The role of indigenous peoples in navigating and combating the climate change

There’s no other way of putting it: climate change is happening and it’s truly a global problem.

It’s not an issue of a few countries or regions. Climate change is affecting the whole planet.

But it’s not impacting everyone the same way.

Though we can all feel (or soon will feel) the effects of global issues, we won’t all face the same consequences. Climate change is never only about the climate. It’s not even only about the environment or nature. Climate change is also a political, historical, cultural, legal and economic phenomenon. We can’t address this if we don’t address all of the aspects. This is what we sometimes call intersectional environmentalism: thinking about the environment (and environmental change) through the intersection of all the areas I just mentioned. Further, it means thinking about how the environment and communities are intertwined and fighting for justice for both people and the planet. 

Because one doesn’t happen without the other. While this is a relatively new stream of thought in international policymaking, education, and the global eco-movement, some communities have been thinking and acting in this way for generations.

Because many are close to the Earth and ecosystems, indigenous peoples have been adapting to climate change for a very long time. Now, their knowledge, experience, and values are crucial if we want to find ways to navigate the biggest problem we as humans might be facing.

So today, we acknowledge and talk about the role of indigenous peoples in climate change.

 

Disproportionately affected

Perhaps, let me first start by saying that as a white woman, despite my studies and research, I have no direct experience that indigenous communities have. I learn from following and talking to some members of communities, who are all activists, scientists, researchers, and educators. They have been saying and advocating for these issues for far longer than me and I’m here just presenting bits of their work. Yet, exactly because of my position and because I’m working in the industry that has been largely contributing to climate change, I believe it’s important to speak about these things. It’s not only the indigenous peoples who should educate the rest of us. This is our common responsibility.

Ok, now we’re ready to talk about this.

Indigenous communities are among the first ones to feel the effects of environmental degradation, largely because they have formed a close relationship with nature. At the same time, these are among the most marginalised communities, who are often denied political voice or support when their own structures are destroyed.

At the same time, these communities are the least responsible for the environmental problems.

Let’s give some examples.

Amazon rainforest, a big resource of biodiversity and a key in the planet’s health, has been rapidly exploited and colonized for centuries. Yet, in the past decades, the activity has intensified, as governments and companies are claiming the right to the land and resources. We have lost about 20% of the rainforest since the 1970s, which has devastating consequences for the life in the area, including human life. Thousands of people were forced to flee, migrate, or leave their native lands, due to the colonization and, later, industrialization of the rainforest. Whole generations were lost, separated or forced to adapt to the new ways. The disappearance of ecosystems means the disappearance of homes, cultures, and families. 

Furthermore, as global warming is increasing, large parts of the Earth frozen and cold land masses are melting, causing a series of changes. Today, we know that global warming is largely caused by human industrial activity. However, the indigenous communities of the Arctic region, who resisted industrialization for decades, now experience food insecurity. They traditionally depend on hunting practices that are now becoming dangerous or impossible. Similarly, about 240 million people living in the high altitudes of the Himalayas mountains now experience a threat to their livelihoods, due to the temperature increase. 

 

Even more, the vital resources have been appropriated and stolen for those who cared and depended on them through history. The tribes in Southern Africa, known as Bushmen or the San people, were restricted, moved out, dislocated, or banned from their ancestral lands through the 20th and early 21st century. Their resources became too valuable for the states and international businesses. And while many Bushmen are now able to once again use their lands, they now struggle to access clean water and depend heavily on the handouts from the same government that continues to profit from their land. 

This is all to say that there are millions of people today who are the least responsible for the climate crisis but are already dealing with and bearing the consequences. Yet, this is exactly where we might start seeking the answers.

 

Adapting, innovating and solving

For a long time, especially in international policy and global environmental organisations, indigenous peoples were considered as victims of climate change. Recognising the struggles and consequences of the communities is important. But too often, we fail to recognise the knowledge, strength and strategies the communities employed to survive the injustices and changes. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to understand and learn from them.

When we speak about a sustainable future, be it in the terms of fashion, food, energy or transport, we like to focus on innovations. After all, new situations need new ways. But it’s important to understand that innovations aren’t always highly technological nor completely new. Across the world, indigenous peoples have been living and continue to live sustainably, constantly adapting to new challenges. 

This is why indigenous peoples are the agents in combating climate change. To go back to the Amazon forest, communities in Ecuador have been collectively pushing the international policies and winning back the right to their lands. Having international support gave them the power to resist extractive industries that contribute to the greenhouse gases emissions.

The native tribes are now showing and teaching others how to preserve nature. The members of the Swinomish Tribe in Washington state are building clam gardens, which are effective in increasing the biodiversity and food security for everyone. In Bangladesh, the same is achieved by the local farmers who adapted the hundreds of years old practice of floating gardens. Such traditional ways were often invented to resist changing weather conditions, while still respecting the ecosystems. Other communities found new ways to take care of their and the planet’s needs. In Vietnam, people are planting mangroves to defend the land from the storms

It’s not just agriculture. Indigenous nations were at the frontier of the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, due to the high environmental concerns. The concerns were confirmed and after years of protesting, the project has been temporarily stopped last summer. This is just one example of a big win against the oil and gas industry. In the meantime, ten tribes in North America have come together to present their own renewable energy plans that could not only help us move away from the fossil fuels dependency but could also directly benefit the communities. This example in particular shows that thinking about sustainability has to include everyone.

 From saviourism to partnership

For indigenous communities, nature is an intrinsic part of their culture, economy, and history. Taking care of one means taking care of them all. Unfortunately, sustainability movements are still largely lacking this.

Sustainable fashion, in particular, is guilty of underestimating the local and traditional knowledge. As a largely western and white-washed movement, sustainable fashion influences how we see and approach sustainability. Too often, we seek new ways and rely on technological innovation. Still, the traditional clothing techniques, dyeing, printing, and wearing never went away, and the industry could learn a lot from these. 

Instead of thinking of how we can help or save the marginalised communities, we should seek ways to truly partner. This includes recognising and valuing indigenous ways but also paying fairly and supporting their projects. 

GNGR Bees is doing this by dedicating an entire collection to support Survival International with funding to ensure indigenous communities receive the support they need to thrive. You can read more about the work Survival International does here and shop the Canopy collection here.

 

 

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