Exploring the importance of indigenous populations in environmental stewardship, and how they serve as increasingly vital actors on the global stage.

As society acknowledges the climate crisis, many are slowly coming to grips with the changes needed to tackle the challenges we face across the globe.

However, among climate discourse and political debates the voices of marginalised groups, such as indigenous populations, often go unheard.

Indigenous communities constitute roughly 5% of the global population (476 million), with over 5,000 different indigenous populations spread across 90+ countries around the world. Though indigenous peoples are not homogenous, they’re defined as “distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy or from which they have been displaced”.

As such, there is increasing recognition that these groups represent a unique and powerful avenue to protect global systems.

Indigenous peoples’ vulnerability

However, indigenous populations represent some of the most systemically discriminated communities throughout the world, impacting how they experience environmental change.

Due to their close relationship with nature and dependency on its resources, indigenous peoples are among the first to feel the effects of the climate crisis. Climate change itself poses a great threat to these populations as it exacerbates issues they already face — this is despite indigenous peoples being among those who have contributed the least to climate change.

For example, indigenous communities are three times more likely to be living in extreme poverty, making up 15% of the world’s extreme poor, negatively impacting their capacity to adapt to environmental change.

Other systemic disadvantages, such as inhabiting regions where ongoing conflict is rampant, also mean that indigenous populations face frequent human rights violations, malnutrition, discrimination and unemployment, all of which are worsened by the climate crisis.

Agents of change, not victims

Until the 21st century “indigenous peoples were viewed as victims of the effects of climate change, rather than as agents of environmental conservation”.

However, within many indigenous cultures, promoting resilience to climatic variation is rooted in long-standing tradition, as the capacity to survive is intertwined with the understanding of, and relationship to, natural ecosystems. Thus, in this time where ecosystems are shifting in unprecedented ways, indigenous populations are responding in a manner that can enrich climate action on a global scale.

“Indigenous peoples must be part of the solution to climate change. This is because they have the traditional knowledge of their ancestors. The important value of that knowledge simply cannot — and must not — be understated,”

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa

Just a few of the numerous examples include: communally managed natural forests in Bangladesh securing local water sources, protecting forest resources, promoting biodiversity and increasing carbon sequestration; indigenous Andean communities undertaking agroforestry to restore Polylepis forests to capture rainwater, prevent soil erosion, reduce landslides and maintain mountain streams; and, in Mongolia, nomadic herders’ knowledge about the local environment has been combined with scientific studies to generate more robust analysis and prediction of climate change.

With this increased synchronicity to nature in a way which has been largely lost in modern society, such knowledge promoting sustainable practices can be extremely valuable for present-day climate action, building socioecological resilience.

Evidently, indigenous sustainable ecosystem management poses huge potential for climate change mitigation and adaptation. As such, many are beginning to realise the potential this holds, utilising these systems to develop countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) to create more effective solutions to localised climate change.

It’s not just what communities do, but also where they do it

Such novel adaptations are fundamental not just because of their ingenuity, but because the lands which indigenous populations occupy are some of the world’s most ecologically important.

More than 20% of the carbon stored above ground is found in forestland managed by indigenous peoples, with these regions also rich in natural resources and home to over 80% of our planet’s biodiversity. Their actions safeguard crucial areas, maintaining rural economies and sustaining food and water sources for over 420 million people, while also regulating ecosystems and increasing carbon sequestration.

If indigenous communities can successfully maintain control over these regions, which make up 24% of the world’s land, whilst simultaneously preserving their ways of life, traditions and knowledge for future generations, they may hold the key to resisting future impacts of climate change.

Indigenous activism: frontline eco-warriors

With such close proximity to environmental issues, ongoing activism by indigenous communities proves to be some of the most powerful we see today, despite ongoing political marginalisation.

From the Native Nations Rise march in Washington DC, to the CONAIE organisation paralysing Ecuador in protest to expanding mining, as well as indigenous activists demonstrating on the streets of Glasgow during 2021’s COP26 conference, communities are now utilising their voices to initiate change.

Ongoing efforts are beginning to be noticed, with greater international recognition and inclusion of indigenous peoples in environmental governance frameworks, such as the establishment of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference.

Facilitating this participation gives an incredibly beneficial platform for indigenous communities to contribute to the development and implementation of sustainable climate policies and initiatives around the world.

The opportunity for change

However, much work is still needed as there is still an overwhelming lack of inclusivity in global discussions, with those in the Global South and indigenous peoples still frequently excluded despite their importance in combating climate change.

Now, global institutions possess the opportunity to shift historical power dynamics by incorporating indigenous knowledge, culture and practice into decision-making processes. Challenging the status quo and empowering marginalised communities not only leads to a more equitable future and secures recognition of their fundamental rights, but also holds the potential to resist the climate crisis in novel ways.

Evidently, systemic change is vital, but the undeniable potential of indigenous communities to foster a more just and impactful approach to climate change cannot be ignored moving forwards.