We can’t talk about climate action without talking about Indigenous climate stewardship.

Before doing so, I will first introduce myself to better situate my perspective on the issue. I am a white immigrant from Brazil with German and Italian ancestry. I moved to what is now known as Canada three years ago with my family. My studies at Humber in International Development and community involvement outside of school initiated my learning journey about the history and fight of Canada’s First Peoples. This ongoing learning is a personal responsibility that I take very seriously as it enables me to nourish a respectful relationship with the land I live on and its original inhabitants.

Protestors in Toronto demonstrating solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. Photography by Richard Lautens.

Indigenous Peoples all around the world have been fighting for their sovereignty for decades, a fight that is intrinsically connected with the environmental movement given their interconnection with nature and holistic worldview. If all Indigenous Peoples were to attain sovereignty over their rightful land, the rate of conservation of natural resources would likely increase. Just take a look at the statistics: Indigenous communities currently occupy a quarter of the world’s surface area and protect about 80% of the remaining biodiversity.

Be aware of the repercussions of not living in balance with the land. Every day you don’t act to support Indigenous sovereignty is damaging land and waters.

Reimagine Playbook and Land Back, UNICEF Canada

The term Indigenous refers to different groups with their own set of cultural practices, beliefs, and language, which is characterized by ancestral ties to the land they live on or were displaced from. It is important to note that the responsibility to fight for climate action and defend the land is not Indigenous Peoples’ duty. However, for this blog post, I will focus on Indigenous leaders and groups who are undertaking this fight.

While Indigenous Peoples barely contribute to activities that perpetuate the climate crisis, they disproportionately experience the harmful effects of climate change. Indigenous communities are on the front lines of climate change; their health and traditional livelihood are being impacted, and they often put their bodies on the line to fight against unlawful exploitation of natural resources on their land.

I would like to acknowledge that other groups that have been historically oppressed and marginalized by settler policies and laws undergo similar experiences of being disproportionality impacted by the consequences of climate change—often referred to as environmental injustice. For an informational read about the fight and resilience of Black communities around the world facing the threat of climate change, I recommend Sara Mersha’s article Black lives and climate justice.

To better understand how Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty is essential to the environmental movement, let’s take a look at some examples.

Waorani People from Ecuador protecting the Amazon

Waorani addressing the press. Photography by Mitch Anderson.

In 2019, the Waorani people won a historic lawsuit, saving half a million acres of Indigenous territory in the Amazon rainforest. This victory suspended a government-led sale of almost 200 thousand hectares of Indigenous Waorani land to oil companies. The community expressed with relief that their memory, language, and cultural practices in deep connection with the land would live on thanks to the verdict. This kind of government contestation of the sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples over their native land, unfortunately, is common to many countries including Canada and the United States.

Waorani leader, Nemonte Nenquimo powerfully stated “Our territory is not for sale. Our territory is part of our life. We will die if the oil companies enter our lands. We will fight until the end, not just here in this court.”

Botswana’s Bushmen

Indigenous to southern Africa, the Bushmen faced decades of forced displacement from their traditional territory in Botswana. Although they have been living in a reserve originally created with the purpose of protecting their territory, with the discovery of diamonds in the area in the early 1980s, the government expelled Bushmen from their reserve to access the precious mineral. Living off reserve negatively impacted them as it endangered their livelihoods and unique society intrinsically connected to their ancestral lands.

In 2002, 239 Bushmen opened a case that would become the longest and most expensive in the history of Botswana. The Bushmen, who are the country’s poorest citizens, received support from the INGO Survival International. After years of struggle and many drawbacks, the judges ruled the eviction of the Bushmen by the government was unlawful and unconstitutional. It was ruled that the Bushmen have not only the right to live in the reserve, but also to hunt and gather on their native land. Those rights have been contested by the government multiple times, and so the Bushmen continue to assert their rights.

Water warrior Autumn Peltier

Indigenous Water warrior, Autumn Peltier, At the United Nation’s forum. Photography by Richard Drew, The Associated Press.

The 16-year old Anishinaabe water activist from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island took up the global stage in multiple international conferences to address the importance of the natural resource and how many Indigenous communities do not have access to clean water. As of February 2020, there were 61 active drinking water advisories in effect in reserves in Canada.

The water warrior has been actively learning and advocating for water protection ever since she was 8 years old. Her stance is so powerful that she was named the chief water commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation, a political advocacy group, when she was only 14 years old.

Conservation Through Reconciliation Partnership (CRP)

The CRP is a seven-year initiative that looks into the state of conservation in Canada and supports Indigenous-led conservation. In addition to boosting Indigenous leadership in the conservation movement, the CRP also centers its work around aspects of core Indigenous practices and beliefs, such as mutual respect, reciprocity, and shared relationships.

This initiative aims to make connections and enable reciprocal sharing between Indigenous communities and environmental organizations, therefore creating a network that catalyzes conservation efforts led by Indigenous Peoples. They believe healing of the planet and our relationship with Earth can occur if people work collaboratively to bring together Indigenous systems and Western sciences.

As Indigenous Peoples all around the globe fight to reassert their rights and sovereignty, they also protect the environment from resource exploitation and degradation. Given their deep connection to nature, they also actively demand climate action. Many similarities between the cases cited above can be observed: one of them is the lack of commitment from governments to truly respect and safeguard Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their native territories. Considering the endurance of confrontation from numerous official bodies, it is important that non-Indigenous people support Indigenous Peoples as they fight for their rights.

How non-Indigenous people can be active allies

People standing together with their arms around each other.

Educate yourself. Take the time to continuously educate yourself and those around you on Indigenous issues. Make sure to check the links in this article and read the following resources as a starting point:

Listen openly. When you have the opportunity to hear directly from an Indigenous person about their lived experiences and overall reflections on Indigenous issues, listen carefully without taking up space and without any preconceptions. Be an active and empathetic listener.

Amplify voices of Indigenous people. Everyone has access to unique social groups, so you will be increasing the impact by amplifying Indigenous voices in the different spaces you occupy.

Donate to Indigenous organizations and buy from Indigenous businesses. Make sure you’re support Indigenous-owned organizations and businesses with your wallet and promote their products and services to your network.

Learn the language of the land you live in. This is a great way to decolonize your knowledge and worldview. Humber students can download the Transparent Language Online app for free. The app has over 100 languages to learn, including Ojibwe.

Don’t wait. “Be aware of the repercussions of not living in balance with the land. Every day you don’t act to support Indigenous sovereignty is damaging land and waters. We all need to be the guardians of creation, and that day will come sooner if we all take that step to make a change,” (Reimagine Playbook and Land Back, UNICEF Canada).

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