TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE HELPS COMBAT CLIMATE CHANGE

Agosto 3rd, 2007 by admin

(the original article published at http://www.ecomediamagazine.org can be also read at the the following link.)

Pietro Laureano, UNESCO Expert

 Dry stone walling to stop soil erosion, but also to "capture" atmospheric moisture. Roofs built with catchment systems for water conservation. Houses that stay cool in the summer and conserve the heat during the winter months. One of the current tools for mitigation and adaptation to climate change is the use of indigenous know-how and techniques applied in agriculture, housing and energy-saving.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is setting up a veritable "back to the future" policy. A convention based on traditional methods is being developed, capable of recording, on a regional basis, the best methods to combat heat, extreme climatic variations and desertification. A new international pact that will establish the guidelines to enable humankind to make use of traditional methods and allowing scientists and businesses alike to develop innovative solutions by tapping into the cultural heritage that has been handed down to us through the centuries. This resource could prove particularly important for the Mediterranean region and could offer interesting prospects for the countries adhering to the Barcelona Convention for the development of initiatives to combat climate change in the framework of the Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development.

We discussed these issues with Pietro Laureano, architect and consultant for UNESCO, and head of a new international centre, the Traditional Knowledge World Bank, which will shortly be opened in Florence by the UNCCD, UNESCO and the Tuscan Region .

Professor Laureano, can Mediterranean countries find a solution, or a partial answer to current trends in climate change by using traditional methods?

Traditional knowledge provides a formidable resource for ecosystem and land management at the local level, although we shouldn’t think of it as a solution to global problems. Particularly in the Mediterranean material culture has been forged over the long term in response to seasonal variations in climate as well as exceptional occurrences due to natural causes. This region is at a geographical borderline: the Basin presents natural tropical, desert and Nordic conditions. This marked variability brings about a strong capacity and inclination to adaptation. For example: in Daunia, in the Apulian Region of Italy, there are traces of hundreds of elliptical trenches, semi-dunes and pits. Classical archaeology had interpreted them as defence structures, but no evidence was found to confirm this theory. On the contrary, we discovered that it was an extraordinary multifunctional technique that solved the dual effects of traditional extreme climatic conditions: flooding during the heavy rainy season on the one hand, and drying during the summer months. The prehistoric trenches were used to capture, drain and conserve moisture when water was plentiful, and to function as cisterns and watering holes during the dry season. This is but one example. Suffice to think of traditional house roofing, which was used for water conservation: these are found throughout the Mediterranean, particularly in islands like Majorca, Malta, Cyprus, and Crete…

 Ancient civilizations in the Basin were often founded on hydrogenesis that is on the harvesting water from condensation. Where precipitation was scarce techniques capable of capturing nocturnal moisture such as dew had to be developed, using for instance the inherent properties of stone, an element that cools down much more than air at night-time or in underground cavities, and on which atmospheric moisture condenses forming drops that can then be channelled into small tanks. Many megalithic constructions specifically serve this purpose, starting from the Sardinian "nuraghi", to the Balearic "Talajots" and dry stone walls. In the Negev desert traces of prehistoric walls have been found containing fossilised olive roots. What were originally thought to be fortifications were used for a different purpose: not war against men, but a battle against adverse climatic conditions.

Can this information and expertise be used today?

 Undoubtedly. These techniques have determined the success or failure of the civilizations that have developed them. Those who have been capable of adapting have survived, those who haven’t have disappeared. Suffice to think of the caravan cities of the Sahara or of the "Sassi", the famous stone houses of Matera, made famous by Hollywood films. These are a monument to adaptive capacity. Houses built in stone where water was collected in home-made cisterns and filtered through channels made of sand and rocks. A perfect system for ancient times, which was unable to survive the shock of industrialization. For this reason, Matera almost became a ghost town. Instead, through the work carried out in collaboration with UNESCO (Matera is one of the World Heritage Sites) the "Sassi" have once again developed into a veritable sustainable city.

Are these techniques not too dated, or too small-scale to be useful for present day purposes?

 The quantity of water that can be recovered using numerous traditional methods is not to be underestimated. But the point of the matter is different; even the smallest quantities of water are important to overcome stressful situations. If plants, or a forest, dry up they are forever lost. Whereas, a calcareous stone placed around the base of a tree can help it survive a dry spell and only a small amount of water will be enough for it to recover. Ecosystems live according to these rhythms. And traditional techniques can be the basis for technological innovation, even in urban areas. What springs to mind are roof cisterns, hanging gardens that protect houses from the summer heat, or artificial wetlands that conserve and recycle water. By reintroducing traditional techniques there will be a change at a different level as well.

The alarm for climate change has resounded. "DIY" solutions have been developed: low-energy light bulbs, water saving taps. Naturally, it is mandatory that we act at this level, but it should also be known that 80% of water is used for intensive agriculture, for cultivations that need irrigation, phytomedicines and inorganic fertilizers that render the soil impermeable and watertight. Instead, we need to develop drought-resistant species that do not need irrigation, i.e. traditional cultivars.


This is an ambitious challenge. Can it be won?

 The model can change. But it can do so, unfortunately, when driven by socio-environmental collapse, as has been the case for ancient civilizations. These events are very likely and not very far from us: suffice to think to of the figures reported by the IPCC on the numbers of environmental refugees that will flood into Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, crossing the Mediterranean: between 50 and 150 million people that are relocating to survive. But this can alter based political and economic changes.

During the Rio Summit the international community recognized that traditional techniques represent part of the solution to climate change. FAO and UNESCO are already moving in this direction, but an organic work plan is still lacking for recording, protecting, restoring and re-applying these techniques, as well as protecting the intellectual properties and rights of their historic owners. All this work will be needed to encourage the use by businesses of innovative technologies based on traditional knowledge.


UNESCO means to develop a set of protocols that will encourage the use of exclusively traditional techniques in the 800 world heritage sites. This will be a further step towards a more global action, a veritable convention on traditional knowledge. The Italian Ministry of the Environment has announced a law that will use traditional techniques as the first option to carry out future public works. Portugal has already adopted legislation in this direction. At present, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in collaboration with the Region of Tuscany and UNESCO are creating an international centre for traditional knowledge, hosted in a villa in Tuscany where the Medici family invited the geniuses of the Renaissance. The idea is to link up to this tradition of beauty. The Centre will be officially opened in October, during a meeting of the Mediterranean Ministers of the Environment. It will be a veritable world bank of traditional knowledge, accessible and available to all

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