Why indigenous communities may hold the key to fighting the global climate crisis

By Lewis Pyke

“We’re fighting for soil, land, food, trees, water, birds. We’re fighting for life.” These were the words of Gregorio Mirabal, indigenous leader and member of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) during the 2019 Global Landscapes Forum in the German city of Bonn. These words are symbolic of the global fight of indigenous communities to protect our natural landscapes amid the ongoing climate crisis. Indigenous people account for around 5% of the global population and their territories contain around 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Their constant interaction with and knowledge of the natural world makes indigenous communities vital  in the bid to effectively combat climate change. However, unless their continued marginalisation is addressed by national governments, it will likely result in a missed opportunity in our fight against the climate crisis.

An indigenous woman working in agriculture in Ecuador. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Discrimination against indigenous people increases their vulnerability to the climate crisis

While the term ‘indigenous’ is difficult to define, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines “such peoples indigenous whose ancestors have lived in the area before the settlement or formation of the modern state borders”. Article 8 of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People proclaims that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture”.  Yet, despite this declaration, indigenous communities continue to be some of the most discriminated against and marginalised worldwide. In the Congo Rainforest, rangers supported by the World Wildlife Fund have been accused of violent abuses against the Baka people in the name of ‘conservation’. While in Brazil, The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), a state organ supposed to promote policies that protect the culture and territories of indigenous peoples, is being dismantled by President Jair Bolsonaro, placing indigenous lands at greater risk from mining and logging exploitation.

The continued marginalisation of indigenous peoples makes them particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change. For example, throughout the last summer, the USA’s West Coast was ravaged by wildfires, which scientists say have become more frequent due to climate change. The wildfires have disproportionately impacted indigenous communities by burning through their sacred lands, as well as exposing indigenous migrant farm workers to the toxic air quality caused by wildfire smoke. Ultimately, an increase in extreme weather occurrences and natural resource depletion, which have accompanied climate change, have the greatest impact on rural and peripheral regions that indigenous communities tend to inhabit, making them especially vulnerable to these impacts.

Indigenous communities have a special, unique relationship with their natural environment

Over millennia, indigenous communities have developed complex reciprocal relationships with the natural world through a range of traditional land and agricultural practices.  Indigenous farming methods include regenerative agricultural practices such as ‘cultural burning’, which involves creating periodic low-intensity fires to reduce fuel levels in the forest, whilst also allowing the land to regenerate. Throughout North America, indigenous people grow the ‘Three Sisters’, a sophisticated practice which combines corn, beans and squash to create a polyculture that feeds and protects the soil and controls pests. Indigenous communities also grow a diverse range of native crops such as quinoa, oca and amaranth, which are more resilient to climate change than staple crops like maize, rice and wheat. Moreover, the Aymaran indigenous peoples of Bolivia have developed a sophisticated system of rainwater harvesting by way of constructing small dams, known locally as qhuthañas. The climate crisis has undoubtedly contributed to an increasing occurrence of drought, which means that strategies to preserve water, such as those adopted by the Aymarans, are likely to become increasingly important in mitigating its impacts.  Yet, continuing to see indigenous customs and practices as ‘backwards’ is symptomatic of the dangerous continued legacy of European colonialism. We need to address this by learning from indigenous relationships with the natural world and how we can harness these to better understand how to solve the climate crisis.

Participants in the first ever Indigenous Peoples March protest in Washington, DC in January 2019. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The 2019 Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report recognising that strengthening indigenous rights is a critical solution to the climate crisis is certainly a step in the right direction. In 2017, the Canadian government also pledged $25 million to support an Indigenous Guardians Pilot, providing indigenous people with greater autonomy over their traditional lands. This represents a positive step forward, with a national government harnessing indigenous knowledge to better adapt to the climate crisis.  However, a global embracement of indigenous knowledge and practices as a solution in combatting the climate crisis is needed. Indigenous communities must be given a global platform, so that their sustainable land and agricultural practices can be properly integrated into adaptation methods against climate change. To ignore indigenous knowledge risks significantly hindering the fight against the climate crisis. As Kaitlin Grable has proclaimed, “mother earth does not have a human voice, therefore we have the ability to use our voices to call to her needs when she gives us warning and needs our help.”

Lewis is a BA History graduate and current MA Global Development student at the University of Leeds with an interest in indigenous land rights and the climate crisis.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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