Award-winning author, Indigenous peoples' ally and National Geographic Explorer, Gleb Raygorodetsky on the inextricable links between Indigenous cultures and their lands, and how they can form the foundation for climate change resilience around the world.
The challenges for Indigenous peoples are similar to everybody else. The status quo is no longer tenable and the way of life they have maintained for centuries and millennia is slipping away for various reasons. Climate change is amplifying the impacts on their lives. It is an outcome of a misguided global relationship with our planet, but although Indigenous peoples are the ones who have contributed to that change the least, they are living with the consequences the most.
On top of everything else – resettlement, disenfranchisement, lack of recognition of their rights, individual and collective systemic racism – climate change is another factor that increases the sense of uncertainty about their future.
We have to remember that 80% of the planet’s biodiversity is on, or adjacent to, Indigenous territories. They still maintain considerable control over or have historical relationships with areas where most carbon is still contained in carbon sinks. They maintain control of over 20% of the world’s land surface, yet they’re the most disenfranchised people on the planet. Any minority is unlikely to be represented within decision-making bodies. They don’t have a voice in local, regional, national or international policy and decision-making institutions. Recently, this has been gradually improving, but for the most part, Indigenous peoples have to deal with the consequences of somebody else’s decisions. This includes decisions that are seemingly progressive or positive.
For instance, somebody may decide that a biodiversity hotspot needs to be set up as a park and protected, and therefore tell the people who have maintained that biodiversity for centuries that they suddenly have to do things entirely differently. Somebody is making those decisions without their consent. Larger, national or private development projects are even more invasive, where Indigenous peoples are not the ones who influence decisions but have to live with those decisions at the local level.
Indigenous peoples’ representation is gradually increasing. One area is in northern Australia, regarding traditional fire management. It’s being recognised as an important contribution to controlling wildfires, preventing emissions, enhancing biodiversity and rewilding vast landscapes in northern Australia. This is slowly being recognised by the Government of Australia and internationally.
Settler attention is often drawn to the areas with the highest biodiversity or those with keystone species. Whether that’s American bison, sea turtles, coral reefs, or caribou. But the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their land is not based on numbers and amount. It’s based on mutual respect with all their relations.
Take the totem pole, for instance. Westerners often construe it as a hierarchical ladder, with the lower animal crests representing the lower species and the eagle or wolf at the top representing the highest. That’s not the case. All those animal crests are interdependent and support each other. More often than not it is the lowest that supports the rest of the totem pole. All those beings are fundamental to the well-being of each other, and Indigenous peoples understand that.
We tend to look for a magic pill or a silver bullet. We finally recognise that we are in deep trouble, need help, and don’t have all the answers. We then see those neglected, poor, disenfranchised Indigenous peoples who have the solutions. We think, let’s go over to them and say we’re finally interested in you so give us some of your Indigenous knowledge so we can “integrate” it into our decision-making. Whether it’s the conservation or climate adaptation community, that’s the tendency when seeking solutions that make us feel that we’re doing a good thing by being interested and open to listening.
The reality is that Indigenous knowledge is not just information. It involves ways of being, doing, and seeing the world as a whole. You cannot just “extract”, “mobilise”, “capture,” or “use” that Indigenous knowledge, forcing a match with the dominant paradigm and worldview. You have to create a way to make a space where Indigenous peoples are empowered and on the same equitable footing. Not just sit at the table and contribute to a process that hasn’t been designed by them and where they don’t have ultimate decision-making. But a space where we can create systems where Indigenous peoples are equal or more empowered than the rest of us. They are the ones with the generational track record of how to do things in a less detrimental way to the planet's well-being, unlike us, whose actions got us here in the first place.
One example is that we don’t have decision-making institutions that are generational. Our decision-making is short-term, focused on elections or usually fiscal cycles. That timeframe leads to a patchy, band-aid-like approach that doesn’t solve anything. But there are traditional institutions where their role is generational. Where everything and anything that you do is guided by the implications it has on future generations. That’s not only generations of your descendants but of all living beings that your future descendants depend on.
There are examples where we are moving in the right direction. But there is a lot of work to be done, especially when their fundamental issues of disempowerment, equity, lack of rights, lack of consent, and the right to say "no" are still not addressed.
An ethical space without prejudice or judgement or thinking that your knowledge or worldview is somehow superior to the other
In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there is a growing recognition of guardianship and Indigenous traditional owners. They are experts and understand the landscape and how to maintain a healthy relationship with it far better than we do. That they know how to maintain both the landscape and the local community, Rewilding is another area where Indigenous expertise is critical. That is being pioneered in northern Europe with the rebuilding of wetlands and areas commercially developed through forestry, mining and extractive industries. There are examples across North America of the repatriation of American bison to vast landscapes. All these examples of where we are trying to bring back that relationship with [nature] hinges on the guidance of Indigenous peoples.
One of the areas we’ve been working on over the last couple of years is the idea that to navigate the current converging crisis, we need the best knowledge, and we need to make decisions based on that knowledge. That includes not just science but Indigenous knowledge in the deepest and broadest sense. To do so, we need to create the right process and space so then different interests and groups can come together and arrive at some common understanding without judging one another. That’s not easy. It’s rarely practised, and there are few examples of it working well.
When we come together, we tend to be positional. It’s more about negotiation than collaboration or co-creation. When you negotiate, you’re always uninterested in giving in to the other side. It, therefore, requires a totally different mindset to enable that dialogue and process to work.
We’re only in the early stages of learning how to do that right. It requires a lot of work and dedication, and patience. The main work that needs to be done is not by Indigenous partners but by scientists and decision-makers to enter that space of respectful dialogue. An ethical space without prejudice or judgement or thinking that your knowledge or worldview is somehow superior to the other.
It is being well equipped to set aside all of that and be open to discovering something new, even if there is no apparent congruence between scientific and Indigenous ways of knowing. It doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong. It only means there is a space of possibility to explore and work together and arrive at a better understanding.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 24th June 2020