2 September 2020

We Are Indigenous: Sustainability Inherent to Indigenous Political Ecology

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.

Political ecology is a practice combining politics, economics and social factors, to create space for an intersectional approach that better serves people’s socio-economic needs while nurturing the natural environment.

As Earth’s original stewards, the lives of Indigenous peoples are rooted in sustainable development processes. From the early trade relations between Indigenous peoples in what is now Canada and the Hudson Bay Company, to the Yanomami peoples of the Amazon using forest plants to manufacture their own farming and fishing equipment, Indigenous peoples have always had savvy ways of producing while respecting their recourses.

As decisions by governments and policymakers and large-scale development projects continue to have severe impacts on Indigenous land and resources, Indigenous political ecologists are using their knowledge and understanding of reciprocal relationships with the environment to demonstrate a more sustainable approach to good governance.

Dr. Myrle Ballard, an Anishinaabe scholar and Professor at the University of Manitoba, the UNAI Hub for SDG 6: Water and Sanitation, researches the ways environmental changes affect Indigenous people's livelihoods, and the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge into decision-making processes related to the environment.

Reflecting on her childhood, Dr. Ballard recalled her mother bringing baby calves into their family kitchen during the winter to care for the animals during dangerous weather conditions and how this provided her first lessons in the connection to the life and land around her. “I was always interested in what was going on with the land and with the environment around me.” Dr. Ballard sees sustainable development as an inherent part of her culture’s way of being. “Our people, my ancestors – they had these names [sustainability] way before I was born, because they were always on the land,” she said.

With a strong research interest in water and fishery management that stemmed from her firsthand experience of the floods in her hometown, Dr. Ballard's believes that no one knows the environment more intimately than those who have been stewarding it since ancient times, and passing down their knowledge of unique land and waterway observation techniques to each generation. In 2011, heavier than normal precipitation and severe wind events caused a flood in Manitoba that was of an unprecedented scope and severity. The provincial water control structure was not able to control the overflows, leading to the evacuation and displacement of over 7,000 people in the lakeshore communities. For Dr. Ballard there is a clear need to include Indigenous-led consultation in environmental planning: “People don’t give our knowledge systems credit, and it’s time they start giving us credit for what we know.”

Dr. Ballard also highlighted the severe contamination of Lake Winnipeg from over-exposure to phosphorus and nitrogen from municipal and industrial wastewaters, agricultural runoff, and air pollution. These blooms harm the lake's ecosystem, threaten the fishery, and reduce enjoyment of the lake. As a result of the government’s hydroelectric projects and infrastructure to control flooding in southern cities, the water levels of Lake Winnipeg continue to fluctuate, confusing the fish which so many survive on. The University of Manitoba’s Indigenous Research Program grant has partnered Anishinaabe fishers with non-Indigenous scientists to help restore the body of water to health by studying the new behaviors and disease contracted by the fish and learning about their adaptability through Indigenous and Western-science aquatics management. This partnership demonstrates the value in working alongside rural Indigenous peoples as the environment itself can be more sustainably renewed and restored through collective care.

Land is considered as kin, an extension of the family system, by the Indigenous peoples on the prairie. “Much of our livelihood practices consider this relationship foundational in our assessment of harvesting and procuring what we needed from the landscape, to the point where we have laws that govern our relationship to the land and nature,” said Mylan Tootoosis, Nêhiyawpwat (Plains Cree-Nakota) and PhD student in political ecology from the University of Saskatchewan. These original laws helped to maintain a balance between fulfilling the human’s needs and the mitigation of their impact.

“Although the earth and our people have been impacted drastically by colonization, our laws and links to the land have not. We are working to establish much of those connections, and the Sustainable Development Goals are one way to start and build conversations that need to happen,” Tootoosis said, noting the importance of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for countries and organizations to begin to have those conversations and strive for ecological restoration and balance.

Tootoosis pointed out that many Indigenous collectives had excellent agricultural practices in place prior to colonization that have now been encroached on with a heavily industrialized farming industry that over exploits land. The commercialization of farming can cause irreversible environmental damage that effects Indigenous land rights and overall wellbeing. The Land-Back movement is not about eliminating all settler farming initiatives, but rather returning land to Indigenous peoples to revive their own sustainable agricultural practices for the health of the environment and natural resources.

Tootoosis described his academic journey in political ecology as “a blend of informal land-based education and formal academia.” He and Dr. Ballard agreed that inclusive language is a guiding principle: only real, open dialogues with Indigenous communities in their traditional languages, instead of “academic talks” can generate critical conversation that leads to well-informed socio-economic decisions.

All human-beings benefit from a robust, healthy, thriving environment. It is not the sole job of Indigenous collectives to protect mother nature, but every single person profiting from her abundant resources. By including and crediting Indigenous peoples and their time-tested knowledge, Indigenous political ecology seeks to understand the original practices in a changing world, and spark plausible innovation to better the community, the land and maintain a sustainable way of life.

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