Studies have shown that Indigenous efforts have been indispensable in deterring environmental degradation. But experts say Indigenous Peoples are still silenced
In the wake of the United Nations 2021 climate summit, COP26, lobbying groups and advocates say that centring Indigenous communities is instrumental in remedying the environmental crisis.
A recent report, jointly published by Oil Change International and the Indigenous Environmental Network, reveals that Indigenous resistance stopped or delayed at least 25 per cent of the United States and Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s equivalent to approximately 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide or to the pollution produced by 400 coal-fired power plants.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said IEN organizer Dallas Goldtooth in the report’s news release.
“Indigenous peoples have long led the fight to protect Mother Earth and the only way forward is to center Indigenous knowledge and keep fossil fuels in the ground.”
The report highlights key resistance victories such as the June 2021 cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline which was set to transport some 800,000 barrels of oil per day.
Despite these findings, experts say Indigenous communities remain structurally excluded from conversations on climate justice.
“White settlers and colonial institutions are invested in maintaining power and control,” said Sarah Rotz, an assistant professor at York University whose research explores the intersection of climate change and Indigenous justice movements.
“But when lands and ecological systems that are managed by Indigenous folks have higher biodiversity, higher soil health, a greater diversity of pollinators—we know that we need to give that stolen land back to its caretakers.”
Landback is a social movement that seeks to return unceded territory to the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples. Rotz defines the movement as a process that works to address and dismantle the damages of white supremacist and capitalistic systems, including environmental deterioration.
She notes that because Indigenous teachings see land less as a commodity and more as a dynamic, living entity, restoring Indigenous Nations’ sovereignty will build more humane connections with our surrounding ecosystems.
But until then, Indigenous communities are forced to bear the brunt of the crisis.
In a brief published by Yellowhead Institute, X University’s Indigenous-led research centre, Indigenous rights activist Eriel Tchekwie Deranger details the disproportionate impact that environmental degradation has on Indigenous nations and ecology.
This includes an increase in flooding, annual forest fires and food insecurity as well as a worsening housing crisis that further dispossesses Indigenous communities of their homes and land.
“By excluding Indigenous Peoples, our realities and needs within climate policies, Canada simply reproduces the inequality we end up paying for with our lives,” said Deranger.
For Rotz, the solution lies in envisioning and eventually implementing a system where Indigenous-led climate resolutions are the standard. But this means settlers and colonial institutions will have to do the work.
“We have to have collective conversations that are grounded in an anti-colonial approach. We have to discontinue our behaviours and move ourselves away from practices that advance colonial mentalities which see Indigenous Peoples and land as things to control.”
Want to learn more?
Check out this graphic by Nathaniel Lawlor.