Kendall Edmo takes her daughter on a horseback ride through Blackfeet country in northern Montana. Photo courtesy Rebecca Drobis (rebeccadrobis.com)
After centuries of European colonialism which reached the far corners of the globe and wreaked devastating havoc on indigenous cultures, First Nations peoples are regaining their independence and exercising sovereign self-rule over traditional homelands in varieties of powerful ways.
From tribes in North America to ancient aboriginal communities in Australia, and from South America to Africa and Asia, native people are charting a new course, using time-tested knowledge to set a different course for the future.
Rallying in common cause and holding authority over vast stretches of land and water, First Nations figure prominently in a larger grassroots effort fast gaining momentum. It aims to convince governments to commit to protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030—even more by the end of the century.
In this third decade of the 21st century, there’s: growing recognition that healthy functioning ecosystems are essential to the survival of humans and serve as the foundation of cultural, social and economic resilience.
Sea ice, where seals rest and bask and where polar bears prey on them, has been important to the survival of both species. But with warming temperatures sea ice is winnowing and the Inuit in northern Canada are literally watching the world they know melting away with climate change. Painting by the great Wilhelm Kuhnert
One of the case studies in the Wyss report focuses on the High Arctic in the Canadian territory of Nunavut where warming oceans are melting sea ice that has been the cornerstone of subsistence for the Inuit and other peoples in the far north. At risk are polar bears, seals, walruses and whales, the hunting of which have been a source of food, cultural cohesion and oral history no different from tribes tied closely to salmon and bison.
Another vignette of place highlighted in the Wyss report is the Badger-Two Medicine located along the Rocky Mountain Front in northern Montana. Part Today it’s an area of still -pristine drainages regarded by the Blackfeet as sacred and where indigenous leaders have worked with conservationists for decades to halt proposed oil and gas development.
The Badger-Two Medicine was taken by the US government along with adjacent lands that became Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In fact, Two Medicine Lake in Glacier Park is one of the more important cultural sites to the Blackfeet and a place where vision quests were done. Some 19 different tribes have asked the federal government to withdraw all leases controversially granted in the Badger-Two Medicine and all but one has gone away owed to public pressure..
The Wyss report features voices of indigenous conservation advocates writing in their own words about how each is confronting threats to home ground. “We are grateful to each of these leaders for their remarkable work protecting areas that are important to their communities, and for being willing to share their experiences,” writes Molly McUsic, President of the Wyss Foundation in an introduction to the report.
“Their perspectives offer valuable insights into how the global community can, in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities, accelerate the pace of nature conservation around the world, and succeed in protecting at least 30 percent of the planet by 2030,” she adds.
McUsic along with her staff at Wyss note why First Nations involvement in “30 by 30” is important. While the world’s 370 million indigenous people make up only five percent of the total human population, those tribal entities hold land tenure over at least 25 percent of the planet’s lands. Those lands account for about 35 percent of the surface currently under formal protection, including 35 percent of the land remaining on Earth that has not been dramatically transformed by human intervention. Most critical, from a wildlife conservation standpoint, is that indigenous lands are cradles for about 80 percent of the world’s biological diversity.
In order to withstand changes impacting natural food staples and even the livability of places where people have been for untold generations, communities see land protection as a vital line of defense. That includes safeguarding biodiversity hot spots and and natural sources of clean fresh water.
Healthy lands overseen by indigenous nations also sequester carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, in soils, plants, wetlands and forests,
While McUsic and others are hoping to convince world leaders to take steps to embrace the Half-Earth goal over time, they believe that securing commitments to protect about a third of the planet by 2030—a decade from now—is an important first step and doable.
Wyss references a report compiled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)—an entity separate from the United Nations —and which has a membership of over 130 countries and tribal entities and is a nexus for scientific research pertaining to biodiversity and climate change.
The IPBES Global Assessment is based on insights gleaned from 145 expert authors in 50 countries, with involvement from another 310 contributing authors. They warn about the impacts of environmental destruction and simplifying ecosystems through exploitation, industrial monoculture crop production and pollution, that are, in turn, accelerating the loss of species at a rate occurring faster than at any time in human existence.
“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair Robert Watson, a British atmospheric scientist. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
The Wyss Foundation has a deep connection to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the most prominent bioregions in the world. Swiss-born foundation founder, businessman and philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss has been a longtime resident of Jackson Hole and he recently pledged $1 billion to conserve the planet’s land and oceans.
Wyss understands why protecting large intact ecosystems matters. As just one example, his foundation last year donated $750,000 to help the Dehcho First Nations in Canada’s Northwest Territories create a management plan for the Edéhzhíe National Wildlife Area. An important element of the 3.5-million-acre preserve is a wetland system that provides habitat for bison, moose, wolverines, caribou and waterfowl.
Tribes confront formidable resistance from resource extractive industries and sometimes the federal government whenever they mention areas as being sacred and should be set aside from development. A notable example is what lawyer William Perry Pendley said about the Badger-Two-Medicine after the federal government moved to cancel leases for fossil fuel development.
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Maintaining biological diversity matters, scientists point out, because the intricate interconnected web of organisms have evolved together and the presence of just one species, or a suite of species, can have huge implications.
If temperatures and moisture patterns change enough to affect pollinators, or if they die from insecticides and herbicides, the flowering bloom and key elements of the natural food pyramid will seriously suffer.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has its own poignant example. Grizzly bears feast every year upon Army cutworm moths gathering high in mountain scree slopes in late summer. Those insects represent a vital source of nutrition for bears prior to denning. The moths migrate from lower elevation valleys to drink from the nectar of wildflowers. If alpine wildflowers decline because of hotter and drier conditions in the mountains, the whole system is disrupted.
Native people did not need grocery stories, he said in an interview. Survival over thousands of years was based on understanding the nutritional and medicinal importance of hundreds of different plant species. Through his award-winning cookbook, lectures and hopes to open restaurants featuring indigenous cuisine, Sherman says non-indigenous Americans are only now discovering the importance of native knowledge.
About 44 million acres are tribal trust lands and 11 million more are individually owned. The largest is the Navajo Nation with more than 17 million acres. Land ownership and water rights also translate into political and legal power with tribes not having to defer to the US federal government which has been slow to respond with a coherent strategy for confronting climate change.
Thinking more broadly, McUsic says there is much to learn from indigenous cultures that have a record of enduring through difficult times and adapting to changes and the lesson is having a more harmonious relationship with the land. She sees the “30 by 30” movement—protecting 30 percent of still-natural Earth by 2030—as being important on a number of fronts, not merely conservation and environmental.
“For the sake of all living beings, we believe this work should be supported, scaled-up, and replicated across the globe by supporting the rights of indigenous peoples in compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and free, prior, and informed consent,” she says.