Indigenous knowledge in the Pacific

Penehuro Lefale discusses the role traditional knowledge could play in developing understanding of climate change.

The author is Pacific Climate Analyst at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Auckland, New Zealand.

Long before the advent of complex numerical climate models, indigenous communities have used changes in their environments to predict fluctuations in the weather and climate. Social and communal activities such as feasting, fishing and hunting patterns were planned in response to changes in weather and climate and revolved around the different seasons.

While weather and climate patterns have been documented for many years using Western scientific techniques, little attention has been paid to documenting the traditional environmental observations made by indigenous peoples.

Is there a role for indigenous knowledge of weather and climate in improving scientific understanding of future changes in the climate? It is possible that scientists may be missing some valuable insights into climate change, climate prediction and mechanisms for coping with climate variability by not taking this knowledge on board.

Recent research by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Auckland, New Zealand, has been aimed at documenting the knowledge of weather and climate forecasting in Samoa.

The research revealed some exciting findings, the most pertinent being that Samoans have their own unique seasonal calendar (Table 1). Unlike the European calendar, which is based on astronomical events, the Samoan calendar is based on observations of environmental change, which are in turn largely influenced by the onset of extreme weather and climate events. How significant these Samoan observations are and whether their traditional knowledge can be used to help improve the scientific understanding of the climate system and its effects is the next phase of the Institute's research.

Table 1: The Samoan seasonal calendar and its origins. Samoan seasonal descriptions are listed alongside the approximate equivalent month in English, followed by an English translation and explanatory notes.


Utu va mua

First yam digging

Utu va mua and Utu va muli, two brothers, fled to the earth and brought the January storms with them when there was war in heaven and their party was beaten. During a great war on earth, they escaped to the heavens. The hills are the heaps of slain covered by earth dug up from the valleys. When the two brothers look down upon them, their weeping, wailing and exasperation causes a storm or hurricane.


Great host


Tagaloa Tele

Big God



Toe utu va

Digging yams again

Further digging up of the yams (winds) to raise storms.




From withering of the yam vine and other plants, which become coloured “like the shells” in March.

Ta’a fanua

Roam or walk about the land

This is the name of a god worshipped in April.

Atiu iti

Small gods

From the household gods worshipped at the time. They are specially implored to bless the family for the year “with strength to overcome in quarrels and in battles”.



A kind of fish

From the name of a small fish which comes in plentiful shoals at this time of the year.



The name of a god worshipped at the eastern extremity of the Samoan group of islands at this time.


Au nunu

Stem crushed

This is from the crushed or pulverized state of the stem of the yam at that time. Others say the month was so named from multitudes of malicious demons supposed to be wandering about at this time. Even the fish of the sea were thought to be possessed and unusually savage in this month. May is often an unhealthy month, as it marks the transition from the wet season to the dry – hence the sickness and superstition.



From the worship of a goddess of that name.


Ologa manu

The singing of the birds

Named from the unusual joy among the birds over a plentiful supply of favourite buds and berries. The bright scarlet flowers of the Erythrina indica then begin to come out and attract a host of parakeets and other happy chirpers.


Palolo mua

The first Palolo

Palolo “virides” are the worms that swim out from certain parts of the barrier reefs for three days every year and of which Samoans are very fond (all the more so for its rareness). Pa means to burst and lolo, fatty or oily. Hence, the origin of the name probably lies with the fatty or oily appearance of the worms as they break, burst, and are mixed up in heaps after they are caught. This is the first month of the half-year. It is called the Vaito’elauo or Palolo season. The other half of the year is called the Vaipalolo or trade-wind season.


Palolo muli

The last Palolo

The last of the Palolo festivities


Muli fa

End of the stem of a taro

The month is unusually dry and parching and the scorching rays of the sun leave little of the taro stem except for a small piece at the end. Another derivation is the end of the season for catching the fish Fa.


Lotu o uaga

Rain prayers

Named after the special prayers which are offered to the gods for rain.


Taumafa mua

The first of plenty or the first feast

Fish and other food become plentiful at this time and this is followed by the so-called palolo and fly-hook feasts. Public dinners in the houses of the leading men of the village are the order of the day.


Toe taumafa

The finish of the feasting or final supper

The finish of the feasting or final supper. Food is less plentiful after some of the December gales or tropical cyclones.

The scientific approach

A common, long-held perspective is that scientific problem-solving abilities are superior to those of indigenous knowledge. This is particularly true in the area of resource and environmental management.

