Indigenous movements and the fight against climate change

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No one feels the urgency of climate change more than Indigenous Peoples, who live in the most diverse and fragile ecosystems remaining in the world. They have become increasingly vocal and visible inside and outside the official climate negotiations.

By Ben Powless

Ben Powless is a Mohawk citizen living in Ottawa. He has just finished working on a photodocumentary on the impacts of the Alberta Tar Sands on Indigenous Peoples. He attended the past four international climate negotiations as a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Climate change: you can’t get away from it these days.

Except for a few die-hard holdouts, the scientific argument has carried the day in most places. It is now recognized as an international priority, though you wouldn’t know it from the actions of our so-called leadership. That urgency is being felt by nobody more than Indigenous Peoples, who happen to live in the most diverse and fragile ecosystems remaining in the world. In Canada, the Inuit are experiencing some of the greatest temperature changes in the whole world, disrupting a traditional culture that depends on the cold as much as the Amazon does on the rain.

However, even though Indigenous communities are heavily implicated by the effects of climate change, it hasn’t meant that they’re being involved in the design of responses to the global threat, as the principles of climate justice would dictate. Within Canada, as on the international stage, Indigenous voices have been effectively silenced, now more than ever under the Harper regime. Canada has gone on the offensive in United Nations climate negotiations in an attempt to protect the Tar Sands from international regulation, consistently being voted worst of all nations in blocking progress towards a binding climate treaty.

Divergent Perspectives 

The framing of the ailment determines the proper treatment. Here there is a vast ideological divide, with drastically different implications in terms of what needs to be done to address the reality of climate change, and in terms of who is responsible.

For the governments of Northern countries, and even most mainstream environmental organizations, this is framed as a simple matter of getting the numbers right, at the most. That is to say, climate change becomes a managerial concern, balancing the books on carbon, a modest shift to the system, if it implies doing anything at all.

For many Southern countries, climate justice groups and Indigenous movements, the issue of climate change is recognized as a symptom of our modern capitalist, colonial and undemocratic systems, and the only way to address it is through a complete overhauling of our economic and political systems.

That much is commonly known within environmental justice circles. What is not as widely known is the difference between the generic environmental justice position and the position of Indigenous movements. The positions distinct to the Indigenous movement have focused on guaranteeing Indigenous participation in climate negotiations at all levels. This is necessary to ensure that Indigenous Peoples’ rights are protected throughout — especially the collective rights to maintain a culture and the ecosystems that culture depends upon.

Indigenous Peoples bring to these processes a holistic understanding of the environment, a distrust for technological quick-fixes, and a respect for Indigenous Knowledge as a solution. This last piece is a crucial one, but one not well understood by even well-informed climate activists. And it has to do with one of the key conflicts of the climate sphere, the battle over what is considered valid science and knowledge.

Indigenous Peoples in Northern countries have long struggled to gain recognition of the legitimacy of their knowledge, also known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) among other names. Briefly, this refers to the accumulated knowledges of various Indigenous cultures as to their ecosystems, changes over time, and particularly relationships that exist in the natural world, which includes humans and spiritual relations. At the international level Indigenous knowledge has barely emerged as a concept, and is often dismissed as something akin to voodoo.

Notwithstanding the many nay-sayers in Canada, there has been more acceptance by the powers-that-be in this country because this knowledge has proven to be useful in explaining many relations not knowable or observable by Western science, thus filling in numerous gaps in Western understandings of climatic change. This has come as a result of Indigenous leaders actively pushing for the acceptance of TEK by authorities and scientists, with much push-back.

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