Indigenous Communities and Climate Change
By Maryam Sheikh
It is no secret that climate change is increasingly having wide-reaching, damaging effects on wildlife, natural resources, and communities. While there are many efforts to mitigate the damages on behalf of environmental organizations and advocacy groups, there is a lack of governmental action. Discussions around climate change also are missing key stakeholders – specifically, Indigenous leaders and communities.
We have a lot to learn from Indigenous communities; many elders and community members possess a wealth of generational knowledge around the environment. In Indigenous culture, there is a heavy emphasis on respecting the Earth.
Climate change is an issue that heavily impacts Indigenous communities precisely because they rely on nature for many aspects of living. For example, they rely on the Amazon rain season for fishing and nourishment. However, recently, floods have become so strong that crops have had difficulty growing. Consequently, food insecurity has surged.
Another example of how Indigenous lives are affected relates to rapidly changing conditions of local wildlife. Communities traditionally create calendars based on local wildlife that track hunting and agricultural seasons. With much of wildlife diminishing due to climate change and habitat loss, Indigenous peoples lose this insight and are prevented from passing their traditions down to future generations.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous lands have been used to contribute to climate change. Not only have oil and mining companies been extracting natural resources, company workers have also unwittingly spread the virus to Indigenous communities. This means that Indigenous people have become highly vulnerable to environmental destruction as well as the virus.
Ultimately, we must address the racial inequality that leads to power imbalances, discrimination, and environmental destruction. Since there are few formal laws governing Indigenous lands, governments can impede on the rights of Indigenous communities. There must be a shift in how Indigenous communities are viewed – instead of being seen as beneficiaries of conservation projects and minor players in environmental efforts, they should be respected and treated as partners. Indigenous leaders are needed in power because they are familiar with the needs of their communities and thus, should set their own goals for their communities. This is also key in rebuilding trust, for historically Indigenous peoples have been undermined and violated.
Conservation International provides a few examples of how different Indigenous communities are currently using traditional practices to practice conservation. In order to continue this, environmental leaders and advocacy groups should invite Indigenous leaders to join discussions and spearhead projects. You can read more about the specifics of Indigenous sustainable living practices at: “Notes from the field: Indigenous peoples protecting nature through tradition.”
Overall, the issue of climate change is a multifaceted one. However, it is clear that Indigenous communities provide immense value to conversations about conservation and climate change. Their rich traditions can be used in current contexts; moreover, their traditions of focusing on community are important in a collective, global battle against climate change. More importantly, Indigenous communities heavily rely on environmental resources, and systemic oppression has already resulted in their exploitation. It is integral to prioritize their insights moving forward for they are the ones who often minimally contribute to environmental destruction yet are subject to its harsh consequences. It is incredibly important to listen to and learn from underrepresented voices, not only in the discussions around the environment, but in many other contexts as well.
Price, Kiley. “Indigenous leaders: To tackle climate change, ‘we must first address racial inequality’.” Conservation International. https://www.conservation.org/blog/indigenous-leaders-to-tackle-climate-change-we-must-first-address-racial-inequality.
Nature Canada. “5 Reasons Indigenous Communities are Imperative to the Climate Change Conversation.” https://naturecanada.ca/news/blog/5-reasons-indigenous-communities-are-imperative-to-the-climate-change-conversation/.
Price, Kiley. “Notes from the field: Indigenous peoples protecting nature through tradition.” Conservation International. https://www.conservation.org/blog/notes-from-the-field-indigenous-peoples-protecting-nature-through-tradition.