Indigenous people make up 5% of the world’s population and within the lands they live on responsibly protect 80% of the earth’s biodiversity. The term “indigenous” is a generic term, used in various contexts, in various parts of the world among linguistically and culturally diverse communities. These communities are also referred to as first peoples, first nations, adivasis, janajati, tribes, nomads, aboriginals, ethnic groups, hill-people, hunter-gatherers etc. What is common to all these communities is that they possess a deep spiritual and ancestral connection to the land and waterbodies and live in harmony with nature. Overtime these communities have become repositories of valuable cultural knowledge, with a deep understanding of the flora and fauna around them. They also have developed methodologies for conserving water, regenerating forests, reviving soil, and have developed holistic healing systems with their keen understanding of plant life. Indigenous women in particular have long been the caretakers, guardians, and transmitters of the knowledge to future generations.
Over centuries, indigenous people have evolved and adapted to their natural surroundings, and its protection is largely about their own survival. The lands occupied by indigenous communities are rich in biodiversity and natural resources, and in present day those lands have a high commercial value. These communities have faced powerful political, economic, and private interests that seek to extract these resources for profit, often flouting existing laws and using the tools of the state — police, armies, and paramilitaries — to gain an upper edge. Land disputes, displacement, protests, and conflicts are common. Some high profile protests that have received extensive press coverage and have managed to protect indigenous lands from extractive industries. However, this is not true for the innumerable instances that pit indigenous people against money, power, influence, and government intervention on their lands. Writers, journalists, and activists from the indigenous communities have been targeted and have lost their lives in these conflicts.
The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes, protects, and promotes land rights as well as the well-being, survival, and dignity of indigenous people. Governments and policy makers often do not recognize or respect these rights and consequently have underinvested in these communities. Rising rates of poverty have forced indigenous people into towns and cities to make a living. Still other governments have colluded with private companies, extractive industries, cattle ranchers, and agribusinesses, allowing encroachment on ancestral lands, all in the name of economic development and job creation. This has created unprecedented pressure on indigenous people and the lands that they steward and protect. Unregulated extractive industries like mining, logging, fracking, and agribusinesses are contributing to increased deforestation, pollution of the air and waterways, with little thought to preserving and regenerating natural resources for future generations. As more and more land is cleared of trees and forests, the loss of flora and fauna can be permanent. The most serious impact of the loss of these forests is our diminished capacity to mitigate climate change.
The impact of climate change is hard to ignore. Sea levels are rising, glaciers are shrinking, and average global temperatures are rising. Overwhelming scientific evidence points to two facts. First, human activities contribute to the release of greenhouse gases that leads to global temperature rise. Second, climate change impacts human life, human societies, and our ecosystems in dramatic ways. Shifting weather patterns impact our livelihoods, food security, water security, and the delicate balance of life on earth. Floods, heat waves, and other severe weather patterns cause vast damage to our infrastructure, disrupt economic activity, and is expensive to society. Adopting activities that mitigate climate change thus makes infinite sense.
All forests, trees, and vegetation have a cooling impact on the earth’s temperature and help to preserve and sustain healthy ecosystems. The benefits are cumulative. First, trees and vegetation function as carbon sinks, trapping carbon dioxide that slows down global warming. Second, this normal process of photosynthesis also releases life sustaining oxygen into the air. Third, trees release water vapor into the air, creating a protective cloud cover from the intense rays of the sun. Tropical forests in particular do all of this on a much larger scale, and the condensation of the cloud cover brings rainfall and prevents droughts. As large tracts of trees and other vegetation are cut down, more and more carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Loss of trees and vegetation add to soil erosion, desertification, flooding, and habitat loss for various species.
These are significant challenges for the present generation and in particular for future generations. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nations Member states in 2015. It laid out a blueprint in its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for global peace and prosperity, equity, and the recognition of human rights. The 17 goals tackle a number of deprivations like hunger, poverty, water insecurity, and food insecurity. Tackling climate change is woven in through all 17 goals. If the world community makes significant progress on the targets of the 2030 Agenda, indigenous communities would benefit tremendously. Goal 15 of the 2030 Agenda specifically targets the protection of forests, restoring ecosystems, and reversing desertification, land degradation, and biodiversity loss. Vigilance and targeted efforts are required to maintain the gains we have made on the SDGs to date. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that the degradation of ecosystems has huge consequences for humanity, our well-being, and our survival. There is more to be done, and everyone has a role to play.
Civil society groups play an important role as they work closely with indigenous communities on the 2030 Agenda. Here are some examples: Health in Harmony (Health in Harmony) has been listening to rainforest communities in Indonesia, Brazil, and Madagascar and has developed programs to reduce carbon emissions, protect rainforests, and provide holistic health care and sustainable income generating activities. Women’s Earth Alliance (Women’s Earth Alliance) catalyzes grassroots women-led efforts to protect the environment and build healthy and safe communities. The Pachamama Alliance (The Pachamama Alliance) is deeply imbedded within the Amazonian rainforest, working with indigenous allies to protect their lands and educate and engage the world community to partner with them. The Nashulai Maasai Conservancy (Nashulai Maasai Conservancy), the first-ever community-owned and directed wildlife conservancy, works to conserve wildlife, conserve culture, and reduce poverty on the Maasai Mara in East Africa.
The paths we collectively choose and the choices we make now to mitigate climate change will impact life on earth in the future. Polls indicate that most people across the world believe that climate change is real and that human activities contribute to global warming. This widespread agreement across ordinary citizens, activists, and civil society groups should propel governments and those in power to create laws and policy that seriously address climate change. Funding collectives should invest and fund these long-term initiatives. Through improved deliberate education and conscious awareness campaigns, we can build a consensus and agree that protecting forests, biodiversity, and fragile ecosystems is absolutely essential, and all of us have a stake in making it happen without delay. These may well be the important steps towards achieving social justice for indigenous communities, and protecting their way of life, their cultural knowledge, and their efforts to safeguard their ancestral lands and forests.
Image: Maria Kassabian / Internet