nations biodiversity report issued a stark warning: one million plant and animal species are on the path towards extinction and at least 100 million hectares of healthy and productive land are degraded every year, impacting the lives of 1.3 billion people. This impending loss, together with extractive practices such as large-scale logging, industrial farming, and mining, not only cause ecosystem devastation but also carry profound consequences for humanity.

The more immediate adverse consequences of activities that lead to ecosystem destruction are often experienced locally. Adverse community impacts go beyond just environmental harm and lead to heightened conflicts, violence, and disparities. Moreover, the broader environmental impacts – such as extreme weather events, flooding, water shortages, or rising sea levels – transcend the boundaries of the specific ecosystem or political jurisdiction.

Remarkably, a majority of the world’s critical ecosystems fall under the stewardship of indigenous peoples, who represent slightly over 6% of the global population. Yet they manage or occupy one-quarter of the world’s land and are the protectors of approximately 80% of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity. For example, Pangasananan, in the Philippines, is one of many areas around the world that remain ecologically intact due to the conservation practices of Indigenous peoples or local communities.

Despite the pivotal role played by Indigenous peoples in protecting the environment, their contributions often go unnoticed. Environmental journalist Michelle Nijhuis points out that the modern conservation movement was founded on the false notion that nature is inherently ‘pristine’ and untouched by human influence. This perspective placed many of the movement’s initial efforts, including the establishment of protected areas, in conflict with Indigenous land management practices, which were instrumental in shaping the landscapes that nations are now racing to preserve.

The stakes are exceptionally high today. Over 50 countries have pledged to conserve a minimum of 30% of their lands and waters by 2030. However, some indigenous activists express concerns that achieving this objective, known as ‘30 by 30,’ may come at the expense of Indigenous land rights.

For many indigenous peoples around the globe, their ‘connection to the land’ is the cornerstone of their cultural identity. These communities have actively protected wildlife through localised and regional monitoring networks.

Numerous indigenous communities are seeking to redefine the processes, practices, and objectives of co-producing knowledge. Hence, indigenous groups are exploring ethical ways to use digital technology and data analytics to enhance their existing knowledge practices, enabling them to tackle intricate environmental management challenges. This aims to enable indigenous-led adaptive collaborative management of ecological systems.

How can AI help?

The growing use of big data and analytical modelling for the assessment and monitoring of ecosystems presents new opportunities for adopting ethically sound evidence-based approaches for indigenous peoples. The concept of ‘earth-friendly AI’ has been promoted as a means to significantly improve data collection and analysis for environmental conservation. AI offers significant potential in addressing climate change by processing large volumes of data to provide valuable insights. For instance, it can optimise renewable energy systems, improve climate prediction models, enhance resource management, monitor natural habitats, aid in climate change adaptation, and assist in policy development.

We need both artificial and indigenous intelligence to fight against climate change. There is an increasing number of initiatives that aim to marry local land use management practices and indigenous knowledge with AI to conserve biodiversity. Some of these innovative actions are currently already in use in some parts of the world. With sufficient government backing, strong policy structures, and global collaboration, these innovations could be adapted for large-scale application.

Below, we share two such examples from across the globe. The first project integrates indigenous wisdom in the development of their AI model in their effort to help Inuit people adjust to climate changes. The second case study refers to an indigenous-led reef conservation and restoration project in Polynesia.

Combining indigenous and artificial intelligence. Successful stories

Sanikiluaq, an Inuit community in Nunavut, Canada

A rapidly changing global climate already poses an existential threat to the lives of indigenous people. In the Arctic, which has warmed three times more quickly than the planet as a whole, initiatives combining new technologies and local wisdom are allowing Inuit communities to conserve their fishing traditions.

PolArctic created an AI model that combines traditional indigenous knowledge, scientific data and remote sensing techniques to locate previously undiscovered fishing locations to develop the area’s potential for commercial inshore fishing. PolArctic integrated local land and ocean knowledge from the Inuit people along with land maps, with permission from the community, to digitise geospatially referenced maps.

This innovative project was the first to pioneer a response to a problem caused by the climate crisis, namely changing climate patterns that affect the availability of fish. The AI model is able to predict habitat changes and identify areas of the sea that are likely to contain higher concentrations of scallops, clams and kelp, providing a boom to the local mariculture industry. Being able to pinpoint areas with ideal conditions for mariculture growth helps the local community make choices regarding sewage disposal, creating shipping routes, and protecting habitat areas. By contributing to evidence-based infrastructure planning, these insights support economic growth and create job opportunities for the local population.

Maohi, an indigenous community in Mo’orea, French Polynesia

Globally, at least 14% of the world’s corals have been lost since 2019. The world could lose as much as 90% of its coral by 2050 even if global warming is limited to an increase of 1.5°C. Consequently, reef restoration programmes have increased in popularity in recent years around the world to counteract unprecedented coral loss.

Among those is the indigenous-led conservation project undertaken by Coral Gardeners, along with two academic institutions, including Cornell University. This initiative cultivates heat-resistant super corals and transplants them onto damaged parts of the reef.

The team uses a bioacoustic AI model of the reef, which collects and processes acoustic data for monitoring purposes. The sounds are recorded using ReefOS, a network of sensors and cameras collecting continuous data at the Maharepa and Cook’s Bay coral reef systems. The AI-mediated acoustic environment tells the local team whether the reefs are starting to sound like healthy and stable reef systems, or whether additional restoration efforts are needed.

Further enabling the integration between indigenous and artificial intelligence

While indigenous peoples often manage ecosystems worldwide, their role is so pivotal that it warrants robust support both at the national and international levels. Indigenous activists argue that recognising indigenous rights, knowledge, and governance systems is imperative in joint attempts to address the threats faced by the planet’s biocultural ecosystems. In the pursuit of global sustainability, indigenous communities emerge as invaluable partners to international climate, environmental, and developmental initiatives.

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