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Negotiating Climate Change in Crisis

Steffen Böhm
Sian Sullivan

IV. Dispatches from a climate change frontline country— Namibia, southern Africa

14. On Climate and the Risk of Onto Epistemological Chainsaw Massacres: A Study on Climate Change and Indigenous People in Namibia Revisited

Ute Dieckmann


On behalf of a Danish organisation (Charapa Consult), in 2012 the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek undertook a research study on climate change and indigenous people in Namibia. Charapa Consult had itself been commissioned by the World Bank Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development to undertake a regional research project in Africa, and parallel studies for Asia and Latin America had also been commissioned. As a researcher involved in the Namibia study, in this essay I critically assess its methodological challenges and dilemmas in relation to the global framework within which it was conducted. I place special emphasis on the predicament of short-term ‘participatory’ research with indigenous communities on climate change. I also outline the challenges arising from the necessity of squeezing indigenous environmental knowledge and experience into internationally acknowledged scientific frameworks, an approach which implies a subordination of indigenous peoples’ ontologies to western ontologies. The compartmentalising necessitated by such a methodology risks the loss of the most important aspects of indigenous ecological knowledge related to climate change.

Texte intégral


Who better to lead during this time of dramatic climate change than peoples who know or can recollect in their indigenous traditions of TK [Traditional Knowledge] and/or TEK [Traditional Ecological Knowledge] practices of sustainability and indigenous ingenuity— Indigenuity? Can you imagine a world where nature is understood as full of relatives not resources, where inalienable rights are balanced with inalienable responsibilities and where wealth itself is measured not by resource ownership and control, but by the number of good relationships we maintain in the complex and diverse life-systems of this blue green planet? I can
Wildcat 2013: 515.

1In this essay, I draw on a number of methodological challenges encountered during a study on climate change and indigenous people in Namibia as a starting point for a critique of climate change studies that attempt to integrate indigenous knowledge into dominant scientific frameworks. I was involved in the study as an anthropologist employed by the implementing organisation as part of a multi-disciplinary team. I illustrate what happens when we try to compartmentalise indigenous knowledge in order to fit it into our own conceptual frameworks.

2Complementing Sullivan’s Chapter 3 (this volume), I outline what we would gain from taking indigenous onto-epistemologies seriously, in the context of climate change and beyond. In short, I argue that avoidance of onto-epistemological chainsaw massacres, and the opening up of more possibilities for radical (re-) learning so as to avert ecological crisis, requires putting normalised ‘western’ frameworks aside in order to stop, listen and think carefully. I am drawing here on theoretical physicist Karen Barad’s (2003) call for a revised “onto-epistem-ology”, and borrow the term “chainsaw massacres” from Dianne Rocheleau’s (2005: 339) analysis of the risks in cartography on fixing indigenous onto-epistomologies into the “iron grid of Descartes” (ibid: 328).

The Study

3In 2012, the World Bank Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (TFESSD) commissioned a Danish organisation (Charapa Consult) concerned with human rights and development1 to undertake a regional research project on indigenous peoples and climate change in Africa, having commissioned similar regional studies for Asia and Latin America. The research in Africa, coordinated by Charapa with a number of implementing partners, looked at three ecological sub–regions of the African region: the tropical forest zone (Republic of Congo); arid/desert areas in southern Africa (Namibia); and lakes and wetlands (Kenya) (Charapa Consult 2012: 7). The overall research initiative had three main objectives: to analyse how indigenous peoples were affected by climate change; to identify indigenous peoples’ local and traditional knowledge, practices and adaptation strategies; and to support strengthening of indigenous peoples’ capacities for their engagement and direct participation in the formulation of public policies regarding climate change.

4In Namibia, the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC)2 in Windhoek, having an excellent record of research regarding marginalised/indigenous communities, was contracted to undertake the research for this project.

5Two indegonous Namibian communities were selected as case studies: the Topnaar (#Aonin) and Haillon communities, both speaking Khoekhoegowab but living in different parts of the country (see Figure 18). These two communities were selected due to the difference of environmental circumstances in which they live, as well as the prior research experience of the lead author (for example, Dieckmann 2007, 2012). Both communities belong to the most marginalised people in Namibia (Odendaal and Werner 2020).

6As requested by the organisations commissioning the study, the main components of the research were literature review, field research— including focus group discussions, household surveys, trend lines, ranking of livelihood strategies, mapping of well–being, knowledge and political assets and semi–structured interviews—and data analysis (Charapa Consult 2012: 10).

