Exploring climate change through proverbs in Sierra Nevada (Spain)

A new study, published in the journal Regional Environmental Change, presents a novel way of using the local knowledge embodied in proverbs to explore climate change impacts at local scales.

The study took place in Sierra Nevada (Southern Spain), a perfect location to study climate change through the view of local people for two main reasons. First, because high mountainous regions are one of the most vulnerable ecosystems in the world to climate change. And, second because Sierra Nevada has been historically a region in which local knowledge has been of great importance for water management and agricultural production.

For instance, traditionally weather forecasting methods were critical to better cope with weather variability. “I was particularly impressed by the numerous indicators (clouds, wind patterns, animal behaviour) that, still nowadays, people in the area use for weather forecasting” says María Garteizgogeascoa who led the study. Although these indicators are still used by local people, their perceived reliability is changing: “I no longer pay attention to water signals because they are no longer credible” or “In the past, cattle used to announce the rain; but now they only know when it rains after they get wet, as rain now is unpredictable” told us participants in this study.

Farmer working his land looking at the mountains bare of snow. Picture by David García del Amo.

The study used information contained in local proverbs to explore the impacts of climate change on climatic aspects of the environment like precipitation, on physical aspects, like snow cover; and finally, on biological aspects, such as flowering periods. 

For example, the proverb por Todos los Santos la nieve en los altos, por San Andrés la nieve en los pies indicates the arrival and abundance of the snow cover. So, according to the proverb, at the beginning of November (Todos los Santos is celebrated on November 1st) snow can be found on the peaks of the mountains and by the end of the month (November 30th) it normally reaches lower altitudes. When we asked participants about their current perception of the accuracy of this proverb, many stated that the proverb barely reflects the current situation, as snow arrives now later and it is less abundant. And indeed, the scientific data and literature for the region show a delay in snow periods.

Another proverb, septiembre o lleva los puentes o seca las fuentes, describes rain variability during the month of September. In this way, September could be a time of the year in which either rains a lot (the bridges are carried) or barely rains (the fountains dry up). When we asked participants about their perception of the current accuracy of this proverb, many told us that the proverb is no longer accurate, as there is hardly any rain in the month of September now. And certainly, the scientific data and literature for the region shows that precipitation has decrease at that time of the year. The same could be said for 19 of the 30 proverbs used in the study.

Moreover, some of the proverbs examined provided information about climate change impacts not yet described by scientists. For example, cuando vienen los vilanos es conclusion del verano encodes knowledge on the flowering period (end of August, beginning of September) of plants from the genus Carduus. This proverb was considered not accurate nowadays by most of participants due to variations in flowering periods. However, we could not find local literature reporting those variations.

The study reveals that although the selected provers were still generally well recognized, many informants considered them not accurate nowadays. Specially, older informants and people working in the primary sector though that the proverbs they use to guide their decisions in the past are not reliable anymore. As illustrated above, the study documents how this lack of accuracy perception goes in line with trends documented by local, regional and scientific literature and impacts of climate change documented through a Global Change Observatory stablished in the area in 2007. And how for others, the perceived accuracy provides novel information for scientifically undocumented climate change impacts in the area.

“Very few studies, and none in Spain, have ventured to study climate change at local scales through songs, stories or proverbs. However, this works shows that, despite some limitations, these traditional ways of encrypted local knowledge, could be a useful source to do so and a window opportunity to engage with local communities. During my work in the field, proverbs proof to be a useful tool for engage participants in discussions about climate change issues” says María Garteizgogeascoa. She adds “I hope that this study, together with the increasing literature around climate change and local knowledge, contributes to bring visibility on the benefits and need of having a climate change science that integrates different knowledge systems in part to develop a more democratic and targeted policy making”.

Reference:

Garteizgogeascoa M., García del Amo D., Reyes García V. (2020). Using proverbs to study local perceptions of climate change: a case study in Sierra Nevada (Spain). Regional Environmental Change. DOI: 10.1007/s10113-020-01646-1