The attention given to indigenous peoples in global policy processes reflects a growing acknowledgment of their knowledge, their rights and their crucial roles in helping to protect some of the world’s most important places for biodiversity.
The global environmental crisis has more than adequately demonstrated that business as usual will not and cannot ensure global survival. What is needed is a fundamental shift in consciousness, and this means that the views of the indigenous peoples—our laws and rules and relationships to the natural world— have been brought back into the picture. In fact, these natural laws and rules have to become the focus of humanity.
But while the importance of indigenous rights is considered a given by conservation and development groups, it has been slow to gain wider awareness outside of policy circles. Many people in Western societies who care about protecting nature might be surprised to know that well-intentioned environmental policies can have unduly harmful effects on the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people.
Let’s be clear: Indigenous peoples do not ask for special rights or treatment. Rather, they seek recognition of their contributions in sustainably managing their territories for generations — a recognition of the fact that they have been subjected and continue to be subjected to the worst forms of oppression through land dispossession. This then destroys the basis of their knowledge systems, which can be sources of knowledge for dealing with challenges related to climate change.
Indigenous peoples are victims of climate change, and yet they have knowledge developed from years of interacting with the environment that could benefit humanity; they want to partner with others in finding solutions, but it has to be a just partnership.
Indigenous peoples face a number of challenges. I’d say the biggest might be the loss of their lands, either because of natural causes such as sea-level rise or because of encroachment due to aggressive development. Globally, indigenous peoples call for the recognition and respect of their land rights over their territories because their lands define them — without the land, they cease to be indigenous. Their knowledge systems, cultures and governance systems are all rooted on their lands. This is why expanding protected areas can be problematic — really, the only possible areas where protected areas can be established are in indigenous territories, so there is that threat of land dispossession. When indigenous peoples say they want access to policymakers and resources, it is all geared at gaining legal recognition for their rights.
Climate change is another major challenge for indigenous peoples. In fact, they often feel that they are being doubly victimized — they have contributed little to the causes of climate change and yet they bear the brunt of the impacts.
Even efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change tend to victimize indigenous peoples, as is the case in the building of alternative energy sources. For instance, the building of windmills in indigenous territories without their consent results in the communities being deprived of land which they can use to produce food. Projects like these are especially damaging if the electricity to be generated does not benefit the community.
The argument being posed by indigenous peoples is that since they have managed these areas for generations, they are in a better position than outsiders to continue to do so. Additionally, because of the relationship of indigenous peoples and the land, its conservation is better ensured if they have rights over it. If they know they will not be evicted, they will endeavor to make it more productive for their children.
And we have evidence that this approach works: Studies have shown that forested areas managed by local communities see less deforestation than protected forests.
International agreements and treaties become relevant to indigenous peoples if the indigenous groups know about them and are empowered to have a say in their implementation.
Often, indigenous communities have no knowledge of these agreements, and some do not desire to participate in international processes, finding it too detached from their realities. In many cases, indigenous peoples would know about such processes only when they are negatively impacted. For instance, in the desire to establish more protected areas, indigenous peoples are impacted because it is their lands that will be targeted. So unless there is a systematic effort to disseminate this information to the communities, indigenous peoples will not be able to benefit from them.
(Our role) is to protect indigenous knowledge and what is left of the natural world, with every ounce of strength and every resource at (our) disposal.