Fig. 18. Locations of Topnaar and Hai om research communities in Namibia. Dieckmann et al. (2013),​projects/​lead/​Pdf/​climate_change.pdf, p. 35, CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 18. Locations of Topnaar and Hai om research communities in Namibia. Dieckmann et al. (2013),​projects/​lead/​Pdf/​climate_change.pdf, p. 35, CC BY 4.0.

On Ethics and Frameworks

7Undertaking ‘participatory’ research regarding climate change in communities that are severely marginalised and struggling for daily survival felt extremely inadequate to me, especially given the limitations on participation caused by having to follow a pre-detemined framework and methodology. The Topnaat and Haillom communities today lack access to land and only have very limited access to natural resources. In post-colonial Namibia they experience high unemployment, low levels of education, very limited political representation and serious discrimination.

8During the study people wanted to talk about their current situation and needs, rather than climate change and anticipated impacts. In addition, the limitations in access to land and natural resources meant that the direct impacts of climate change seemed to be minimal compared to other urgent threats to their livelihoods, at least in 2012.

9These research observations and experiences led to fundamental questions being asked of the common conceptual framework being deployed so as to make the research consistent with the wider study: as shown schematically in Figure 19. This framework drew on the vulnerability concept developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007), combined with the framework used for the World Bank study on Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean Region (Kronik and Verner 2010), itself adapted from the UK Department of International Development’s (DFID) Sustainable Livelihood Framework as a tool to assess the vulnerability of different socio-economic groups and their adaptive capacity.

Fig. 19. Conceptual framework deployed in the World Bank Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (TFESSD) study. Dieckmann et al. (2013),​projects/​lead/​Pdf/​climate_change.pdf, p. 27, CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 19. Conceptual framework deployed in the World Bank Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (TFESSD) study. Dieckmann et al. (2013),​projects/​lead/​Pdf/​climate_change.pdf, p. 27, CC BY 4.0.

10This conceptual framework analytically distinguishes between the impacts of climate change hazards and the conditions established by the contexts in which indigenous communities live. The framework is based on specific scientific assumptions operating within a specific scientific logic, although even in a western ontology, separating climate change-related impacts from other factors such as governance, access to land, and socio–economic status—which are interrelated and have a cumulative impact on indigenous peoples—seems highly problematic (also see Barnes et al. 2013: 543). This conceptual separation runs the risk of de-politicising and re-naturalising climate change in turning the attention away from the unevenly distributed anthropogenic/industrial causes of climate hazards.

11Furthermore, merely providing a slot for “local and traditional knowledge systems” implies—as Mario Blaser (2009: 15) points out for the context of conservation—that “Indigenous environmental knowledges and practices” are “translated into discrete packages of knowledge that can be integrated into the toolkit of conservation practitioners, often as mere informational inputs”. When applied in specific localities, the usefulness of the framework and its underlying assumption becomes highly questionable.

On Non-Existent and Non-Fitting Concepts

12The issue of frameworks is closely connected to the question of concepts. Neither the Haillon nor the had prior knowledge of the concept of climate change as such, an observation also reported for indigenous Baka and Babongo communities participating in the parallel Republic of Congo study (Charapa Consult 2012: 11). As Charapa (2012: 12, emphasis added) state in their final report: “[w] hen attempting to compare scientific and indigenous notions of climate change and related impact, it becomes clear that these are not immediately comparable”.

13It is not only that these notions may not be immediately comparable nor translatable, however, but that at times they may simply be incompatible (as also documented for Khoekhoegowab-speaking communities in north-west Namibia by Sullivan (2002), and more recently for Andean circumstances in Bolivia by Burman (2017)). To complexify matters further, this situation is not limited to the rather abstract concept of climate change—a concept whose definition even scientific experts disagree on—but relates also to additional associated terms such as drought, weather and environment.

14During our fieldwork, Hai om participants came up with three terms for drought. Eventually, the community involved with the study agreed that |khurub should be used. This term also means hunger or no food. It is not only related to a lack of rain or dry environment but also includes impacts on the community. Complexifying matters, a frost that kills bushfood can also cause |khurub, meaning that the term and concept is not limeted to low rainfall alone. The difficulty of comparing the concept of |khurub with ’drough’ is thus evident: while ’drought’ in scince relates to a climate phenomenon, ’grought’ for Haillom relates more qpecifically to associated broad spectrum impacts resulting in a loss of foods for humans that may have multiple climatic causes. Such complexities are also apparent elsewhere: Turkana and Maasai participants in the overall study had similar concepts combining drought and hunger (Charapa Consult 2012: 53; also see Goldman et al. 2016).

