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As governments around the world are stepping up their fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, an often neglected, if not repressed, demographic is suddenly coming into the limelight: indigenous peoples.
As researchers attempt to establish under what circumstances Covid-19 transcended the species barrier to devastating effects, the indigenous peoples of Brazil have been sounding alarms about the global environmental crisis, which they believe is behind the current pandemic.
Indigenous leaders have always tried to make the world pay attention to the link between the depletion of the natural environment and the emergence of disease. According to Levi Sucre Romero, from the BriBri indigenous group in Costa Rica, “the coronavirus is telling the world what indigenous peoples have been saying for thousands of years: if we don't help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this and even worse threats ”.
Small steps forward
For too long, this connection has been ignored, as have native peoples' unique ideas about how to protect the environment. In fact, little attention has been paid to the extremely important link between the land and its own native inhabitants, which carries many fundamental implications for environmental well-being and biodiversity. Only in 1992, with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, was the role of indigenous tribes in protecting the environment explicitly recognized for the first time.
Importantly, the Summit established protections for the “rights of indigenous peoples to their traditional knowledge and practices in the area of environmental management and conservation,” a complementary approach to the more scientifically oriented approach by the West. Even so, governments have yet to apply knowledge of native populations widely, a testament to the fact that environmental conservation efforts remain rhetorical all too often, disregarding the advice of native groups.
This is certainly a fatal mistake. A 2019 report found that millions of species face extinction, but that this decline in biodiversity is less pronounced on indigenous peoples' lands, indicating that these communities are managing natural resources more effectively as well. such as the decline and contamination of species. Previous studies have reached similar conclusions, highlighting the need to partner with indigenous groups and arguing that granting them legal ownership of their native lands is an obvious solution to mitigate climate change and successfully conserve rainforests.
However, most governments around the world have not heeded this advice. Instead, examples abound where the rights of indigenous groups have been trampled on and their native lands exploited and contaminated. Just take the plight of Nova Scotia's Pictou Landing First Nation, which has been locked in a years-long battle against the dumping of toxic effluent into Boat Harbor by the Northern Pulp paper mill.
A recent Netflix documentary directed by Hollywood actress Ellen Page, There's Something in the Water, has brought the issue to the public consciousness by revealing how company and local government officials have continually dismissed First Nation concerns about pollution, environmental destruction and cleanup demands. Even the Northern Pulp ecosystem and its owners, paper giant Paper Excellence, have an established history of hiding the true environmental impact of their operations. The provincial government finally ordered the factory to close in January this year after the company was unable to clean up its effluents.
Since most of the factory's wastewater is no longer released into the port, the environment is slowly recovering. The transformation is remarkable, as Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul posts a video showing that the estuary's water is clean rather than frothy and dark.
However, the fight is far from being won: On Good Friday, Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence issued a surprise press release, stating that it was preparing to invest in the modernization of the factory, while demanding that independent "experts" They will review the environmental impact of the factory. Movement criticized by Canadian author Joan Baxter as corporate government harassment.
Sparks of hope
The Boat Harbor case is just one widely covered example of the struggles of indigenous groups around the world against corporations and governments that have blatantly ignored their land rights at the expense of the environment. Pictou Landing First Nation's battle to restore its lagoon to health may be ongoing, but elsewhere there are some tentative signs of encouragement. Indeed, as climate change and environmental degradation have become issues of widespread popular concern, some countries have begun to expand the role of indigenous peoples in combating these scourges.
The Australian government, for example, expanded its Indigenous Protected Areas program to five new areas in 2018. The program leaves the management of these areas to Aboriginal people, allowing them to apply their knowledge of nature to preserve and protect ecosystems. It is one of the largest environmental conservation associations in the world, and Australia now has 10,000 protected areas covering almost 17 percent of its landmass.
In the green lung of the Earth, the Amazon, indigenous populations are also asked to help preserve the lush tropical rainforest that faces a dual threat of climate change and industrial deforestation. NGOs like the Nature Conservancy have built strong partnerships with local communities for many years, providing them with the resources to design and implement measures to protect vital resources. Such partnerships have produced remarkable successes. But under the president of Brazil, Bolsonaro, support for such cooperation, and for environmental protection in general, has declined markedly, locking the communities of Apurina and Aruak Baniwa, among others, in a long struggle with the government.
Linking the environment and peoples
It is clear that conventional policy approaches can learn a great deal from the way that indigenous peoples around the world manage the environment, if we allow it. Most legal advances for indigenous peoples have focused on protecting their culture, disregarding the fact that their native lands and their interactions with them are an integral part of their cultural identity.
In that sense, indigenous rights are essentially active conservation measures. Therefore, an expansion of cooperation between countries and indigenous groups is the low-key fruit that could revolutionize the way climate and environmental policies are formulated.