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Indigenous leaders: To tackle climate change, ‘we must first address racial inequality’

© Cristina Mittermeier

For centuries, social injustices against Indigenous peoples have hindered their ability to conserve the nature they depend on. 

As countries shrink or eliminate areas set aside to protect nature in the name of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous peoples are even more vulnerable to the virus and to the impacts of harmful activities such as mining and logging.  

For insight into how Indigenous peoples are fighting for their lands during lockdown — while simultaneously addressing deep-rooted racial inequality — Conservation News tapped two Indigenous leaders at Conservation International: Minnie Degawan, a member of the Kankanaey-Igorot Indigenous group in the Philippines; and Johnson Cerda, an Indigenous Kichwa of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Question: How has the pandemic impacted your communities?

Minnie Degawan (MD): For my peoples, closing off the community to the outside world is actually a common practice known as ubaya — a time of rest before or after the fields are prepared for planting and harvesting. Since we already have this protocol in place for agricultural seasons, we are also prepared for when we need to lock down for other reasons, including disease outbreaks such as the Spanish Flu in 1918. 

Since my peoples are very community-minded, everyone respects lockdown restrictions and follows social distancing rules to ensure the health of the entire group, rather than having an individualistic mindset — which is why I think it has been so effective. We are currently COVID-free, but many other Indigenous peoples around the world are being severely impacted by the virus — and are struggling to find access to basic health services and hospitals. 

Johnson Cerda (JC): The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated many Indigenous groups in the Amazon, especially in Brazil. Not only are many people dying from the virus, coronavirus-related restrictions have impacted local economies, cultural practices and food security. Under normal circumstances, my peoples’ traditions often bring everyone together in one place and are led by our elders, who provide guidance and information about traditional medicine. Now people are isolated in their own farms and several of our elders have passed away from the virus. Despite efforts to social distance, remote Indigenous communities are still exposed to the virus because many oil and mining companies have continued to tear through the forest throughout the pandemic and some of the workers from the city are unwittingly spreading the disease. This could leave isolated Indigenous peoples particularly vulnerable to the symptoms of COVID-19 due to their lower immunity — the result of limited contact with diseases from external sources, research shows. During isolation, it has also been extremely difficult for our peoples to maintain their farms and go out into nature to hunt or gather food.

Q: Can you talk more about your community’s relationship with nature? 

JC: Many Indigenous communities rely on nature for everything — from food and water to their livelihoods and culture. Though they account for only 5 percent of the world’s population, Indigenous peoples use or manage more than a quarter of Earth’s surface and protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. Indigenous peoples manage 35 percent of intact forests and at least a quarter of above-ground carbon in tropical forests. 

Because of this intimate relationship with nature, we are the first ones to feel the impact of the climate crisis. 

For example, climate change has had a strong impact on the Amazon’s rainy season, which lasts from December to May. In my region of Ecuador, the rainy season typically causes floods along the river, which we have learned to control and take advantage of to fish by using traditional knowledge from our ancestors. Now, the floods have gotten too strong and are drowning our farms and starting to impact communities further upriver, who are not prepared for the influx of water. As these extreme weather events have become more frequent, it has been more difficult to grow crops, which has increased food insecurity amongst Indigenous peoples.

MD: What’s not discussed as much is the impact that climate breakdown has had on our cultures. My community originally created our calendar based on the native wildlife surrounding our home to help keep track of agricultural and hunting seasons. Within the past decade, most of the wildlife featured in this calendar has disappeared from the area due to climate change and habitat loss driven by deforestation. The loss of this biodiversity could also mean the loss of traditional knowledge for future generations, which could eventually result in the disappearance of distinct cultures of Indigenous peoples, as well.

Q: Where do Indigenous peoples fit into the current dialogue about global racial inequality? 

MD: The root of all racism is power imbalance. Within the environmental movement, Indigenous peoples are often seen as beneficiaries of nature conservation projects, instead of partners. The reality is that most of the initiatives to protect nature could not succeed without Indigenous peoples. Until Indigenous peoples have a seat at the table when it comes to how their lands are used or managed, they will continue to be subjected to racism.  

JC: One of the biggest issues facing Indigenous peoples is the difficulty of maintaining rights to their own lands. In some places in the world, it’s not easy to ascertain who has the right to manage land, or even who has the right to live there. For example, many Indigenous groups live on lands that are governed not by formal laws but by informal “customary” agreements — their historical association with the land is the basis of their “right” to manage it. This lack of formal, legally binding land rights can expose these communities to racism and environmental destruction. Although Indigenous peoples have been protecting nature since time immemorial, this lack of land rights makes it easier for governments and conservation organizations to come in and make their own decisions on how to manage or protect the land — without input from local communities. To effectively slow climate change and protect nature, we must first address racial inequality. 

Q: What steps do governments and environmental organizations need to take to address these inequalities?

MD: The environmental movement as a whole has a long way to go to address racism, but people can start by recognizing how much Indigenous peoples have done for conservation and by acknowledging the errors made against all people of color along the way. There must also be more Indigenous peoples in positions of power throughout environmental organizations to help assert their voices when making decisions about their land. The only way to gain trust with Indigenous communities is if these steps are followed up with concrete action in the field. For example, in the Philippines, Conservation International is helping Indigenous peoples develop management plans for their ancestral domains by providing technical support, but it is the communities themselves who are creating the plans because they know what is best for them and nature. 

JC: The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples came about in 1994 to draw attention to Indigenous peoples’ constant struggle for land rights, which is still a problem today. Rather than trying to take over lands or make all of the decisions of how to protect a certain area, governments and environmental organizations must instead work with Indigenous peoples to ensure that everyone’s interests are taken into account. Indigenous peoples have centuries worth of traditional knowledge to contribute to the fight to stop climate change and biodiversity loss. We all want to achieve the same goal — and the first step is making sure our voices are heard.  


Minnie Degawan is the director of the Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program at Conservation International. Johnson Cerda is the director of the DGM Global Executing Agency at Conservation International. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: A Kayapo man on a mountain, Brazil (© Cristina Mittermeier)

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