15The concept of ’wearther’ is another telling example. Thomas Widlok (2017: 4) points out that the translation of the English term ’wearth ’wearther’ in the Khoeklhoegowarb spoken by Haillon constitutes a compoud of agentive forces: |nanutsillhaotsi#ôab literally translates as ’rains-and-clouds-and-wind’, although this term is rarely used in everyday discourse. #Nukhoen (Damara), who like Haillom and Topnaar (#Aonin) speak Khoekhoegowab, use the term ǂoab tsî ǀnanub (wind and rain) for weather (Schnegg 2019).

16‘Environment’ is another instance where understandings do not fit. According to Widlok, translations such as #namibeb and !ha!hais were originally coined by official language committes, butare also hardly used, and he suggests that for Haillom, ’environment’ mainly refers to manmade environmental features (e.g. houses/huts or fire places) (Widlok 2017: 5). This understanding also points to other relevant concepts, especially the western dichotomy of natural and human / cultural, which do not exist in the same from in many indigenous understanding, Haillom (Widlok 2009, 2017) and other Khoekhoegowab-speaking peoples (Sullivan and Hannis 2016) included. The distinction between natural and supernatural agencies also seems to be non-existent or at least blurred in these contexts (Schmidt 2014; Sullivan and Low 2014; Widlok 2017: 5–6; Dieckmann 2021a).

17In sum, central terms used for key concepts in climate change discourse either do not exist in, or do not seamlessly translate into, indigenous languages.

On Relationships and Agency

18Arguably, then, events and developments that scientists place in the context of climate change and relate in certain ways (mostly causally) to each other, may be perceived differently by indigenous peoples through their distinct experiences of being-in-the-world and accompanying explanations of causality (also see Charapa Consult 2012: 66–67). During the studies in Namibia and the other African countries, it was thus a challenge “to directly relate and compare the perceptions and experiences of the indigenous communities participating in this study with, for example, the climate change phenomenon and first order impacts identified through the literature review” (Charapa Consult 2012: 52). Similarly, it was often impossible to provide sufficient room for the interpretations most meaningful to the participating communities.

19Khoekhoegowab-speaking communities experience and establish relationships, including their drivers and effects, that may be different to scientific models. Some match with scientific explanations (cf. Sullivan 1999), while others do not. Some indicative fragments are provided below.

20Haiǁom regard the pied crow (!kha-nub) as a protected bird, because according to Haiǁom tales, it brings back the rain after it is taken away from them by the animal “married to the rain”, i.e. the elephant (Dieckmann 2012: 12–13), again indicating that there is no clear-cut distinction between the world of myth, legend, and the supernatural and the natural word.

21Haillom, like other Khoe and San peoples, raport the existence of ‘water snakes’ that protect waterholes, such that if the snake is killed or dies the water will dry up (Hoff 1997; Sullivan and Low 2014; Dieckman 2021).

22#Nukhoen connect winds and rain, and moreover associate both with non-human agents, speaking of the power of winds, good and bad winds, and gendered winds (Low 2007; Schnegg 2019). The strongest sprit-being (llgamab) for Haillon is the spirit of the rain (Dieckmann 2021a: 121).

23Haillom look to the moon to see what will happen in the next season, as indicated schematically in Figure 20. When it is half-moon, there will be no rain in the season (1); when it is half–moon but one side is higher, the rain will start (2); and when the left side is even higher, it will be a sign of death and no rain (3).

Fig. 20. Position of the moon in Hai om rain forecasts. Dieckmann et al. (2013),​projects/​lead/​Pdf/​climate_change.pdf, p. 91, CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 20. Position of the moon in Hai om rain forecasts. Dieckmann et al. (2013),​projects/​lead/​Pdf/​climate_change.pdf, p. 91, CC BY 4.0.

24These are just a number of snippets connected to what scientists and most westerners would commonly call weather or climate, suggesting ‘deviations’ from scientific models based on western ontologies that assume dichotomies of nature vs. culture, human = animated vs. nature = unanimated and natural vs. supernatural. As brief and decontextualised examples, they nonetheless illustrate that rain and wind, celestial bodies, certain animals and more are regarded as agents. Khoekhoegowab-speaking communities, like other indigenous communities, seem to have an animistic understanding of the world (cf. Sullivan 2010; Low 2014) wherein the world is deemed “full of persons, only some of whom are human” (Harvey 2006: 11). As invoked above, the world is also inhabited by a variety of agential spirit-beings, connected—inter alia—to weather, animals and ancestors.

