Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Biology/Environmental Biology

First Advisor

Kamaljit S. Bawa

Second Advisor

Robert D. Stevenson

Third Advisor

Crystal Schaaf


The Himalaya, a region with a rich diversity of indigenous ethnicities and one of 35 global biodiversity hotspots, has been significantly impacted by climate change. Yet there are few studies on climate change impacts on the region owing to the lack of long-term measurements. There is however a wealth of information in the form of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of the indigenous peoples inhabiting the region. I propose that in harsh environments like the high altitudes of Eastern Himalaya, natural resource-dependent indigenous communities and their local institutions have developed an intricate understanding of and responses to changes in their local climatic conditions and natural surroundings. This dissertation explores the response of indigenous people in the Himalaya to changing climatic conditions. I studied this at two scales— at the local scale, I used ethnographic tools to understand the response of people and their governing institutions. Second, at the regional scale, I studied the response of natural resources that the people use, particularly alpine grassland vegetation.

The results show that climate change has significantly impacted biodiversity and the people of the region. People’s perceptions were remarkably consistent with the results on meteorological recordings, remotely sensed phenology data and range shifts. Analysis of meteorological data showed that temperatures have increased significantly especially during the colder seasons. Results from remotely sensed phenology showed that the start of the growing season for vegetation had advanced significantly (12.5 days per decade) while the end of the growing season showed a delay (3 days per decade). Areas below the treeline showed were more affected than above treeline zones. Range shifts in ethnobotanically important species were also recorded using secondary sources. In addition to climate change grazing also impacted alpine pastures, significantly increasing ecosystem structure and function.

The results showed that contrary to narratives on indigenous people as passive observers of global phenomena like climate change, communities were actively adapting with the help of their TEK and indigenous institutions. I developed a framework that complemented the rigor of science with the wealth of TEK to suggest pathways for an improved policy response to climate change.


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