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Swathi Sridharan / ICRISAT

Chapter 7.2 Indigenous knowledge and coping strategies

Forms of coping

Photo: Swathi Sridharan / ICRISAT

There are many ways of categorising coping strategies and indigenous knowledge and it is possible to develop quite complex systems for understanding this. For operational purposes, a relatively simple typology may be sufficient. One example of such a simple typology divides coping strategies into four broad categories, which are described in more detail below:

Most coping strategies combine elements of all of these (see Case Study 7.1: Complementary coping strategies in times of stress), so categorisations (of whatever kind) should not be used artificially to fix particular strategies under particular headings. Rather, fieldworkers should have a framework for viewing coping strategies and indigenous knowledge as a whole, ensuring that key elements are not overlooked.

Case Study 7.1 Complementary coping strategies in times of stress

Researchers in agricultural and agro-pastoral districts in the highlands of Tanzania found that local people’s response to a serious drought in 2008 involved a variety of methods to obtain money to buy food: finding wage labour, moving livestock to other places to graze, selling wood, handicrafts and manure and (illegally) making and selling charcoal. The severity of the drought finally led to widespread ‘distress’ selling of livestock. This was an effective short-term response because it provided money to feed families, but it was damaging to household economies in the long run because productive assets were lost.

E. Wangui et al., ‘Integrated Development, Risk Management and Community-based Climate Change Adaptation in a Mountain-plains System in Northern Tanzania’, Journal of Alpine Research, 100-1, 2012,

Coping mechanisms are often used in sequence to respond to different stages of adversity or crisis (see Box 7.1: Sequence of coping methods in drought and famine). This is most apparent during famines when the emergency is likely to be prolonged, but it can also be observed in more rapid-onset disasters such as floods. External responses to slow-onset disasters such as droughts often come too late, when communities have already used up most of their strategies and resources.

Box 7.1 Sequence of coping methods in drought and famine

Households threatened by drought and famine deploy a variety of coping strategies progressively as the crisis worsens. First, normal hungry season strategies are brought into play. Grain and other food consumption is cut back. Men travel to towns and cities to look for seasonal work, returning in the rainy season to plough and plant. Some family members go to more distant markets, where grain and other foodstuffs may be cheaper. Women gather wild plants to supplement family diets. When these standard techniques are no longer sufficient, more drastic steps are taken. Livestock are sold, then household goods and sometimes even houses themselves, piece by piece. If these efforts are not enough, people migrate in search of relatives who can give them food. Families may split up or move into towns to beg and look for work. In some cases it is not until this final stage, when people are on the move, that relief operations start to bring food in.

7.2.1 Economic/material

One of the principal elements in this category is economic diversification. Local knowledge is applied to supporting household livelihoods and securing economic and material assets, in good times as well as bad. During times of stress, when some economic activities become impossible, having more than one source of income (or food) to fall back on is invaluable. Members of a rural household engaged in agriculture may undertake other work, such as making and selling handicrafts, carpentry, building or blacksmithing. Migration is common in many rural areas, especially among males, and is a standard response to shocks such as crop failure or the illness of a working family member. More and more rural communities are coming to depend, at least in part, on cash remittances from family members who have gone to work in towns and cities, or even in other countries.

Crop diversification is a common method of coping. With a single crop there is the danger that a particular hazard or environmental pressure will destroy nearly everything; with many different crops, there is a better chance that some will survive. Vulnerable households also try to store up a ‘buffer’ of food, grain, livestock and cash that they can draw on in difficult times. Most, if not all, societies have developed a variety of techniques for preserving crops, fish and meat by storing, smoking, salting, drying or burying them. During periods of shortage, people will eat food of poorer quality or eat less food, and will look for wild foods such as seeds, nuts, roots and berries. If a crisis becomes acute they will begin to sell their assets (animals, tools, seeds for planting next year’s crop or even land), but this is a last resort. Even having a large family can be seen as part of an economic coping strategy because it gives a household additional labour. Savings and credit schemes, both formal and informal, are often an important component of economic coping strategies (see Chapter 12).