25In these Namibian indigenous contexts, humans are an integral part of a wider ecology animated by other non-human agents, past and present. Relationships are thereby conceptualised in fundamentally different ways to the scientific framework of the Charapa study and most other scientific studies on climate change. This situation also appears true for other indigenous peoples worldwide (Yeh 2016; Goldman et al. 2018).

Why Does This Matter?

26The above examples are provided as potentially puzzling onto-epistemological snippets to serve as illustrations of the epistemic violence—or chainsaw massacre—that can happen when knowledge is removed from its context. While the authors (both of the Namibian and the other African studies) tried to make space to mention at least some of these nuanced understandings and relationships, they remained odds and ends in their final reports. Because they were not overtly connected to scientific notions, they were also subsumed under headings such as ‘beliefs’ or ‘culture’ (see e.g. Charapa Consult 2012: 57), further undermining their relevance to the main business of understanding climate change. While certain aspects of indigenous ‘ideas’ may be called knowledge, namely those that can be made to correspond with scientific understandings, others are framed as beliefs unworthy as contributions to science.

27A number of interrelated arguments—political, ethical, methodological, theoretical, philosophical—suggest that the above challenges should be taken seriously in the context of climate change.

Disempowering Indigenous People

28The study discussed above is just one of many international studies which “attempt to combine ‘expert assessment’ with processes of ‘stakeholder consultation’” (Scoones 2009: 548; also see Brosius 2006; contributions in Cameron, Leeuw and Desbiens 2014; Yeh 2016). Admittedly, the Charapa study (like many other studies) tried to do justice to indigenous peoples’ needs and rights, and the partners explicitly agreed on general principles for the research to this end (see Charapa Consult 2012: 9): but did we meet these needs?

29In retrospect, I would reply with a rhetorical question: whose ontology counts?

30The study followed the familiar road of one ontology and the belief that this ontology can come to be known by different epistemologies. Blaser calls this a “multiculturalist” perspective on indigenous knowledge, “according to which cultural differences are ultimately negotiable because they are mutually commensurable via what is common to all: a world or reality ‘out there’” (Blaser 2009: 15; see also Goldman et al. 2016: 28).

31This conceptualisation has been disputed in certain branches of academic thought (e.g. philosophy, post-colonial studies, feminism, science and technology studies, see e.g. Blaser 2013; Mol 2002). Relatedly, almost two decades ago, Karen Barad, a trained theoretical physicist, pointed to the Cartesian origin of the analytical separation of epistemology and ontology and stressed the analytical inseparability of the two:

[t] he separation of epistemology from ontology is a reverberation of a metaphysics that assumes an inherent difference between human and nonhuman, subject and object, mind and body, matter and discourse. Onto-epistem-ology—the study of practices of knowing in being—is probably a better way to think about the kind of understandings that are needed to come to terms with how specific intra-actions matter
Barad 2003: 829, emphasis in original.

32Whilst there are now attempts in academic argumentation to overcome these separations, it is important to acknowledge that many indigenous philosophies did not distinguish between them. Indeed, the inseparability of the two is an essential feature of so-called relational ontologies (Sidorkin 2002: 91), in which relationships constitute beings or persons (including non-human beings) rather than vice-versa. This perspective stands in stark contrast to the atomistic or substantivist ontology dominant in the western world.

33I thus argue that by conceptually separating how-we-know from what-we-know, studies like the one described in this essay further disempower indigenous people by squeezing their knowledge into scientific conceptual straightjackets or subsuming it in a side note as ‘beliefs’ or ‘culture’, despite the stated intention to do otherwise (also see Muller et al. 2019: 402).

Preventing (Radical) Learning

34As long as ‘we’ try to shoehorn indigenous knowledge into our onto-epistemological frameworks, we will never reach the roots of the problem. Climate change is the outcome of practices entangled with a specific western philosophical heritage, by the dominant ‘western’ onto-epistemology. With this acknowledgement, it would be wise to look beyond this tradition for possible paths forward as ‘humanity’ has much more to offer. Although many thinkers have already stressed this possibility (e.g. Rose 2005; Sullivan 2013, 2017; Umkeek 2014; Castree 2016), there is still a tendency in much climate change research to ignore these calls. To my point of view, indigenous ontologies offer a variety of interrelated aspects in response to the current climate and ecological crisis, a few of which are encouraged below.

