Indigenous Climate Activism: the frontlines in the war against the climate crisis

When we think of the term ‘climate activist,’ who do we think of first? Perhaps Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough, or the faces of Just Stop Oil activists. These people and groups steal headlines in the West as those who are fighting the imminent threat of the climate crisis. But largely these people and their communities are relatively safe, living where they do in the Global North, from the severe impacts of the climate crisis experienced by communities in the Global South. Many Indigenous climate activists are involved in activism because they have no choice. In real time, they are facing the loss of their homes, their environments, their livelihoods.

Many Indigenous communities in the Global South, in areas such as South America, Central Africa and Indonesia, have been experiencing the direct impacts of climate change for years now. Living as many communities do, in close relation with natural resources and environment, climate-changed temperatures and rainfall levels can and do have devastating impacts on communities. Indigenous communities and individuals have long been at the frontlines of climate activism: their work plays a vital role in the fight against the climate crisis.

For example, the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities unites Indigenous peoples and communities in the Americas, Indonesia and Africa. The Alliance’s five main priorities include focus on land rights, climate funding and the recognition of traditional knowledge in the fight to defend the planet. Collectively, the members of the Alliance work to protect and preserve over 3.5 million square miles of land globally. The communities involved in this crucial work seek to preserve their environments, and in doing so protect their very way of life.

Aissatou Oumarou, an activist from Chad and part of the Network of Indigenous and Local Populations for the Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa has first-hand experience of the devastating new conditions of a climate-changed world, and advocates for the role of Indigenous knowledge systems:

“We have no more land to put our animals, to grow our medicinal plants. We want our trees back. We want to give our children our own medicine. We are part of the solution. We have our local knowledge, and we have ancestral knowledge. Give us a chance to bring our knowledge to the table.”

Indigenous communities and peoples have access to vital and unique knowledge systems which provide an intimate relationship with the natural world that is often lacking in the Global North. Such knowledge systems are and will be essential in the fight to mitigate the climate crisis, but have long been ignored and overlooked by the Global North. Recently four US activists were forced to leave Cop27 after interrupting Biden during a speech on 25th November. Big Wind, 29, an Indigenous conservation associate for Wyoming Outdoor Council, and a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, expressed his frustration at the silencing of Indigenous voices: ‘This is a clear example of radical Indigenous people and youth being silenced, we’re muted when we try to express our frustration in these spaces. It shows the UN’s true colours.’

Anticipating such silencing of Indigenous voices by world authorities, hundreds of activists from African and Middle Eastern countries met in Tunisia ahead of Cop27, to prepare their proposals of adaptation funding and recompense for damage. Maria Reyes, 20, from Mexico, was one activist who attended the gathering after her negative experience at Cop26, at which she lost faith in the ability of the conferences to achieve meaningful progress, instead realising the fundamental importance of grassroots and indigenous communities as the real resistance to climate change.

However, the EU’s agreement to a loss and damage fund at Cop27 perhaps marks some progress in recognising the extent to which countries in the Global South are heavily and increasingly affected by the climate impacts which have been caused primarily by the industrial activities of the Global North. The fund should ensure that reparations for loss and damage will be provided to those countries worst affected by extreme weather conditions, to support their physical and social infrastructure. However, some negotiators were sceptical as to how helpful this fund will really be, with one saying: “Of course, it’s not a breakthrough. [The EU] are merely repeating its original negotiating position by making it sound like a compromise when they know very well that it is not. It is completely disingenuous.”

Despite doubts as to progress, Indigenous climate activists do seem to be gaining a little more of the recognition they deserve in recent years. For example, recently the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network have been awarded the £1m Earthshot prize for their work in protecting the Great Barrier Reef. The prize committee described their work as ‘an inspiring women-led program’ which combines 60,000 years of First Nations knowledge with digital technologies to protect the endangered Great Barrier Reef. The growth of such programs and the funding given to them hopefully marks a shift in recognition of the essential role which Indigenous knowledge systems have to play in climate activism.

João Víctor Gomes de Oliveira, part of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, maintains hope for change:

“We hope that society as a whole can rethink its attitudes. Simple, everyday acts can go a long way. Rethink your rampant consumption. Rethink this capitalist way of living — relentless development. We want this philosophy of life to become part of everyday habits.”

Image: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

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