7.2.2 Technological

This category is quite broad, including land management systems as well as what is more usually thought of as technology, such as building materials and construction methods (Chapter 8 addresses some aspects of this in more detail).

Land management strategies to secure food supplies and generate income are often complex and sophisticated. In Borneo, Indonesia, Dayak Jalai villages put their land to many uses: there are patches of both natural and managed forests and land cleared by slash-and-burn cultivation, as well as permanent fields and fields lying fallow. Land is used to produce cash crops (including pepper, oil palm, rubber, coconut oil and cocoa) as well as food (fruit orchards, rice fields and vegetable gardens).+D. J. Nakashima et al., Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation (Paris: UNESCO and Darwin: United Nations University, 2012),, pp. 46–47. Poor farmers, especially those working marginal or drought-prone lands, adopt mixed cropping, intercropping, kitchen gardening and other practices that reduce the risk of poor harvests by widening the range of crops grown. Traditional seed varieties are selected for drought or flood resistance and for growing in particular locations. Alternative crops may be kept in reserve for planting if others are ruined by floods. Pesticides made from local plants are applied to crops. Some crop types are chosen specifically for their resilience. Yams, for instance, which are widely grown in Pacific islands, are known to be resistant to high storm winds.+J. Mercer et al., ‘The Potential for Combining Indigenous and Western Knowledge in Reducing Vulnerability to Environmental Hazards in Small Island Developing States’, Environmental Hazards, 7, 2007.

Case Study 7.2 Reviving traditional farming practices

Rain-fed agriculture is the main livelihood in the Amazonian region of Beni in Bolivia. However, the land is only productive for 2–3 years due to the prevalence of slash-and-burn agriculture. During the rainy season, topsoil and nutrients are washed away, and in some places land is under water for several months.

In 2007, with support from Oxfam, a local NGO called the Kenneth Lee Foundation started a project to revive and adapt an ancient farming practice, drawing on modern scientific knowledge of hydrology and agriculture. The project worked with farming households to build a series of raised earth platforms, called camellones, each covering about 500 square metres. The camellones protect seeds and crops by keeping them above flood water in the rainy season (heights range from 0.5 to 2 metres depending on location), and they are surrounded by drainage canals that take flood water away. The practice has led to improved soil fertility, enabling three harvests a year, and fish are raised in the canals. In 2008 the region experienced severe floods, but the camellones proved to be resilient and farmers continued to grow crops for consumption and sale.

M. Turnbull, C. Sterrett and A. Hilleboe, Toward Resilience: A Guide to Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, Emergency Capacity Building Project, 2013,, pp. 61–62; Oxfam International, ‘Rescuing the Past: Using Indigenous Knowledge To Adapt to Climate Change in Bolivia’, 2009,

Other land use strategies include avoiding flood- or landslide-prone locations when building a home and keeping away from hazardous places at certain times of year (such as not taking livestock to pasture up mountain valleys during spring floods). To protect against erosion and flooding during the monsoon, villagers in Nepal convert hillsides into level terraces, create outlets to manage water overflow from one terrace into another, make networks of ponds to slow rainwater run-off and save it for the dry season and build stoneworks and plant trees to stabilise slopes and prevent gullies from eroding.+N. Dahal, ‘Coping with Climatic Disasters in Isolated Hill Communities of Nepal: The Case of Rampur Village in Okhaldhunga’, in Twigg and Bhatt (eds), Understanding Vulnerability, pp. 47–67. See also M. B. Thapa et al., ‘Indigenous Knowledge on Disaster Mitigation: Towards Creating Complementarity between Communities’ and Scientists’ Knowledge’, in R. Shaw et al., Indigenous Knowledge for Disaster Risk Reduction: Good Practices and Lessons Learned from Experiences in the Asia-Pacific Region, European Union/UNISDR Regional Office for Asia and Pacific, 2008,, pp. 30–34.