35Take relational onto-epistemologies seriously. As soon as we acknowledge the inseparability of how-we-know and what-we-know, we can stop the bizarre fighting about one nature/several cultures or one culture/ several natures. We can also stop fighting about many other things, e.g. ‘the truth’, as ‘truth’ evolves in the field of relations between different beings. We have different, partly overlapping, onto-epistemologies which we need to consider holistically or, in Escobar’s words, we have a “pluriverse” as “a world where many worlds fit” (Escobar 2011: 139).

36‘Dethrone’ the human. Although many philosophers, posthumanist scholars and other academics have already pointed to the need to conceptually and practically re-integrate the human into ecology, many of them, based on Eurocentric scholarship, (still) tend to pay no or very little attention to indigenous knowledges, perspectives and ontologies (see also Bignall and Rigney 2019). Disclosing a western onto-epistemology as particular to a specific area and period and philosophising about new approaches to imagine the world are useful endeavours, but it might be less abstract and less theoretical to encourage more learning from concrete cases of existing or past alternatives of human-environment relationships as lived by particular groups of indigenous peoples.

37Re-learn mutual respect and relatability by (re-) animating nature. Indigenous ways of being-in-the-world and onto-epistemologies epitomise what is needed in dealing with climate change (Wildcat 2013; Umeek 2014). The necessity to maintain ethical and mutual relationships to non-human others is a central part of their experience, an experience which appears lost in post-Enlightenment European thought. The objectification of nature is an important cause for the current ecological crisis and technology on its own will not bring salvation (see e.g. Umeek 2014: 7). What is needed is a ‘relational turn’ (e.g. Dépelteau 2015), not only in science but in the western approach to life.

38Focus on local knowledge and acknowledge people’s connection to/knowledge of the land. The points above refer to general principles connected to indigenous onto-epistemologies. The concept of onto-epistemology also stresses the importance of place, i.e. of locality with regard to knowledge evolution, and thus of the situatedness of knowledge. While the relational ontologies of indigenous peoples located in continents beyond Africa have been studied and compared extensively, case studies focusing on onto-epistemological issues of indigenous peoples in Africa have rarely been considered in comparative discussions within the field of ‘new animism’ (although see Sullivan 2010; Low 2014; Dieckmann 2021b: 25–26) or indeed linked to the ecological crisis (with few exceptions, e.g. Goldman et al. 2016; Sullivan 2017; Schnegg 2021). Khoekhoegowab-speaking communities in southern Africa, being severely affected by climate change, deserve special attention in this regard. These communities have lived for millennia with a harsh environment but due to their degree of marginalisation, their voices have hardly found their ways into official discourses. Muller et al. (2019: 405–07) provide a number of promising examples from other continents, where indigenous peoples’ onto-epistemologies have been integrated into environmental magement and legal and legal provisions.

39What if Topnaar or Haillom experiences of the world and their acknowledgement of the importance of mutual relationships between a variety of human and non-human actors (including winds, rain, animals and plants) could find their ways into the Namibian (and global) climate change discourse? What if these communities could be integrated into the management of the national parks established on parts of their ancestral lands? What if these national parks became legal persons? Would ‘other’ people around the world change their/our behaviour if they/we took these ways of engaging with their surroundings as our example? How might this unfold?



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Yeh, Emily T., ‘How Can Experience of Local Residents be “Knowledge”? Challenges in Interdisciplinary Climate Change Research’, Area, 48 (1) (2016), 34–40,

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 18. Locations of Topnaar and Hai om research communities in Namibia. Dieckmann et al. (2013),​projects/​lead/​Pdf/​climate_change.pdf, p. 35, CC BY 4.0.
Fichier image/jpeg, 30k
Titre Fig. 19. Conceptual framework deployed in the World Bank Trust Fund for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (TFESSD) study. Dieckmann et al. (2013),​projects/​lead/​Pdf/​climate_change.pdf, p. 27, CC BY 4.0.
Fichier image/jpeg, 22k
Titre Fig. 20. Position of the moon in Hai om rain forecasts. Dieckmann et al. (2013),​projects/​lead/​Pdf/​climate_change.pdf, p. 91, CC BY 4.0.
Fichier image/jpeg, 9,6k


Anthropologist at the University of Cologne and currently German Principal Investigator for Etosha-Kunene Histories (, supported by the German Research Foundation and the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. For many years, she has worked at the Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek, doing research with and advocacy for marginalised and indigenous communities in Namibia.

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