Oral Traditions or Situated Practices? Understanding How Indigenous Communities Respond to Environmental Disasters

Article excerpt

This article examines how indigenous fisherfolk of the western Solomon Islands survived a magnitude 8.1 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck the region in 2007. I reconstruct this cataclysmic event through local narratives, surveys, and ethnographic interviews collected in villages on Simbo Island and in Roviana and Vonavona Lagoons. I then compare the responses of the Solomon Islanders to reports and analyses of similar survivor stories among indigenous groups affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Results show that disaster analyses tend to relate effective indigenous responses with intergenerationally transmitted oral histories or culturally embedded stories and myths. These codified bodies of traditional knowledge or mental models about previous events are thought to be put into action when a disaster strikes. However, ethnographic interviews and surveys conducted with Solomon Islanders suggest that oral history was just one dimension of a response that involved an assemblage of local and global knowledges coalescing with performative and experiential practices. To more thoroughly conceptualize indigenous responses, I encourage a practice-based approach. I argue that this framework provides a more productive and inclusive analysis of the relationship between indigenous knowledge and responses to environmental hazards, while also facilitating more effective collaborations between indigenous people and disaster experts who seek participatory strategies of disaster risk reduction.

Key words: natural disasters, indigenous knowledge, situated practices, tsunami, Solomon Islands


The magnitude of suffering caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was truly horrific. According to the final estimates, nearly 2.4 million people around the Indian Ocean basin were affected, and over 200,000 victims died (Telford, Cosgrave, and Houghton 2006). There were, however, a few miraculous survivors. The media and scientists studying the disaster reported how a handful of indigenous groups - the Moken in the Surin Islands, Thailand; the Ong, Jarawa, and Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands, India; and the Simeulue Island peoples, Indonesia - escaped unscathed because they reportedly had indigenous knowledge or "ancient wisdom" about previous tsunamis and, hence, were able to act in a coordinated manner and reach high ground before the tsunami struck (Adger et al. 2005; Arunotai 2008; Elias, Rungmanee, and Cruz 2005; Leung 2005; McAdoo et al. 2006; National Geographic News 2005; Taipei Times 2005; Tima 2005).

Interest in indigenous responses to the Indian Ocean tsunami is part of a growing realization by the international community that indigenous ecological knowledge and practices are important for understanding ecological hazards, reducing disaster risk, and mitigating vulnerability (Becker et al. 2008; Ellen 2007; Mercer et al. 2010). This shift has occurred in the context of broader changes and advancements in disaster research. Many disaster researchers no longer focus narrowly on the biophysical aspects of natural hazards and how they trigger events. Rather, they emphasize how social conditions generate disasters by creating different axes of vulnerability (Hoffman and Oliver-Smith 2002; Oliver-Smith 1996; Wisner 2004). From this approach, disasters and the associated human suffering result from a complex mix of geophysical and biological processes and social, ideological, and economic systems. The amount of suffering endured by a particular group or individual is a function of their vulnerability, where vulnerability is defined as the characteristics of an individual or group that shape "their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural disaster" ( Wisner 2004: 1 1 ).

Prior to the emergence of the idea of vulnerability to explain disasters, the conventional view was that indigenous communities lacked "modernization" and economic development and had inferior coping mechanisms. …