Netting new and old insights for a resilient future: Elevating place-based knowledge for climate adaptation

This story is from the TAPESTRY project of the Transformations to Sustainability research programme, and was published on 27 January 2023.

Project outcomes at a glance

  • The project drew on local, institutional, and scientific knowledge to provide environment-friendly, cost-effective and scalable solutions to climate adaptation challenges in marginal locations.
  • Community members involved in the project are using its innovations to improve their livelihoods and landscapes.
  • The project transcended social boundaries by involving young women and local youth in its research activities, thus gaining crucial insight into some of the marginalized communities that are at the forefront of climate change impacts.
  • Transdisciplinary methods involved researchers and communities in co-production, and created democratic spaces for plural knowledge framing
  • The initiatives drew considerable wider attention to the challenges these communities are facing – and the value of situated practices and knowledges in developing sustainable solutions.

Photo: Bombay61

When thinking of Mumbai – India’s largest city, and the sixth-most-populous metropolitan area in the world – indigenous fisheries are not likely to spring to mind.

But Koli indigenous communities have lived on the city’s shoreline for centuries and still fish there to this day. In recent years, though, pollution from Mumbai’s rivers and creeks has meant the Koli often catch more plastic in their nets than fish. The fact that many Mumbai residents – and official documents – refer to the creeks as ‘nallah’ [drains] shows the widespread lack of awareness and respect for the resources that these embattled water courses continue to provide.

Global issues, local solutions

This problem was the inspiration for a community-led, innovative solution, supported by partners Bombay61, an urban architectural design think tank, and ‘Transformation as Praxis: Exploring Socially Just and Transdisciplinary Pathways to Sustainability in Marginal Environments’ (TAPESTRY), a three-year research project funded by the Transformation to Sustainability (T2S) programme of the Belmont Forum, the NORFACE network, and the International Science Council, which spanned the period 2019-2022.

The solution is rooted in local practices and traditions, and has been reworked with an appropriately contemporary twist. Inspired by a traditional fish catching system – dol nets, which are usually anchored along creek mouths to catch the fish that swim through them – the communities set up net filters at various creek outlets. But these filters, unlike the dol nets, were designed to trap waste, whilst allowing the fish to pass through freely. It worked: the filters extracted 500 kilograms of waste from the creek in just three days.

The work made waves. One video of the process received over 200,000 views, and many media outlets covered the story. “We also had inquiries from other fishing villages where a similar situation is arising, to understand if this could be applied there, and they now want to work with us to try to scale up this intervention,” said Jai Bhadgaonkar, Bombay61’s director. Critically, Mumbai’s local government authorities are also keen to implement the filters across multiple creeks in the city. Looking forward, “we’re really keen on continuing working to change the ways that the water bodies are seen in the city,” said Ketaki Bhadgaonkar, the CEO of Bombay61.

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Alliance-building for climate adaptation

Meanwhile, in the Sundarbans River Delta that stretches along the eastern Indian and western Bangladeshi coastline, another arm of TAPESTRY research worked with local farmers – mostly women – who are developing salinity-tolerant rice varieties as a food security and livelihood response to rising sea levels.

Here, too, the communities drew on local knowledge and resources. The high-yielding varieties of rice that were pushed on these farmers during the Green Revolution and beyond do not grow well in salty soil. But the villagers realized that within their local community seed banks – which contain indigenous varieties collected before the Green Revolution, around half a century ago – reside potential solutions. They are reviving these varieties, and trialling them for yield and resilience using their own community-based salinity testing labs.

“It’s powerful, because the decision-making is now really in the hands of the community,” said Shibaji Bose, a participatory visual methods advocate and researcher with the TAPESTRY project.

“So if another cyclone or climate shock strikes, a huge portion of the community feels that they still have the power to do things that make sense to them in order to adapt and survive.”

Bose said the transboundary nature of the Sundarbans project was particularly significant. “Bangladesh is way ahead of India in terms of climate change adaptation measures, so it was really interesting to learn about what they had done 15 years ago, and what had failed,” he said.

The alliance-building that occurred between the diverse array of partners involved in the project also exceeded his expectations. “There was this rapid knowledge exchange: people were kind of hungry for knowledge,” he said. “This bridging of the knowledge between scientists, policymakers, and localized knowledge was something that had never really happened in these locations before.”

Another arm of TAPESTRY looked at camel-based pastoralism in Kachchh, a coastal district of Gujarat state in western India. The work used participatory and satellite-imaging research, and challenged conventional wisdom that camels damage local mangroves: while the research has not been published yet, emerging findings suggest that camels can in fact co-exist healthily with the trees, ‘pruning’ rather than destroying them with their browsing, stimulating new growth.

Resilient methods

As with so many research and development projects over this time period, the COVID-19 pandemic presented considerable challenges for each of TAPESTRY’s work streams, as did Cyclone Amphan, which struck the Sundarbans in May of 2020, causing large amounts of damage and prompting significant internal migration. “It was a case of cascading uncertainties,” said Bose.

However, these challenges also highlighted the ongoing effectiveness of particular participatory action methods in times of crisis, said Bose. One such method, which was used widely in the Sundarbans project, including during lockdown and climate emergency periods, was ‘photo voice’. This essentially entails giving cameras to community members – often more marginalized ones such as women and youth – and asking them to take pictures depicting the important processes in their lives and livelihoods, and their relationships with nature. Participants may then share verbally about what they have photographed and why they consider it to be important.

Children’s experiences and imaginings of a future landscape were also captured through storytelling and visual arts-based processes. “These methods tell mundane stories of everyday incidences of locally-led adaptation experienced in the lives of the communities that are witnessing climatic uncertainty,” said Bose in a recent article about the work.

Bose also shared how these sorts of processes helped the projects make the significant shift from being ‘community-based’ to ‘community-led’. “We successfully used participatory action methodologies like photo voice in TAPESTRY, not only to look at things from [community members’] perspectives, but to ‘reverse the gaze’,” he said. “Generally, the researcher goes into a community and it’s [the researcher’s] gaze and their findings that emerge. But this is about ‘flipping it’ and seeing things from the community members’ points of view – and also setting the research free from our own control as researchers.”

Overall, the diverse portfolio of work served to amplify local voices and raise the profile of frontline action on climate-related crises. “These communities are very much at the forefront of climate change impacts,” said Ketaki Bhadgaonkar. “As a result of these initiatives, many more people have started to learn and talk about what they are doing – and to recognize how local practices and traditional knowledge have the potential to create much-needed transformation.”

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