This Earth Day, we’re honouring the communities who’ve been protecting the planet for thousands of years.
Here’s why Indigenous people have become the greatest stewards of the environment—and why we need to listen to Indigenous voices now more than ever.
Indigenous People Protect the Planet
Indigenous people make up only about 5% of the earth’s population. But studies show that they:
- Protect 80% of the earth’s biodiversity
- Conserve at least 22% of the world’s Key Biodiversity Areas
- Conserve at least 21% of the world’s lands (approximately the size of Africa)
- Protect at least 33% of intact forest landscapes globally
The amount of land conserved by Indigenous people far exceeds that conserved by federal or other governments (14%) around the world. Not only that, but researchers have found that land managed by Indigenous people has as much or more biodiversity than land conserved by governments.
Here’s just one example. According to the 2021 Territories of Life report, Indigenous people in Latin America and the Caribbean manage anywhere between 815 and 940 million acres of forest. That forestland stores more than one-eighth of all the carbon in the world’s tropical forests and is home to a large portion of the planet’s endangered flora and fauna too. Research confirms that these Indigenous territories have lower rates of deforestation and lower risk of wildfires than those protected by the state.
Putting Their Lives on the Line
As impressive as those conservation successes are, they didn’t come easily. Government forces and extractive industries have sought for generations to steal Indigenous land and exploit their resources.
Land protectors and water defenders continue to risk their lives, quite literally, every day to preserve the land that has been their home for thousands of years.
- Wet’suwet’en land defenders in British Columbia opposing the construction of a pipeline that would run through their territory (and under major salmon-bearing rivers) have been spied on, harassed, and jailed by local and federal authorities. All five Wet’suwet’en clans are against the pipeline and the hereditary chiefs have not consented to its construction. And yet construction continues.
- In Guatemala, Maya Q’eqchi’ communities are seeking the release of their leader, Bernardo Caal Xol, who has been in jail for more than four years, despite having committed no crime. Why is he behind bars? Because he led peaceful efforts to stop a hydroelectric project built on a sacred river.
- The military and police murdered nine Tumandok people in the Philippines last year who had been protesting a mega-dam project on the Jalaur River.
Global Witness, an international watchdog group, released new data that shows increasing violence against land defenders. A record-high 227 people were killed in 2020 while trying to protect “forests, rivers, and other ecosystems.”
Protect Indigenous Sovereignty
The truth is that violence is increasing alongside an intensifying push from wealthy nations to exploit Indigenous land and resources, and very little is being done to stop any of it. Let’s be honest: Federal governments have shown that they’re incapable of treating climate change like the crisis it is, and at the same time they’ve worked to silence the very communities whose leadership is essential for finding a sustainable and just way forward.
But this is about more than just leadership. It’s about justice. Not only do Indigenous communities get little to no credit for the immense amount of work they do protecting the planet, they are routinely denied the right to determine what happens to their own land. Even worse, Indigenous communities are also far more likely than non-Indigenous communities to suffer from the impacts of industrial pollution and climate change.
The well-intentioned UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was meant to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples all over the world, but as long as Indigenous communities don’t have a seat at the decision-making table, governments and fossil-fuel companies will keep doing exactly what they’ve always done.
The Land Back Movement
The Land Back movement is an increasingly powerful counter effort to protect Indigenous communities’ right to determine what happens to their own land, water, and resources.
The movement calls, in part, for the return of stolen land to Indigenous communities, as well as a discussion between Indigenous and federal leadership to negotiate how Indigenous communities might fairly share, at long last, in the wealth that has been generated by colonial exploitation of those resources over so many generations.
The rest of the planet owes a lot to Indigenous people who have fought to preserve biodiversity and crucial habitats. Supporting Land Back is an important climate solution that puts people and the planet ahead of profits.
What an Indigenous-Led Future Could Look Like
What might a world look like with Indigenous people able to make decisions over what happens to the land that they have historically called home? How would things change if Indigenous leaders were able to have a seat at the table at all these global conferences about climate change and the environment?
Evidence shows that more respect for Indigenous leadership globally would result in policies that emphasise:
- Increased land protection and biodiversity, which are crucial to fighting food insecurity and climate change and lead to breakthroughs in medicine and technology
- Forging a way of life that fosters a better relationship with the environment
- A transition toward an economy based not on exploitation and extraction but education and green infrastructure
We Need to Prioritise Indigenous Voices and Wisdom
Indigenous communities have the knowledge to fight climate change and protect our planet, but Indigenous leadership is not being given the platform it needs in colonial institutions.
In this time of crisis, Indigenous wisdom needs to be at the forefront of change, helping to build a society that is healthier, cleaner, more just, and puts people before profits.
To make that happen, we need to make sure Indigenous voices can be heard. Take action today by demanding an end to violence against land defenders. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has a special unit dedicated to silencing Indigenous activists.
Sign the petition to Disband the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) today!