While governments the world over are intensifying their fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, an often-neglected, if not repressed, demographic is suddenly entering the limelight: indigenous populations. As researchers are trying to establish under which circumstances Covid-19 transcended the species barrier to devastating effect, the indigenous people of Brazil have been sounding the alarm bells over the global environmental crisis – which they believe is behind the current pandemic.
Indigenous leaders have long sought to make the world pay attention to the link between the depletion of the natural environment and the rise of diseases. According to Levi Sucre Romero, from Costa Rica’s BriBri indigenous group, “The coronavirus is telling the world what Indigenous Peoples have been saying for thousands of years — if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this and even worse threats.”
Small steps forward
For too long, this connection has been ignored – as have native peoples’ unique insights into how to protect the environment. Indeed, scant attention has been paid to the extremely important linkage between the land and its native inhabitants itself, which carries many fundamental implications for environmental wellbeing and biodiversity. Only in 1992, with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, was the role of indigenous tribes in environmental protection explicitly recognized for the first time.
Importantly, the Summit established protections for “indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional knowledge and practices in the area of environmental management and conservation” – a complementary approach to the West’s more scientifically-driven approach. Even so, governments have yet to widely apply native populations’ knowledge—a testimony to the fact that environmental conservation efforts remain all too often rhetorical, without heeding native groups’ advice.
This is undoubtedly a fatal mistake. A 2019 report found that millions of species face extinction, but that this decline in biodiversity is less pronounced on indigenous peoples’ lands, indicating that these communities are more effectively managing natural resources as well as species decline and pollution. Earlier studies have come to similar conclusions, highlighting the need to partner with indigenous groups and arguing that granting them legal ownership of their native lands is an obvious solution to mitigate climate change and successfully conserve rainforests.
Most governments around the world have failed to heed this advice, however. Instead, examples abound where the rights of indigenous groups have been trampled underfoot and their native lands exploited and polluted. Just take the plight of Nova Scotia’s Pictou Landing First Nation, which has been locked in a years-long battle against the dumping of toxic effluent into Boat Harbour by the Northern Pulp paper mill.
A recent Netflix documentary directed by Hollywood actress Ellen Page, There’s Something in the Water, has drawn the issue into the wider public conscious by revealing how local government and company officials have continually dismissed the First Nation’s worries about pollution, environmental destruction and demands to clean up the ecosystem. Northern Pulp and its owners, paper giant Paper Excellence, have an established history of hiding the true environmental impact of its operations. The provincial government finally ordered to shut the mill down in January this year after the company failed to clean up its effluents.
With the majority of the mill’s wastewater now no longer released into the harbor, the environment is slowly recovering. The transformation is remarkable, with Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul posting a video showing the estuary’s water to be clean rather than foamy and dark.
However, the fight is far from won: on Good Friday, Northern Pulp/Paper Excellence issued a surprise press release, stating it was preparing to invest into the modernization of the mill, while demanding independent “experts” review the mill’s environmental impact – a move slammed by Canadian author Joan Baxter as corporate bullying of the government.
Sparks of hope
The Boat Harbour case is just one widely-covered example of the struggles of indigenous groups around the world against the corporations and governments that have blatantly ignored their land rights at the expense of the environment. The Pictou Landing First Nation’s battle to restore their lagoon to health may be ongoing, but elsewhere there are some tentative signs of encouragement. Indeed, as climate change and environmental degradation have become issues of widespread popular concern, some countries have begun to expand indigenous people’s role in fighting these scourges.
The Australian government, for example, expanded its Indigenous Protected Areas program to five new areas in 2018. The program leaves these areas’ management to the aboriginals, allowing them to apply their knowledge about nature to preserve and protect the ecosystems. It is one of the greatest environmental conservation partnerships in the world, and Australia now counts 10,000 protected areas that cover almost 17 percent of its landmass.
In the Earth’s green lung, the Amazon, indigenous populations are also asked for help in preserving the lush rain forest facing a dual threat of climate change and industrial deforestation. NGOs like the Nature Conservancy have formed strong partnerships with local communities over many years providing them with the resources to design and implement measures to protect vital resources. Such partnerships have produced notable successes. But under Brazil’s president Bolsonaro, support for such cooperation – and environmental protection in general – has notably waned, locking the Apurina and Aruak Baniwa communities, among others, in a long-winded fight with the government
Linking the environment and indigenous populations
It is clear that conventional policy approaches can learn a lot from the way indigenous populations the world over are managing the environment – if we let them. The majority of legal advancements for indigenous peoples have focused on protecting their culture, dismissing the fact that their native lands, and their interactions with them, form an integral part of their cultural identity.
In that sense, indigenous rights are essentially active conservation measures. An expansion of cooperation between countries and native groups is therefore the low-hanging fruit that could revolutionize the way climate and environmental policy is being made.
Image credit: Pxfuel
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