As we know, a large majority of the globe is made up of countries that have claimed and stolen land from Native communities. Colonization and imperialism have obliterated the lives of Indigenous peoples across the globe, and along with countless human rights atrocities, have caused heinous destruction of sacred lands, waters, and wildlife.
Indigenous communities have long been guardians of the planet, fighting for rightful land ownership, tending to the earth through ancient knowledge and spiritual practices, and working collaboratively to find a peaceful way forward.
As we continue to experience a pivotal moment in the environmental justice movement, Indigenous knowledge and resistance are of utmost importance.
“For our people, protecting the environment surpasses the issue of preserving lands, livelihoods, wildlife, and water,” writer Kaitlin Grable shares in an essay for Greenpeace. “There is a spiritual and religious component unique to Indigenous environmentalism since many of our ancestral and traditional practices are tied to the natural world.”
Because of this deep interconnectedness, Indigenous environmentalism leads the way for regeneration and progress against climate change.
Whether it’s the long-held stewardship of complex ecological systems, or the inherent reverence for the natural world, Indigenous peoples from all parts of the globe are cultivating a climate-forward future.
While no community of people should have to fight for their health, safety, and sovereignty, this article is our way of standing in solidarity with and celebrating just a handful of triumphs for and by Indigenous peoples in the past year.
“We are not complacent, we are not hopeless, and we are not giving up,” Grable writes. “Indigenous people are a necessary part of the solution, and many people beyond our spheres recognize the need for inclusion of our nations.”
Climate Victories From The Past Year Giving Us Hope
Land Was Returned To South Australian Wirangu People
In December of 2022, more than 5,000 square kilometers (a bit over 3,000 square miles) of land on South Australia’s west coast were given back to the Wirangu people.
As a part of this, the former police station in the area will also be transferred to the Wirangu people to build a cultural center.
Although this is a major win for Australia’s Indigenous community, it was bittersweet, as the claim to get the Native title was first filed in August of 1997, and none of the original claimants were alive to see the return of the land.
Canada’s First Indigenous-Owned Bioenergy Facility Opened
In northwestern Saskatchewan, the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC) Bioenergy Centre celebrated its first year in operation as Canada’s first Indigenous-owned bioenergy facility.
The MLTC is made up of nine First Nations and became the owner of the NorSask sawmill in 1998.
However, the sawmill was known for its air-polluting wood waste, and it wasn’t until this past year that the new and improved carbon-neutral facility took its place.
Now, the wood waste is combusted through a closed-loop system that produces heat and energy for roughly 5,000 homes in the area.
The U.S. Renamed Hundreds Of Places That Used Slurs Against Native American Women
The U.S. Department of Interior, led by Secretary Deb Haaland, changed the names of over 650 geographic sites and five communities across the country, removing a racist slur harmful to Indigenous women.
This renaming initiative started in early 2022 when Haaland created a Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force.
“This is the first of many necessary steps toward preserving the truth about Indigenous American history and facilitating healing between the Indigenous communities and both state and federal governments,” Romain Rain Tree, a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians and Choinumi Tribes in one of the renamed areas, said.
“This is not just a new name for a community. This is acknowledgment of the first stewards of the land and a recognition that we are still here.”
Brazil Appointed The First Indigenous Woman To Lead New Ministry of Indigenous Peoples
At the end of 2022, Brazil’s President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced that Sônia Guajajara will head up a new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, with a mandate to oversee policies ranging from land demarcation to healthcare.
The first Indigenous woman to lead in this capacity, Guajajara is an environmentalist leader of the main umbrella group for Brazil’s many Indigenous tribes and a member of the Amazon Guajajara.
A Wildlife Crossing In Montana Built With Indigenous Knowledge Has Drastically Reduced Collisions
In 2000, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes collaborated with the Montana Department of Transportation to design and build one of the largest networks of wildlife highway crossings in the U.S.
By using Indigenous knowledge provided by tribal wildlife ecologists, recent studies show that animal collisions have declined by 71% and more than 22,000 animals use these wildlife crossings annually.
Canadian Government And Conservation Leaders Agree To Preserve Over 185,000 Acres Of The Incomappleux Valley
In partnership with local governments, Indigenous groups, a forest company, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, a deal was made to protect 75,000 hectares (a bit over 185,000 acres) of the Incomappleux Valley.
The valley is a rare inland temperate rainforest full of lakes, wetlands, lichen species, bears, and endangered plant and fungal species. It’s also home to a substantial number of old-growth trees, some ranging in age from 800 to 1,500 years.
“The conservation community and people who live in the area understand what an important and unique region this is,” Environment Minister George Heyman said. “They’ve been calling for its protection for many years.
Ownership Of A California Redwood Forest Was Returned To Ten Native American Tribal Nations
Ten Native American tribal nations, which form the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, were granted ownership of 215 hectares (532 acres) of California’s redwood forest in January 2022.
The land was donated by the Save the Redwoods League, which believes that the best way to restore and protect the land is to return it to Indigenous stewardship.
Together, the league and the council have developed a 30-year conservation plan to protect endangered species in the area, as well as eliminate commercial timber operations, fragmentation, development, and public access.
Resistance From A Gwich’in Committee Led To The Exit Of An Oil Company From The Arctic Coastal Plain
In November 2022, Knik Arm Services became the second oil company to cancel its oil and gas lease in the largest wildlife reserve in America, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This move came following fierce opposition by the Indigenous Gwich’in committee and environmental groups in the area.
Although the Arctic is still for sale for oil development, this is a great step in the right direction to protect the land.
Tribal Solar Power Projects Are Creating Jobs And Reducing Emissions
As oil pipelines threaten to destroy sacred tribal lands, Indigenous problem solvers are ready to create a new kind of power. By reducing reliance on fossil fuels and investing in clean energy, leaders like Solar Bear and Indigenous Energy Initiative take a systems-based approach to renewable energy development.
These two organizations make solar installation more accessible and provide workforce development and technical training in their communities, proving that an Indigenous-led future fueled by solar energy is at our feet.
Landmark Deals In Canada Give Indigenous Communities More Power Over The Land
At the start of 2023, the Yaq̓it ʔa·knuqⱡi ‘it (YQT), an Indigenous community in southeastern British Columbia, signed an unprecedented agreement with the mining company NWP Coal Canada, giving Indigenous leadership “veto power” over proposed projects.
The company committed to a “content-based environmental assessment,” requiring YQT’s permission for any mining projects to move ahead.
Similarly, the Blueberry River First Nations also announced its own historic agreement with provincial leaders in British Columbia, which includes protections for wildlife, a halt to logging in old-growth forests, and new compensation for the community (including a $200 million restoration fund from the government).
Additionally, any new resource extraction projects will be limited by the First Nations in how much land can be disturbed.
“For a long time, First Nations were put aside, not engaged with or listened to,” Chief Judy Desjarlais said. “Today marks a new direction. First Nations will be participants in all stages of development. Blueberry now has a say every step of the way.”
A version of this article was originally published in The 2023 Environment Edition of the Goodnewspaper.
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