Going Indigenous: A Choice for the Planet

An indigenous woman protests at the U.N. climate change summit in Egypt, 2022. (Photo: Getty)

Extreme climate change continues to wreak havoc across the Earth, from crumbling coastlines to deadly droughts to killer hurricanes to flash floods to out-of-control wildfires, and beyond. The signs of a planet in distress are there for all to see. But no one feels the effects of climate disasters more than the 370 million indigenous peoples from nearly a hundred countries in all regions of the world. They have literally been sounding the emergency alarm bells about climate disasters for decades now and have mostly been ignored by the rest of us.

But make no mistake: What happens to indigenous tribal nations happens to all of humanity eventually, since we are all interconnected as inhabitants of the same home. Dealing with the undeniable human causes behind an overheating Earth is the most important issue we all face in this lifetime, bar none. Either humans survive climate change or we perish, along with most other species in the coming decades. It is that simple. The only choice left for us now? Going indigenous.

This means we heed the voices of indigenous peoples as we confront climate change together and include the indigenous knowledge gleaned since time immemorial — stewardship of the land and deep respect for the natural world, among them — as viable solutions for the crisis at hand. This means putting indigenous solutions front and center, not buried in the background, alongside science in changing the course of climate change right now. And it means a change in individual thinking by each one of us, as we accept the indigenous worldview as part of our own.

And yet, the gears grind so slowly. The official tradition of ignorance, neglect and lack of real, substantive action on climate change was on full display at the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022. As the first U.N. climate change conference to be held on African soil in six years, COP27 did little to help even those African indigenous peoples who have been facing some of the worst effects of worldwide climate disasters, let alone other First Nations peoples and the globe as a whole.

Indigenous tribal nations the world over have been demanding for years that they be part of these high-level U.N. talks over climate change. During the two-week-long COP27 session in Egypt, indigenous representatives rose to the challenge by showing up in reportedly record numbers to set up their own “indigenous people’s pavilion” at the U.N. event and getting their message out to the world. There were more than 300 participants alone in the Indigenous Peoples Caucus at COP27, and many more among the individual country delegations attending the event.

The indigenous attendees were vastly outnumbered at COP27, however, by lobbyists for the petroleum industry and other corporate polluters who have deep enough pockets to make their voices heard too. More than 600 participants linked to the oil and gas industry were everywhere to be found at COP27; many of them were part of trade teams and country delegations. Observers noted that the crammed pavilions at COP27 resembled more of a fossil fuel trade fair than a global gathering to urgently try and save the planet.

At the end of the day, this corporate/industry influence won out and was shamefully reflected in the text of the U.N. event’s final implementation plan. The indigenous voices had once again lost out. The 190 countries that were negotiating at COP27 in Egypt failed to agree on strong enough language that would phase out fossil fuels altogether or to uphold the rights of indigenous peoples everywhere.

Marisol García Apagueño, representing the indigenous Kichwa people of Peru at COP27, summed up the problem well. “The indigenous men and women who participated in COP27 are not really decision makers, we are only simple observers, yet we are the ones who have the ancestral wisdom to stop this climate crisis,” she said. “We are the ones who know the real nature-based solutions because it is our philosophy of life. However, today pollution is legalized under the name of ‘nature-based solutions’, where companies can buy carbon credits in the Amazon without assuming their real responsibilities. These are false climate solutions and will lead to the imminent death of all living beings. Our historical struggle is not only to guarantee the survival of indigenous peoples but of all of humanity, and today the owners of the economy decide who lives and who does not.”

One token measure toward climate justice was agreed upon at COP27 in the form of a newly created “loss and damage fund”. This will be a pooled fund for nations most adversely affected by climate-related disasters to receive reparations of sorts from the wealthier polluting countries. It was hailed as a major breakthrough. But this was about the only thing that COP27 really achieved at this critical juncture.

In many ways, in fact, COP27 symbolized a big step backward in the international fight against climate change: In deference to the corporate/industry influence at COP27, the final text included a clear reversal on the language dealing with fossil fuels. The text now includes a reference to “low emission and renewable energy” — a major loophole allowing for the possible development of further gas resources, since gas produces less emissions than coal.

The goal, at least as many countries agreed upon at the U.N. climate change conference in Paris in 2015, has been to limit the rise in mean global temperature to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial levels, which could greatly reduce the effects of climate change. The alternative for the planet, if global warming is not gotten under control, is runaway climate disasters — a series of falling dominos that would be unstoppable by human ingenuity once the balance had tipped to the extreme side. The stakes today for stopping that nightmare scenario from happening are very high, to put it mildly. And yet, COP27 did next to nothing to get the world closer to that goal.

Next stop in 2023: The COP28 United Nations climate change conference next year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a major oil- and natural gas-producing nation in the Middle East. It seems the writing is on the wall for fighting climate change in the next few years, at least. The polluting industries and wealthier nations will be deciding just how far we can go in trying to save the planet from the ravages of human-caused extreme climate disasters and in charting a much more environmentally clean path for the future. So much for the evolutionary genius of homo sapiens.

One thing is abundantly clear now. Science and technology, spurring on the age of human industrialization, have brought us to the precipice we stand at today. Science alone cannot and will not solve the global climate crisis now. It is far too late in the game for that. Our last real choice today is to turn to indigenous knowledge for the answers, and to support science and indigenous knowledge working hand in hand to get things urgently turned around.

“Traditional knowledge for us is certainly about how we can survive the odds in harsh environments, the wisdom of all of that has sustained us for millennia,” according to Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an indigenous Inuk activist and author in Canada. “What we’re trying to teach is that traditional knowledge is not just for indigenous people, it’s for everybody… All you have to do, really, is start to respect and understand traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and you will see there will be a groundswell of new creative and innovative ways and means in which to address these challenges that we face today in the world.”

We go indigenous, then. We stand on the side of First Nations communities around the planet, and we take them up on their clarion call to take drastic action before global warming tips over to the point of no return. More than that, we learn from time-tested indigenous knowledge on practical ways to respect and care for the natural world like it was our own family, which in many ways it is. In the process, we relearn what being human truly means in a myriad of positive, life-affirming ways. We can do nothing less for ourselves, and for all life on the planet, in the coming critical years.

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