October 26, 2017

Including Indigenous Voices in the Sustainability Narrative

Eliza Racine

Indigenous communities are all too often neglected in discussions of climate change, particularly with the rising number of fossil fuel projects close to their lands. Many indigenous concerns aren’t fully acknowledged until the damage is permanent to their homes and hunting grounds.

Western science is just beginning to understand the ways in which indigenous peoples act as an integral part of their ecosystems to increase biodiversity and overall ecosystem health. Unfortunately, their importance to environmental health is often only realized after the indigenous peoples of the area are removed, killed, or otherwise prevented from maintaining their stewardship of the land.

Thankfully, more and more environmental studies programs across the American continents are including indigenous people in their work and providing a larger platform to raise awareness around the issues that directly affect them. Many tribal organizations like the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) will stay committed in the Paris Accords despite President Trump’s misguided choice to back out in order to represent Native American rights and promote plant-based knowledge as it relates to climate change in the international community.

Six students of Dartmouth College recently published a study of invasive species in the American Indian Quarterly that details the neglect of indigenous voices in the effects of such environmental changes. It also provides a counter-narrative to the myth that indigenous people are helpless to environmental change, and instead showcases how they adapted to the invasive species that threaten their food supplies.

The survey of 140 indigenous individuals across the United States and Canada found that 76 percent were concerned with the resilience of plant and animal populations in the face of invasive species. Eighty-one percent of those surveyed worked with multiple organizations to disseminate knowledge on how to handle invasive species, but also reported communication could be improved to better assess these problems immediately. Their methods included a combination of Western and indigenous knowledge of ecology, such as researching which areas berry plants are less susceptible to geometrid moths.

I start to think about how my community would even look like without the lake, the fish, the animals and trees.

– Chelsea Martin

At the University of Alberta, a new study called Tracking Change is working with 12 indigenous communities in northern Canada over six years to research the negative impacts of drilling and mining on the Mackenzie River Basin. Recent findings include a depleted and unhealthy fish population due to the water’s lower levels and warmer temperatures. Many fish are inedible because the flesh is too soft. Some are even developing cysts, which sometimes prevent the entire fish from being eaten.

Students like Chelsea Martin from the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation are hoping to find out more on how these communities have adapted to the reduced food and water supplies.

“I start to think about how my community would even look like without the lake, the fish, the animals and trees,” Martin said in an interview with Canada’s Metro News, “And how we have to start considering more sustainable ways of life. Because people absolutely need it for their livelihood.”

The Winnemem Wintu tribe of northern California are currently at the forefront of the battle for indigenous preservation through means of ecological conservation. Their salmon, an integral component to the Wintu culture, are on the brink of extinction due to long-term damage from damming, railroad construction, and hydraulic gold mining.

McCloud River was the only remaining Chinook salmon spawning ground by 1872, which prompted fish culturalist Livingston Stone to establish a hatchery and work with the Winnemem to export millions of eggs to 30 states and 14 countries to start new runs and replenish the population. Along with holding the annual movement #Run4Salmon to promote the tribe’s historical connection to the water and salmon, the Winnemem Wintu are also working to bring the McCloud salmon from a healthy run in Rakaia River in New Zealand back to California. This goal exemplifies indigenous environmental stewardship, and if successful, would counteract the trap-and-haul programs of the Shasta area —which take salmon from a hatchery above the Shasta Dam and placing them in the river, which cause stress to the fish and lead to higher mortality and lower growth rates.

Similar research is also being conducted with Alaskan Native Americans such as the Yup’ik and Iñupiat, who are dealing with declining caribou populations, melting permafrost, and increased tundra fires as a result of climate change-induced rising temperatures. Drastic climate change poses an extreme danger to these villages, which are hundreds of miles away from emergency first responders and other support systems. According to NARF, 184 of these villages are threatened with removal from their homes. For many indigenous communities like these, simply relocating is not an option due to the risk of loss of sacred lands and cultural heritage. As people who have lived off the land for generations, Alaskan natives are able to provide invaluable information about changing climatic conditions—including much that is unknown to modern science.

The trend of listening to indigenous voices and including them in topics of climate change is one that the international community is also trying to follow. The head of the Swedish International Development Agency, Carin Jämtin, is pushing for the United Nations to finally acknowledge indigenous people in next month’s climate talks as an example of how to solve sustainability problems. She backs the Global Tenure Facility, a project which puts indigenous people first by providing grants to protect their land and resources.

“Land rights matter in different ways, in the fight against climate change, but also… in eradicating poverty and in reaching the [United Nations’] Sustainable Development Goals,” Jämtin said in her interview with the Thomas Reuters Foundation.

Time and time again, indigenous people have proven to be a key component in research and discussions around environmental sustainability, but it comes with the unfortunate reality that they face the most danger because of climate change. Prioritizing inclusive scientific studies is a start in understanding the full extent of environmental damage, how to reverse it if possible, and how to best help indigenous peoples help the land. Moving forward, there must be a global commitment in putting indigenous people first before fossil fuel projects.