Lessons from Indigenous Leaders Fighting to Protect Our Planet
Author: Janice Cantieri
Indigenous communities around the world have long practiced sustainable lifeways, taking only what’s needed from the land. Capitalism, colonialism, and overconsumption created the climate crisis we’re experiencing today.
Now more than ever, we should be listening to those who have lived on the land for thousands of years to learn how to restore the balance between humans and nature.
Resilience-Building Climate Adaptation
Indigenous communities in the Pacific are experiencing some of the most dramatic impacts of climate change as sea levels rise and typhoons and hurricanes intensify. While these changes threaten their livelihoods and cultures, community-led grassroots efforts are building resilience and preserving cultural heritage.
Pelenise Alofa is the National Coordinator of the Climate Action Network in the low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where rising sea levels have caused salt water to infiltrate drinking water wells and killed off staple food crops. This threatens the primarily subsistence-based fishing lifestyles the i-Kiribati have practiced for the past two thousand years.
Alofa spent decades giving talks at U.N. conferences to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change in Kiribati. Instead of waiting for world leaders to take action, she started projects to help her community adapt.
“People have been coming here for ten years to document the impacts of rising sea levels, but nothing has changed,” she said. “Journalists come in and out of here covering the high tides, and that is important, but no one talks about what we are doing to deal with it.”
Alofa has worked with communities to construct rainwater collection tanks in villages around the islands where salt water compromised the drinking water. She’s also started community gardens, small-business training programs for young women, and bike rides to raise awareness about climate change on the islands and encourage sustainable transportation.
While these efforts may not be enough as the seas rise and tides become more severe, they’ve helped communities remain on their home islands, live sustainably, and preserve their culture in the face of unprecedented environmental changes. Others around the islands are doing the same, planting mangroves to restore and protect the coastal ecosystems and prevent erosion or building their own natural sea walls using coconut husks and shells.
Eritai Kateibwi, a young entrepreneur, is teaching his community to grow vegetables in raised hydroponic boxes, away from the high tides. The goal is to decrease his community’s reliance on imported foods by creating a way for people to produce some of their own food, even as the high tides wipe out important food trees. Ahling Onorio, a former schoolteacher, started an organic coconut sugar and coconut oil cooperative that’s teaching families skills needed to adapt to the influences of climate change and preserve cultural practices.
Similar efforts are happening across the Pacific. Tokelau became the first country to transition to 100 percent renewable energy in 2012, relying on solar power and coconut-oil biofuel.
While these communities have contributed almost nothing to the global carbon emissions that are now threatening their way of life, they continue to set a strong example by taking immediate action anyway. Developed nations must follow their example and support a just transition in the Pacific to avoid further destruction.
Regenerative, Renewable Resistance
In Canada and across North America, Indigenous communities have been leading fossil fuel-resistance efforts using renewable energy. The Tiny House Warriors, started by Kanahus Manuel and Mayuk Manuel of the Secwepemc Nation, is a resistance effort protecting unceded Secwepemc land from the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. The TMX would destroy ecosystems and nearly triple the amount of tar-sands oil shipped from Alberta to Vancouver—without the consent of the Indigenous communities involved.
In response, the Manuel sisters and the Tiny House Warriors built solar-powered tiny houses, painted with murals representing issues important to their community, and placed them strategically in the path of the pipeline. They’ve been camping for months near the proposed site of the Blue River Man Camp which would house pipeline workers. In addition to disrupting the land, industry man-camps have been documented to drastically increase violence against Indigenous women in surrounding areas.
The houses also provide some affordable, alternative housing options to unhealthy reserve housing and are revitalizing nomadic Secwepemc lifeways. And they’re powered by solar panels from Lubicon Solar, an Indigenous-led solar project in the heart of Alberta’s tar-sands.
Melina Laboucan-Massimo of the Lubicon Cree Nation started Lubicon Solar after seeing tar sands extraction and massive oil spills destroy much of her community’s important hunting and harvesting grounds near Little Buffalo, Alberta.
“There are impacts not only to our physical land but also to our culture, languages, and spirituality. For us, as indigenous peoples, what we see happening on the land, it’s kind of like, the land is where we pray, it is our church. So, when you are destroying our homeland, you are essentially destroying our places of prayer,” Laboucan-Massimo said.
She decided to start her own renewable project after seeing few changes resulting from years of outreach efforts.
“I wanted to see what we can do to utilize renewable energy and systems that are a lot more regenerative, as opposed to extractive, because, for us as Indigenous people, we have more of a reciprocity with the land, with Mother Earth. Utilizing and tapping into renewable energy from the sun, that is something that is more aligned with the give and take of how we interact with the world around us.”
Laboucan-Massimo wanted to create real change and generate hope instead of the despair and destruction she was seeing as the tar sands projects expanded. So, she installed 80 solar panels on her community’s health center and has started running energy education workshops with her community. She plans to bring energy auditors to educate her community on household efficiency.
