Rethinking the Environment with Indigenous Agency

Earth’s climate crisis could be approaching a “point of no return’’. 

The UN has reported that governments have not committed enough to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The scale of climate damage has already been immense: floods and landslides have forced 12 million people from their homes in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. In 2019, Cyclone Idai took the lives of over 1000 people across Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique only for Cyclone Kenneth to sweep through Northern Mozambique a mere six weeks later. The current climate emergency has far-reaching economic, physical, social, and political impacts on humankind, but a human-centric approach to achieving sustainability has not yet been successful to solve the climate crisis. Indigenous scholars are advocating for an alternative approach, critiquing society’s tendency to view the natural world as property, a commodity, or a resource. According to Linda Robyn, colonial logic argues that those who are “less civilised” (Indigenous Peoples) are unable to properly exploit the land and its resources so those who are deemed “civilised” must make the decisions about the land. Indigenous knowledge about the environment has been undermined as being non-knowledge or merely folklore instead of being a source of knowledge to establish a reciprocal relationship with Earth.

Ultimately, the ecological crisis is an “intensification of colonialism”, exemplified by the disproportionate effects of climate change, with poorer countries experiencing colossal damage to their economies, populations, and land. COP27 in Egypt discussed the impact of climate change on poorer countries, with richer countries most responsible for climate change agreeing to payments, however is there any accountability or self-reflection? Without the use of the word reparations or compensation, countries who contribute to climate change the most are not acknowledging their roles in the damage caused to countries like Nepal, Mozambique, Pakistan or Bangladesh. 

Therefore, the perspectives of Indigenous Peoples are crucial to how we understand and combat climate change. Indigenous Peoples across the globe have endured constant waves of settler colonialism that have decimated their lands. Despite this, they have adapted and survived through centuries as great stewards of their environment; Indigenous lands make up around 20% of the Earth’s territory and contain 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Winona LaDuke, a member of the Anishinabe Nation, writes, “sustainability in these marginal habitats did not simply rely on a matter of luck”.

Conceptions of the environment by Indigenous Peoples requires a greater complex framework – one that is conscious of the relationship between specific communities, individuals and their land, intertwined with living, livelihood, culture, and even legal rights. Consequently, movements by Indigenous populations against environmental exploitation also take a specific language of their own, and there is much we can learn from their resistance. In India, the Dongaria Kondhs – an Indigenous community in the state of Odisha – launched resistance against the bauxite mining project of Vedanta Resources (UK based mining company) in 2002. The movement gained traction when Vedanta started acquiring land in Niyamgiri mountains, a sacred place tied to the ancestry of the Kondhs. At the beginning of the movement, any reasoning of the movement on ecological grounds against the bauxite mining project was dismissed in favour of the sacredness of the Niyamgiri mountains to the tribe’s culture by India’s Supreme Court. However, a clear separation of livelihood, ancestry, sacredness, and environment simplifies and is culpable in erasing the complex interlinkages of these aspects in indigenous life. The Supreme Court’s act of dismissing ecological concerns from cultural concerns assumes that the culture cannot be ecological, because the environment is separate from human life (see ruling here). However, indigenous cultures are a prime example or reminder that environment and life are interlinked. This is an important purview that environmental movements at large should adopt. The environment is not an abstract idea that can be acted upon separately. 

Resistance against ‘developmental’ projects is also common, as projects of the Western ‘development’ model often impinge upon regional lives. Often, what is understood as ‘development’ leads to violence, dispossession and erasure of indigenous cultures and communities. Protests against ‘developmental’ projects by Indigenous communities in India, and globally, emphasise the connection of natural resources, forests, rivers, and land, to tribal and adivasi (term for specific Indigenous communities in India) populations. Resistance by the Gond community in the state of Chhattisgarh, active for the past decade, intensified this year as the government approved three new coal mines, which would result in future environmental degradation and increased clearance of Hasdeo Aranya forests. Villagers from around the forest region have occupied the forests, building campsites, hugging trees (a historical form of tribal protest in India known as chipko), conducting speeches, events, and even work from within the forests. Demonstrating not only that their forest has cultural significance and provides livelihood, but there is a question of legal rights as well. 

These movements emphasise the casual disregard for rights of Indigenous communities in these projects. The disregard of indigenous rights is directly tied to the disregard of Indigenous existence and colonialism. The lack of Indigenous consensus on decisions of ‘development’, or land, forest interference is symbiotic of erasing marginalised voices. The disregard for understanding grassroots mobilisation for ecological catastrophe and implementation of top-down policies which do not consider violence on certain lives as violence, or do not account for how life is lived in the regions targeted for ‘development’ is a manifestation of imperialism. 

We do not suggest that indigenous life is infallible, but that Indigenous perspectives and mobilisation are crucial to the environmental movement at large. The constant dismissal of Indigenous lives is a symptom of colonialism. Indigenous communities should be considered active agents in the environmental movement, and intersectionality should extend to Indigenous communities within different contexts.