Case Study 7.3 Living with floods and heatwaves in urban slums

Poor households in Korail, the largest slum settlement in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have adopted a variety of methods to cope with recurrent flooding and heatwaves. Choosing a safe location is not an option for most households, since the district is low-lying and bounded by a large lake to the south and east. The main technological coping strategies for floods are putting the house on a raised plinth; installing barriers in doorways to stop water coming in; raising the height of furniture (usually on bricks); installing high internal storage; and cooking on portable stoves. Houses near the water’s edge are usually built on stilts, and wooden flooring is preferred since it allows floodwater to drain away more quickly. To counter heat, creepers are grown outside houses to cover their corrugated iron roofs; inside, there are false ceilings or cloth canopies to trap the heat. Insulating materials under the roof are often recycled products, including paper, Styrofoam, packing boxes, cement bags, bamboo mats and old clothes. Many houses are designed with shaded courtyards. Most households also use electric fans and other cooling devices.

During a flood, income-earning opportunities are greatly reduced, which compels people to draw on their savings or borrow money. Some families share food with their neighbours. Loans and neighbours’ assistance support repair and rebuilding afterwards. Many households join savings groups or NGO savings and credit schemes and put money aside for needs such as this. Social networks are strong: immigrants to Korail tend to live close to their extended family or to people from the same village or region.

Households’ investment in protective measures is constrained by the fact that Korail’s residents do not enjoy security of tenure and so face the constant threat of eviction, even though some have lived there for 20 years. This insecurity of tenure also means that local authorities are unwilling to put in power and water services to the district. There are some community initiatives to clean out drainage channels and move the most affected people to safer places. However, families are reluctant to evacuate during floods because this risks losing assets, access to social and livelihood networks and even the right to the land they occupy.

H. Jabeen et al., ‘Built-in Resilience: Learning from Grassroots Coping Strategies for Climate Vulnerability’, Environment and Urbanization, 22 (2), 2010,

7.2.3 Social/organisational

This category includes indigenous organisations that provide support in countering disasters, such as kinship networks, mutual aid and self-help groups and community-based organisations. All of these are forms of social capital (discussed in Chapter 6). Systems of mutual rights and obligations are part of every household and community’s social structure, forming what is sometimes called a ‘moral economy’. People who are suffering – from shortage of food, for instance – often call upon kin, neighbours or patrons for help. Sharing labour and food during crises is standard in many societies. Work parties are called up by certain indigenous communities in Latin America to rebuild after floods.

The family is a fundamental social mechanism for reducing risk. Extended kin relations are key networks for exchange, mutual assistance and social contact. In times of stress, relatives living outside the immediate community can become particularly important. Disaster-affected people may also appeal to the wider community for charity. In many communities, gifts or alms are expected at times of hardship. Knowing the strength of the family unit and its ability to provide mutual support, emergency management agencies encourage families to develop their own disaster preparedness plans, covering what they will do in a disaster, where they will go and how they will get in contact with one another. Families can also play an important role in helping individuals to cope psychologically with trauma after experiencing disastrous events.

7.2.4 Cultural

Cultural factors include risk perception and religious views, which are frequently connected, as well as environmental knowledge. Understanding how people view risk is particularly important, as it influences the types of risk management strategy they adopt. Risk perceptions will vary greatly between and within communities according to culture, experience and (for poor people especially) the pressure to secure their livelihoods.

It is very difficult to gain understanding of local views of risk. Simply asking questions about how risk is perceived does not always produce useful insights, because outsiders and local communities are likely to think about and describe risk in very different ways. It is often more constructive to talk to communities about how they live with risks (i.e. the ways in which they deal with particular hazards, or how they manage in their built or natural environment) than to discuss risks in general. But even this approach is likely to miss a great deal, since local people are often reluctant to talk openly to outsiders about their insecurities and the threats they face, especially if they do not trust official and external agencies and their interventions. By spending long periods in communities, talking about and observing their daily lives, researchers can sometimes acquire a good understanding of the subject. Close observation is invaluable, as people’s statements of their views can sometimes give a misleading impression of their actual risk perception and risk-avoiding behaviour.

