Voices of the rainforest: Co-creating a traditional ecological knowledge-based climate change curriculum framework with indigenous communities in Malaysia

The principal aim of the research is to co-create a traditional, ecological, knowledge-based climate change curriculum framework for primary schools with indigenous communities, children, and school partners in the Perak, Pahang, and Kelantan states of Malaysia. 

This research project is being awarded in line with the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) and is a central part of the UK’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement and Net Zero targets.

Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate.

(Agreement, Article 7, para 5)

This project aims to address knowledge gaps in existing climate change education by exploring and evidencing the richness of traditional ecological knowledge within indigenous communities and investigating how it can be utilised to enrich school curricula related to climate change. Traditional ecological knowledge – a term used to describe indigenous knowledge systems, uniquely contextualised within specific indigenous communities, and varying from region to region – has the potential to play a central role in climate change initiatives, both within indigenous and non-indigenous communities. However, a misalignment exists between this traditional ecological knowledge and the school curricula delivered to indigenous children. Often, the curricula and syllabi, which are heavily influenced by Western models and mandated by centralised government systems like that of Malaysia, render the education provided less relevant to these children.

An important element of the research is the amplification of the voices of indigenous communities in climate change adaptation efforts, to inform policy and foster a more inclusive and culturally sensitive approach towards climate resilience and environmental sustainability. Indigenous communities often find themselves on the frontline of climate change impacts. The indigenous communities have found ways to adapt to the impacts of climate change, notably by using their traditional and local knowledge to predict changes in the climate, thus providing valuable lessons for both indigenous and non-indigenous communities alike. Existing research emphasises that indigenous communities are empowered in terms of resilience and self-sufficiency when they utilise traditional and local knowledge in climate change adaptation. Hence, to address this, the research emphasises the importance of improving policies and approaches, to better respond to these challenges and promote the economic development and welfare of the country (and with potential application of findings in other countries facing these serious threats/challenges).

The project aims to showcase significant advancements within an interdisciplinary field that bridges anthropology and education, challenging the conventional research approaches traditionally practised within the academic context of Malaysia. Hence, the research is grounded in a strong community focus, ensuring that the process is respectful, empowering, and beneficial for the communities involved. This approach represents a departure from more extractive research practices. A multimodal approach to data collection, including ethnographic and creative methods, allows for a responsive and flexible research process, capable of adapting to and capturing the complexities and nuances of community knowledge and experiences. The project plans to engage with communities holistically through interdisciplinary, indigenous, and participatory curriculum development, considering not only adults, but also incorporating perspectives from children through art-based and creative methodologies, ensuring the consideration of a wide spectrum of insights and experiences.