“Whether you’re Indigenous or not Indigenous, one of the reasons why we have a climate change crisis and one of the reasons why people aren’t as involved as much as we need them to be in pushing for solutions is because people aren’t energy-literate,” she said. “When we don’t have that type of literacy in our society, we let multinational corporations run the show essentially and that’s where we run into a problem.”
Indigenous Artist-Activists Engage in Conservation
A large part of the Tiny House Warriors’ resistance efforts is creative resistance, using art and music to generate awareness and inspire action.
The sides of the tiny houses are covered with colorful murals by Secwepemc artist and professor Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour that illustrate aspects of Secwepemc culture and issues affecting Indigenous communities. Dozens of Indigenous musicians collaborated to produce the Tiny House Warriors album released in 2018 in support of the resistance efforts.
“A lot of this is creativity … is the art of war through media, through videos, and through images,” said Tiny House Warriors cofounder Kanahus Manuel. “We want to do some different art pieces along the pipeline route.”
“Art is one of the most influential platforms we have in the world,” Martinez told Kaméa Chayne on Green Dreamer Podcast Episode 41. “As an artist, I have a responsibility to use my platform to create art and to inspire and connect to the world.”
Martinez, the recipient of President Obama’s Youth Community Service Award in 2013 and author of We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement that Restores the Planet, has been speaking out to protect the environment since he was six years old. In addition to giving talks around the world, he uses his art and music to inspire environmental action.
“[People connect to] art in a way people don’t connect to anything else: music reaches people in a different way; music holds audiences in a different way. There are different demographics of people who will listen to my music than watch to my TEDx Talks, and we need to reach those people, too,” Martinez said.
Using the System to Protect the Land
Indigenous rights and titles to land they’ve inhabited for centuries have often been and continue to be ignored by colonizers, corporations, and governments pursuing resource extraction. But Indigenous communities are starting to win legal battles against governments and corporations who fail to acknowledge their territory.
In 2018 and 2019, the Waorani and Kofan peoples in the Amazon rainforest won landmark legal cases against the Ecuadorian government, which failed to adequately consult the tribes before opening up their territories to oil and mining development. These tribes are mapping their ancestral territories, burial grounds, fishing areas and historic sites in an effort to protect them from further land-grabs.
Dive deeper: Listen to Amazon Frontlines’ founder Mitch Anderson speak on Green Dreamer Podcast episode 161 about their work supporting indigenous peoples in the Amazon to safeguard their ancestral lands.
Nations in Canada’s Boreal rainforest are doing the same—and they’re succeeding. Last year, over 5,500 square miles of Boreal rainforest were declared the Edéhzhíe Indigenous Protected Area after the Dehcho First Nations mapped and designated the area for protection in their land-use plans.
Indigenous leaders around the world are rising up to protect their lands. Those with shared concerns for the environment should stand in solidarity with these efforts and respect the rights of those whose land we’ve settled on. Ignoring Indigenous peoples’ rights is an unjust violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Plus, we need to listen to Indigenous leaders if we hope to save our planet: Indigenous-led land management is one of the most effective ways to protect the world’s biodiversity and protect forests that are important carbon sinks essential for capturing carbon emissions.
Indigenous communities are experiencing extreme environmental impacts resulting from climate change and fossil fuel extraction. But they’re also setting an example for climate action that we can all learn from.
Indigenous-led climate adaptation and fossil fuel resistance efforts are incorporating renewables at a community level, demonstrating that renewables are within reach and it’s possible to live in more harmony with the Earth.
Indigenous climate activists use creativity to spread their message and raise awareness—more of this must be done to connect with people in new ways.
Three things you can do:
Learn whose land you’re living on. You can use this map as a starting point. Acknowledging your relationship to the land you’re living on, the injustices and the privileges that are perpetuated by the colonial roots of your country are important steps. Learning how you benefit from this system is important. Nikki Sanchez, an Indigenous media maker and environmental educator, recommends learning a greeting in the local language, acknowledging the territory you’re living on in your email signatures or online profiles, and offering support with a humble attitude.
Get involved. Indigenous rights are being violated across North America and around the world. While their efforts to protect and preserve water and land have been paying off, it’s important that people of privilege stand in solidarity with these efforts. But it’s important that you don’t overshadow their story—ask organizers or leaders if and how you could get involved in a beneficial way before taking action. Listen to Indigenous communities and reflect on your motives—being an ally can play a role in perpetuating colonial systems, even if you have good intentions. Reach out to the Indigenous Environmental Network for more information.
Read, listen to, and support Indigenous voices, artists, and activists, Sanchez recommends. Listening to voices directly from Indigenous communities is a great way to become more aware, without the frameworks, biases, and stereotypes that often are projected onto these communities by settlers.
Note from the author: I have lived on the occupied territories of the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Peoria, Miami, Bodéwadmiakiwen, and Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux) peoples. I understand that the violence that my country was founded on continues to perpetuate inequities and injustices and that I have benefitted from this system. I am still learning, and I am grateful to all those who have welcomed me into their community and shared their stories with me.