Case Study 7.4 The complexity of risk perception

The centre of the Bolivian capital La Paz is bordered by steep and unstable hillsides (laderas) prone to floods, landslides, mudslides and rockfalls. These districts are also densely populated. Most of their inhabitants live in houses that are not well constructed, often on the edges of precipices or in ravines. When asked about the risks they faced, ladera inhabitants did not mention natural hazards, but were more likely to talk about violence, poverty and health problems. When asked specifically about the risk of landslides, or of their houses collapsing, they often replied that there was no such risk, the ground was solid, and they felt secure. Even where houses were collapsing, their owners would try to prevent this from becoming public knowledge.

Possible reasons for their apparent underestimation or denial of risk include people’s general psychological tendency to downplay high and severe risks and focus on more frequent and manageable ones; pressing everyday social hazards such as unemployment and violence; traditional reluctance amongst the indigenous Aymara Bolivians (a high proportion of the laderas’ population) to discuss the state of their homes, which was seen as a very private matter; a lack of trust in the government, NGOs and even neighbours; and resignation to or acceptance of natural hazard risks based on a belief that nothing could be done about them.

F. Nathan, ‘Risk Perception, Risk Management and Vulnerability to Landslides in the Hill Slopes in the City of La Paz, Bolivia: A Preliminary Statement’, Disasters, 32 (3), 2008.

Indigenous knowledge is closely bound up with beliefs and worldviews, which are sometimes expressed through cultural events and ceremonies. DRR organisations need to understand how such belief systems work and respect their importance to communities: they should not try simply to extract particular aspects of indigenous knowledge or impose aspects of their own. There is a common assumption among disaster management professionals that many people are fatalistic and regard disasters as acts of God that cannot be prevented. However, statements of belief in divine power are not incompatible with taking actions to reduce risk.+For example, see H. Schmuck, ‘“An Act of Allah”: Religious Explanations for Floods in Bangladesh as Survival Strategy’, International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 18(1), 2000,

As well as being applied to the management of land and water, traditional environmental knowledge plays a role in disaster warnings and preparedness. Observations of weather conditions, changes in groundwater and animal behaviour are used in many societies to identify impending hazard events. Direct experiences of previous events, or knowledge of such events handed down from earlier generations, are drawn upon to ensure timely evacuation to safe places (see Case Study 7.5: Oral history and tsunami evacuation).

Case Study 7.5 Oral history and tsunami evacuation

People on the island of Simeule, off the coast of Aceh Province in Indonesia, have an oral tradition that preserves the lessons of a tsunami in 1907, which killed many thousands of people. The 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami caused widespread damage to buildings on the island. There was no official tsunami warning system in operation at the time and, with Simeule lying close to the epicentre of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami, many of its inhabitants had very little time to escape. Nevertheless, only seven of the island’s population of 78,000 were killed; the rest evacuated to high ground and in some cases to prearranged safe locations. Knowing what had happened in 1907, the villagers of Langi evacuated spontaneously to high points as soon as the earthquake was felt: every one of the population of around 800 survived, although their village was destroyed.

B. G. McAdoo et al., ‘Smong: How an Oral History Saved Thousands on Indonesia’s Simeule Island during the December 2004 and March 2005 Tsunamis’, Earthquake Spectra, 22 (S3), 2006.

People have their own ways of defining when conditions have worsened so much that they constitute a crisis or disaster. This threshold varies between communities, according to their vulnerabilities and the threats they face. Seasonal flooding is not necessarily seen as a disaster in some places. Crop growing may depend on it if flooding deposits fertile silt on fields, and floods can be part of the growing cycle of some crops such as rice. Poor families may supplement their diets with fish that are caught as flood water spreads from rivers over their fields.