2 September 2020

We Are Indigenous: Building Resilient Communities through Indigenous Consultation

There are an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples in the world, living across 90 countries. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

COVID-19 has posed a grave threat to Indigenous peoples around the world, who already lack access to healthcare and other essential services. Yet, Indigenous peoples are seeking their own solutions in their own languages, using traditional and innovative knowledge, practices and preventive measures to fight the pandemic.

In the We Are Indigenous series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) speaks with Indigenous academics and activists to learn how the global Indigenous community’s contributions are building a healthier and more sustainable future for us all.

As natural and human-caused disasters continue to rise across the globe, so must diversified mitigation and response strategies. While the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) brings governments, partners and communities together to reduce disaster risk and losses to ensure a safer, more sustainable future, Indigenous communities often face a lack of support from political stakeholders during the disasters. Policymakers tend to focus on western science and technology-based methods of disaster risk reduction and response. However, Indigenous communities experiencing the direct effects of the disasters require culturally relevant, localized approaches. Their local resources and knowledge, passed from generation to generation, offer valuable lessons for the international community.

The relationship between Indigenous knowledge and their disaster risk reduction efforts is based on their close contact with the environment. For example, traditional weather forecasting includes the observation of the moon, the sun, the stars, animals and insects. According to a report by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the Indigenous inhabitants of Simeulue Island, Indonesia managed to survive the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 because of their time-tested knowledge “buffaloes run to the hills when a tsunami is coming.” People who live near the Damodar River in West Bengal, India used markers inscribed on trees and the observation of ants moving their eggs to higher ground as a warning sign of impending floods.

John Scott is a member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and Director of the Centre for Public Service Communications, an organization that has coordinated initiatives to engage Indigenous peoples in disaster risk reduction on behalf of several United Nations bodies, including the UNDRR. Scott highlighted the urgent need for multilateral agreements to incorporate Indigenous peoples into debates on disaster policies as well as development agendas, in his publication International Disaster Risk Reduction Strategies and Indigenous Peoples in collaboration with Professor Simon Lambert of Lincoln University, New Zealand.

Scott observed that Indigenous communities have a strong consultative process, and information is shared broadly and quickly through communications networks that exist in the community. This is of immeasurable value in the world of disaster risk reduction, as on-the-ground dialogue can be a key determinant of community survival pre and post disaster. As the Indigenous communities unite to fight the COVID-19 crisis, the inclusive and culturally understood decision-making process is of vital importance. The inclusion and protection of Elders are placed at the center of the Indigenous-led consultation, which ensures that the needs of the community members most vulnerable to the deadly virus are not left behind.

Professor Simon Lambert, a member of the Tuhoe and Ngati Ruapani and expert in Indigenous Disaster Risk Reduction, has been closely involved in COVID-19 responses in Indigenous communities. “Indigenous peoples are experienced and professional first responders, and there are already clear roles in place for most Indigenous communities,” he said.

However, this disaster risk reduction system and methodologies cannot always be analyzed by or directly translated into Western frameworks without cultural context. Trying to do so can run the risk of causing confusion. Professor Lambert notes that it is also essential to make information and educational materials on disaster risks available in Indigenous languages, and Scott agrees: “If information is simply translated from English, but fails to be understood in a cultural context, it is of little help to that community.” Both scholars concluded that producing and disseminating guidance on COVID-19 must involve a primary focus on the audience: their languages, cultures and communication styles. 

Following the 2010/2012 Ötautahi/Christchurch earthquakes in Aotearoa, New Zealand, Professor Lambert focused his work on the community mental health challenges that can follow an environmental disaster. Although his study participants survived the earthquakes, many were seriously affected, and the impacts of this disaster were compounded by previous or ongoing personal or whanau (extended family) “disasters”. For post-disaster recovery efforts, Indigenous-led consultation is effective in understanding these emotional needs of community members and avoiding re-traumatization. It should be included as a key component of the recovery measures and construction of future disaster management and risk reduction strategies.

Indigenous peoples are incredible first responders and resilient problem solvers. Unfortunately, they often suffer the most devastating impacts of disaster not because of disaster risk reduction incompetence, but rather, systemic racism, isolation and marginalization. There is an urgent need to increase dialogue between Governments, policymakers and Indigenous peoples, to give credit to the value of Indigenous knowledge and the self-reliance and sustainability it represents. There is also an ever-expansive opportunity to embrace modernity in Indigenous knowledge, which is often unilaterally defined as “traditional”, and establish a balanced approach to bring the benefits of modern science and technology to localized problem-solving initiatives.  

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