Updated: Oct 21
Indigenous Peoples hold 20% of the world's land, which is home to more than 80% of our planet's biodiversity. They, not the former imperial countries, have constructed institutional and cultural frameworks that regard nature as an equal and grant it the right to be protected and integrated into society.
Indeed, Indigenous Peoples have relied on institutions that regard the environment as sacred; they have lived in communities where property is defined as an "ecological space that awakens consciousness," rather than a tangible resource to be exploited. They have gone beyond signing international environmental accords and have developed a perfectly symbiotic connection with nature, where sustainability is placed at the very core of their identity.
Despite this, Indigenous Peoples receive only 0.74% of total climate change development funding. And with such a lack of financial resources, the traditions, culture, education, healthcare, institutions, and religions of Indigenous societies, which are interwoven with the environment have been put at risk. As Mother Nature weakens, so do the systems meant to ensure the long-term survival of these native groups.
Given such devastation produced by climate change, native communities are also now threatened by a climate apartheid scenario where the rich will avoid environmental catastrophe while marginalized individuals are forced to assume the consequences. Nowadays, Indigenous Peoples in North America, Latin America, Oceania, and South East Asia, are among the lowest-income groups, lacking the means to mitigate the effects of climate change. Consequently, the possibility of these societies going extinct has become ever more present, taking with them the last strands of Indigenous knowledge that have not yet been destroyed.
What is worse, just 17% of climate funding allocated to Indigenous Peoples – that is 0.13% of overall climate development aid – goes to programs directly owned by native groups. Instead, the majority of resources are diverted into intermediate organizations or government agencies that do not know or understand the area as well as the Indigenous populations. As a result, these actors have created insufficient programs and policies that lack the expertise, pragmatism, and viewpoint of those who are overseen by Indigenous communities.
That being said, it is imperative that we start a conversation on how the global community is endangering Indigenous peoples' lives by directing funding toward such unproductive frameworks. Consider Tanzania and India for example, where the homes of Indigenous Peoples have been torched to maintain the region’s ecology and attract more visitors. However, eviction of native communities is not limited to these places; it is estimated that more than 300 million indigenous people will be evicted by 2030 as a result of 30% of the Earth's surface classifying under conservation status.
In addition, these supposedly beneficial activities have been directed by international corporations with a history of brutality and abuse against Indigenous Peoples. For example, World Wildlife Foundation rangers have been accused of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse in numerous places in Africa, including Congo. They have also been suspected of arming and funding local militias for profit or encouraging raids on Indigenous settlements.
So, why do international organizations continue to disregard Indigenous pleas for financial assistance, instead supporting counteractive initiatives and corrupt intermediary organizations?
The fact is that the Indigenous perception of nature, not only as a sentient being but also as crucial to the integrity of their structures and societal foundations, challenges the dominant, and Western discourse on sustainable development. Institutions have politicized the fight against climate change, but native civilizations have been motivated by a feeling of respect and duty to the environment, which is unprecedented in the international community. As a result, the mainstream narrative on climate change has unjustly dismissed Indigenous communities' frameworks and environmental solutions as primitive.
Nevertheless, if international organizations open their doors to Indigenous knowledge and frameworks, their ecological assessments and programs may become more in touch with the ecosystems they are aiming to safeguard. Perhaps, with greater recognition and financing for Indigenous groups participating in the climate agenda, institutions and state governments could rethink the nature of their relationship with Mother Earth. Perhaps they will then wonder if such a relationship is founded on mutual benefit or pure greed, consumerism, and exploitation. Maybe only then, will they open their eyes to the many efforts that Indigenous Peoples are undertaking to mitigate climate change, with or without the help of international institutions.
Today, for example, in Bangladesh, villagers have created floating vegetable gardens to protect their crops from flooding. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, native communities have learned to plant mangroves “along the coast to diffuse tropical-storm waves.” And in Hawaii, the Native community has restored a fishpond system meant to produce vast amounts of protein, “while diminishing coral bleaching, beach erosion, fish overkills, and other imbalances.”
Other individuals, such as those behind the Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, have worked on institutional solutions, such as getting the ILO to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples as critical to the achievement of the climate agenda. Similarly, Indigenous groups have been directly involved in UN procedures centered on sustainable development since 1992. Just a few years ago, they also oversaw the recent adoption of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, which acted as the antecedent to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Furthermore, they have become the driving force behind several institutions, such as the Local Communities Platform (LCIP) and the Guardians of the Forest, which are pushing significant change in the climate agenda.
To conclude, we must recognize that increasing the amount of climate funding dedicated to Indigenous Peoples would result in significant progress on the climate agenda and allow for improvements in Indigenous Peoples' treatment. International organizations can also help to progress indigenous self-determination by inviting them to the table to fund their initiatives. They must also acknowledge that the treatment of Indigenous populations regarding the climate agenda is a humanitarian issue. Indeed, the threat of climate change to Indigenous Peoples' survival and the restrictions that hinder these communities from mitigating the effects of climate change make it an issue of human rights.
Illustration by Madison Wright