Frederick Berkes and colleagues presented a paper entitled “Making sense of Arctic environmental change?” in the book Navigating Social-ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change, published by Cambridge University Press in 2001.

The authors observe that there is a great deal of faith in the growing scientific understanding of ecosystems. Accompanying this, there is an ever-growing bag of increasingly sophisticated tools and technologies, as well as the application of market mechanisms to problems such as air pollution and control and fishery management through individually allocated quotas. Yet much experience over the past few decades does not support such optimism and blind faith in modern approaches.

Berkes and his colleagues cite a 1997 survey of senior scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science which revealed an intriguing insight.

When asked about the most urgent challenges facing science and society these scientists identified many issues, but a common thread was that each “seemed to have radically outgrown its previously accepted conceptual framework.” There were continually new theories and explanations appearing on the horizon. Many, if not all, called for more creative forms of collaboration between scientists and society as well as involving a broader range of disciplines and skills needed for the process. This is particularly true for research into climate change.

For example, some of the most important tools that are being employed in current research into climatic variations and trends are climate models. Any of us who have attended any recent conferences on climate change can easily recall being immediately struck by the overwhelming importance of climate models on the overall discussion. These models have evolved considerably over the years and they now include more detail than ever before. They are evolving even further both in terms of spatial resolution and through the inclusion of new physical processes and more sophisticated parameterizations.

The conclusions of the Third Assessment Report compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are based on a range of “plausible” future emission scenarios generated by climate models. These future emissions scenarios are the product of complex interacting systems driven by population change, socio-economic development and technological change, all of which are highly uncertain. However, before a climate model is deemed useful, it must be satisfactorily tested against recent climate data.

The best way to test a climate model is to run it for a period of time using known greenhouse gas concentrations then compare the output with past climate observations. This brings us to the importance of local observations, whether it be in conventional data collection or in the documentation of indigenous knowledge and perspectives on weather, climate variability and change.

An indigenous perspective

Ka puwaha te tainei, hoea tatou

When there is a break in the waves, we paddle together

The Pacific Island Meteorological Services monitor and collect data from many parts of the southwest Pacific, continuing datasets that in some areas started over 100 years ago.

Climate observations began in Apia, Samoa, in 1890 primarily through the former New Zealand Meteorological Service. Long-term information like this is now assisting scientists in their understanding of past, present and future climate changes in the Pacific region, including the testing and validation of climate models.

Unfortunately, few parallel records have been kept of indigenous knowledge and perspectives on weather and climatic changes. This is about to change considerably. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research now recognizes the important role of local observations, knowledge and views. With assistance from the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, the current research initiative, begun in March 2001, is documenting indigenous observations and knowledge on weather and climate forecasts in the Pacific Islands.

Samoa, with its long history of climate data collection combined with local knowledge on predicting weather and climate events, was the obvious place to start exploring these issues in the Pacific region as a whole. The project has revealed some exciting preliminary results in documentation of the seasons from a Samoan perspective as shown in the Samoan calendar.

The Samoan study has provided invaluable lessons on how to deal with a multi-disciplinary, full of complex and non-linear interactions and uncertainties issue such as climate change. One example of indigenous knowledge is how the Samoan elders rely on changes in plants and animal behaviour to predict the onset of tropical cyclones in order to prepare measures for coping with the event.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has expanded its programme and is now documenting Maori traditional knowledge of weather and climate forecasting and adaptation to climatic events.

As Frederick Berkes and colleagues concluded, dealing with indigenous knowledge requires a major shift in thinking about the meaning of knowledge and knowing and in developing new models of community-based research for sharing knowledge.

Further information
Penehuro Lefale, National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research Ltd, PO Box 109695, Auckland, New Zealand. Fax: +64-9-3752051. Email: Web: www.niwa.

The information in this article was provided by the following people and organizations: Professor Richard Moyle, Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand; Dr Jon Barnett, Department of Anthropology, University of Melbourne, Australia; Mr Taala Pauga, High Chief, Laulii village, Upolu; Mr Taala Liae, High Chief, Laulii village, Upolu; Staff at Samoa National Meteorological Services, Mulinuu, Apia; Samoa Congregational Church, Malua; Late High Chief Sua Palasi, Salelavalu village, Savaii; Late Chief Pouli Lefale, Utualii village, Upolu; Late Siai Lefale, Utualii/Sapapalii villages, Upolu and Savaii.