Indigenous Communities Taking Lead In Addressing Climate Change, Protecting Wildlife

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Kendall Edmo takes her daughter on a horseback ride through Blackfeet country in northern Montana. Photo courtesy Rebecca Drobis (rebeccadrobis.com)

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

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.

Leading ecologists from Reed Noss to E.O. Wilson and Canadian conservationist Harvey Locke, co-founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, have advanced the notion of “Half Earth.” Theirs is an assessment, driven by science, that half of the Earth, especially areas not currently dominated by human activity, needs to be set aside and protected.  Some 846 ecoregion large and small have been identified from pole to pole and a million species are at risk of winking out or being radically reduced.

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. 

Since the Badger-Two Medicine and the Rocky Mountain Front were permanently withdrawn from future mineral leasing in 2006, the Wyss Foundation has provided over $3.5 million to support the purchase or donation and permanent retirement of nearly 120,000 acres of existing oil and gas leases in the area, including approximately 115,000 acres within the Badger-Two Medicine.

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. 

“I don’t question of the sincerity of their deeply held religious views but the land does not belong to them and it is supposed to be used by act of Congress to develop what it’s valuable for—in this case natural gas,” Pendley said. Essential to note is that Pendley today is the acting director of the federal Bureau of Land Management which offered the leases in 1981 and his former law firm, Mountain States Legal Foundation, is now representing a company, Solenex, in legal action to have those energy leases reinstated.

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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.  

For instance, pollinators which include bees, butterflies, birds, bats, moths, flies and even small animals. They provide a crucial role in plant life, including the production of commercial crops and their arrival to drink nectar and spread pollen as part of plant reproduction is carefully timed to seasonality.  More than three quarters of all flowering plant species on earth rely on pollination and pollinators impart benefits for 1200 different crops, which is the basis for the expression that every three bites of food humans eat is owed to help from a pollinator.

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.

Culinarian Sean Sherman (Lakota) says indigenous people thrived on understanding those interconnections. Known as “the Sioux chef,” Sherman spent part of his formative years in Red Lodge, Montana along the slopes of the Beartooths and Absaroka mountains in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where he expanded his knowledge of ethnobotany. 

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.

Sean Sherman's book, co-written with Beth Dooley, won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook in 2018.

Sean Sherman’s book, co-written with Beth Dooley, won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook in 2018.

Historically, more than two dozen different indigenous tribes regarded the Greater Yellowstone region as a tribal homeland, hunting ground or point of pilgrimage.  Across the US there are more than 570 officially recognized tribal nations and 326 reservations. Slightly less than half of the officially recognized tribes are located in Alaska . 

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.

In a scientific paper that centered on the role indigenous lands may have for conservation and published in the journal Nature, 20 authors wrote, “Approaches that take into account Indigenous Peoples’ unique ties with nature and their extensive Indigenous Knowledge are providing pathways that re-evaluate existing conservation frameworks.. As such, this will open up myriad opportunities for partnerships between conservation practitioners and Indigenous Peoples to create mutual benefits.”

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.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read the essay by Kendall Edmo (Piikani/Blackfeet) about her tribe’s efforts to protect the Badger-Two Medicine in Montana.

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