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Indigenous communities and the environment – why is it such an important topic?

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Eleanor Luxton highlights the importance of educating ourselves on the intersections between Indigenous groups and the environment, in light of Western exploitation of Indigenous lands, bodies and resources.

Image credit: Mishal Ibrahim

There’s arguably never been a more important time to think about Indigenous worldviews. David Attenborough documentaries are cancelled for fear of political reprisals, President Biden reassesses an Alaskan oil drilling project and the catastrophic health and ecological impacts of the Ohio train derailment are revealed. Amongst the slew of climate crisis headlines it can be difficult to recognise possibilities for change. In the West, we’re so used to conceiving of nature as distinct from humans and perceiving of our own individual commitments to averting ecological catastrophe, that often little room is left for opposing cosmologies. This is despite the fact that the UN believes that at least ¼ of land globally is managed by Indigenous groupsa population which comprises only 6% of the global population, but protects 80% of our biodiversity. Although it’s impossible to define ‘Indigenous’ in a singular sense, and efforts to do so are inevitably reductive, Indigenous communities are characterised by their strong ties to ancestral territories, distinct languages and belief systems and identities rooted in reciprocal relationships with their surroundings. Indigenous elders were also key in sounding the alarm over future pandemics following COVID-19, reiterating the significance of marginalised voices in debates about sustainability.

A violent history

Historically, explorers, imperialists and geographers alike have belittled the Indigenous ‘Other’, seeing them as barriers to accessing natural resources and expanding western control. The white, heterosexual, Christian, European male was presented as “the embodiment of scientific reason” (Driver, 2001: 16), relegating Indigenous knowledges – and indeed lives – to the margins. This is despite our continued usage of Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants by Western ‘Big Pharma’ companies, such as Eli Lilly’s pirating of rosy periwinkle for cancer treatment. These legacies of settler colonialism and systemic violence are embedded in many Indigenous groups, with Aboriginal Australian communities, for example, experiencing higher rates of child abuse, substance misuse and homicides compared to the general population. This highlights the vulnerability of Indigenous relationships with the environment to erasure, as ways of life which treat nature as a companion oppose the profit-driven motives of multinationals and development agendas of governments.

The Canadian case

Although it’s important not to homogenise Indigenous groups, we also must recognise how state-run conservation schemes damage their relationships with ancestral lands. For example, Canada’s First Nations people are allowed to make legal claims on land, however the very idea of possessing land is at odds with their beliefs. Furthermore, they are constrained by bias, as Indigenous people must conform to government-determined visions of ‘civilisation’ and ‘respectability’, if they are to succeed. Koot and Buscher’s (2019) analysis of the southern Kalahari Bushmen group also shows how having ownership over land does not end the suffering of Indigenous communities. Lack of ability to manage land, which is often drought-ridden and least profitable for governments to exploit, means that the Bushmen remain trapped in poverty, both unwilling and unable to adapt to the much romanticised ‘traditional’ lifestyle made impossible by decades of oppression. Hence, in southern Africa and Canada alike, current legislation is not that different from the national assimilation policies of times gone by. First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forced into residential schools – the last of which closed in 1997 – by the Canadian government. Inside, they were unable to speak their own languages, forced to engage in manual labour, abused, and buried in unmarked graves if they succumbed to disease. Even now, the murder rate of Indigenous women in Canada is almost 5 times higher than that of all other women in Canada, showing how violence persists with the help of government inaction. As Indigenous groups across the world face threats to their lives and livelihoods daily, they cannot make space to re-establish their connections to the natural world.

Resistance is risky

Although it’s easy to feel that nothing will change for Indigenous groups, this is not always the case. Berta Cáceres, a Honduran (Lenca) environmental activist and Indigenous leader, successfully prevented the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam. This hydroelectric project was another example of the government’s efforts to produce cheap energy for the mining industry, and it would displace and starve the Lenca people. Cáceres rallied peers to protest the violation of international law, even as security forces opened fire on them. In 2016, after repeated death threats, she was attacked by hitmen hired by the dam company Desa. Justice still has not been served on all of those involved in her assassination. This case demonstrates the risks environmental defenders face in countries where the military targets Indigenous elders who disrupt the status quo. Whilst Cáceres’ murder was undoubtedly a tragedy, it is also a rallying cry for us in the Anglosphere to use our privilege and resources to support land defenders and raise awareness of their cause. Jair Bolsonaro’s election defeat last year also hints that the tide is turning against climate-change denying populists.

Berta Cáceres. Image credit: UN Environment, Wikimedia Commons.

Final thoughts

Returning to the idea of hope, the question arises of how we can consider Indigenous relationships with their environment without appropriating histories or simplifying complex inter-species dynamics. Whilst it’s vital that actors at all scales – from us as individuals in the colonial Western academy to NGOs and the UN – stop ignoring Indigenous ontologies, simply recognising communities’ existences isn’t enough (and, as we have seen in Canada, has not worked). We also cannot overemphasise our individual commitments to sustainability, if we are to truly appreciate and understand indigeneity. So, educate yourself about different Indigenous communities around the world, as their environmental relations may be key to preventing ecological catastrophe.

About the author: Eleanor Luxton is an undergraduate geographer at the University of Oxford and a freelance journalist. She has written for organisations including SecEd, The Cherwell and The Royal Geographical Society. You can find her on Twitter @EleanorLuxton.

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