Indigenous communities are the frontline protectors of the planet, yet their cautionary advice has been drowned out by fossil fuel and oil companies that continue to benefit from exploiting Earth’s resources.
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For the first time in history, with the appointment of Deb Haaland as the Secretary of the Interior, the protection of natural lands in the United States falls under the leadership of an Indigenous woman native to the lands she is called to defend. While this momentous selection had been supported by diverse groups from across the country, it begged the question: What took so long for Americans to recognize the importance of Native perspectives in protecting the land?
Indigenous people make up less than 5 percent of our world’s population, yet they serve as the frontline defenders of the Earth’s biodiversity. These communities manage and/or sit on roughly 80 percent of the ecosystems necessary to maintain and protect balance on our planet. Despite colonization, discrimination, and displacement, Indigenous people around the world have remained deeply tied to their native lands. They are the first to notice and experience the ecology chaos that occurs when forests are cleared, pipelines are installed, or waterways are contaminated, and they’ve served steady warnings of what will happen if we do not protect Earth’s natural resources.
As science and data continue to forewarn of a climate crisis already underway, experts are finally beginning to look to the First Lands people for wisdom and insight on protecting our planet. And it’s no surprise that Indigenous women leaders are the voices that continue to rise to the top. The role of women and two-spirit individuals in Indigenous communities is a special one: They are honorable child bearers, and among many tribes, they yield additional responsibility as the governors and stewards of waterways. Still, as our energy demands and over-consumption grow, their cautionary advice has been drowned out by fossil fuel and oil companies that continue to cause harm. Even more frightening is the fact that Indigenous women have been subjected to racial discrimination, historic violence, and disparate treatment while acting as land defenders, yet they keep standing. Had we heeded the wisdom of the “First Mothers” from the beginning, maybe we wouldn’t be experiencing such extreme climate crisis effects, such as burning forest, dwindling water supply, and rapidly changing weather. Maybe, just maybe, if we follow their leadership now, if we listen to and assist in their mission, we can prevent further damage and learn to live in balance with our environment.
Leading Indigenous activist and 2020 Goldman Prize winner Nemonte Nenquimo knows this firsthand. She is a member of Ecuadorian Waorani Tribe—a people who lived in isolation from the rest of the known world until 1958. Since that time, their lands and territories have been impacted by logging and oil extraction, in addition to the ravages of climate change.
Recognizing the irrevocable trauma taking place in her community, Nemonte led a campaign that resulted in victorious legal action and protected over 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest. “As Indigenous peoples, we have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years,” she says. “Our forest is our market, our pharmacy, and home to many important spirits. She gives everything to us: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning. This deep connection, relationship, and knowledge of the forest may be difficult to see and understand for people in the outside world.”
While Nemonte’s leadership garnered global attention, her generational thinking and commitment to the future of the planet led her to do more. She donated the Goldman Prize money, totaling $200,000, in an effort to double the investment and encourage others to help protect the rivers and forests of the Amazon. “Our ancestral knowledge as Indigenous peoples has enormous value for the rest of the world—but it is under grave threat and quickly disappearing. When this wisdom is lost, humanity becomes weaker, and nature is destroyed even faster,” she says.
While Nemonte pushes for protection of the Amazon and recognition of Indigenous rights in Ecuador, activist Tara Houska spent the first week of May protesting the expansion of the Line 3 pipeline through Indigenous territory in Minnesota and bringing awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women across America. A member of Couchiching First Nation people, Houska is a tribal attorney and founder of Giniw Collective, an organization dedicated to leading frontline resistance to protect Earth, defend the sacred, and live in balance. She’s put herself on the frontlines of blockades to protect ancestral lands while pushing the state and federal government for stronger protection of natural resources. The fight against Line 3 is the very definition of environmental injustice, with untouched Indigenous lands as the target; building this pipeline would cause irreversible harm to cultural wild rice and waterways used by native people. Houska described the experience of being a Native woman working to protect the most sacred elements of her people and of the Earth before the House Committee on Oversight in April of this year. “We are surveilled. We are harassed. We are targeted,” she said. “I myself was put into a kennel, strip-searched, and shackled for misdemeanor charges brought for praying in a sacred lodge directly in the pipeline’s path.”
If even threats of violence will not stop the advocacy of Indigenous women, the greater population must see the urgency of supporting these causes. Justin Winters, co-founder and executive director of One Earth, is one of those allies that deeply listens and heeds their voices. During a 2014 visit to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, she saw, in real time, the devastation of fossil fuel extraction to Indigenous communities. “At least 50% of the world’s lands and oceans must be protected if we are to solve the climate crisis and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and Indigenous people live on the majority of that space,” she notes. “But who is protecting the protector? How can they defend what we collectively need if they are sick and dying along with the Earth?”
Our ability to listen, learn, and follow the direction of Indigenous women can be the key to surviving the climate crisis. Fortunately, some progress has been made. One of the first acts of the Department of the Interior under Haaland was to establish the Murdered and Missing Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to address the historic violence and assault experienced by Indigenous women. In April, Moms Clean Air Force launched a new partnership and report with the National Tribal Air Association to bring attention and resources to the issue of air pollution impacts to tribal communities. And Winters has focused her organization efforts on local investment, such as water catchment systems to build access to clean water.
But, as Winters notes, there’s so much more to be done. “Less than 2 percent of all philanthropy goes to climate and environment. Then less than a quarter of that goes to local on the ground groups, and less than 2 percent of that goes to groups led by women,” she explains. We must shift to helping the people who have been doing the work all along—even without the resources—and get them to the front of the line. Haaland said it best: “Everything depends on our ability to sustainably inhabit this Earth, and true sustainability will require us all to change our way of thinking on how we take from the Earth and how we give back.”
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