ELLA Policy Brief: How Traditional Knowledge and Technologies are Contributing to Climate Change Adaptation in Latin America’s Mountains

ELLA is the Evidence and Lessons from Latin America programme


High climate variability has been a characteristic of mountain ecosystems, even before climate change concerns emerged. Indigenous cultures of Central America and the Andean region have been living in these unpredictable environments for centuries. As a result, they possess a variety of knowledge and technologies that have helped them to adapt their livelihoods to increasing uncertainty and risk. Traditional knowledge has proven to be compatible with scientific knowledge and, despite its local nature, it includes techniques that demonstrate great potential to meet the challenges of climate change expected over coming decades. These cultures therefore have much to contribute to climate change adaptation processes and should participate in adaptation strategy design and implementation. However, social exclusion, lack of information systems and inadequate protection from governments mean traditional knowledge is slowly being eroded. This Brief highlights a selection of indigenous climate change technologies from across Latin America. It then describes how Latin American countries have successfully harnessed indigenous knowledge to improve climate change adaptation policy, and the challenges they face in doing so. Finally, it describes the main contextual factors that explain how and why traditional knowledge and technologies have been gradually incorporated into climate change adaptation policy and practice in Latin America, and offers lessons learned for other regions.

Key Lessons:

Traditional knowledge and technologies from Latin America do not exclude modern science and in many cases are complimentary. For example, traditional water management systems, such as amunas, can be implemented alongside modern pressurised irrigation technology to cultivate both native and improved crop varieties, thereby increasing resilience to drought.

Having supported rural communities to adapt to climate variability over centuries, traditional knowledge and technologies from mountain regions across Latin America demonstrate great potential to support current and future climate change adaptation processes. Increasingly, this potential is being recognised by governments, with traditional knowledge and technologies being incorporated into climate change adaptation policy and practice. Nevertheless, more needs to be done to further integrate this knowledge into climate change adaptation strategies, including establishing adequate and appropriate legal frameworks to protect the intellectual property rights of indigenous communities.

In general, indigenous knowledge provides information specific to a particular locality. This is vital for the development of locally-appropriate, low-cost climate change adaptation strategies. At the same time, this means that some indigenous knowledge may not be applicable in other regions, though it could be transferable to areas where similar geography and cultures exist.


Torres, J. ELLA Policy Brief: How Traditional Knowledge and Technologies are Contributing to Climate Change Adaptation in Latin America’s Mountains. ELLA, Practical Action Consulting, Lima, Peru (2012) 6 pp.

Published 1 January 2012