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“The voice of Indigenous peoples is the real voice of nature”

Indigenous rights demand centre stage at COP15 as delegates discuss continued financialization of nature

EnvironmentIndigenous PoliticsSocial Movements

A jade mine in Myanmar. Photo by Hosana Chay/NRGI Myanmar/Flickr.

“False solutions”

In our ways, spiritual consciousness is the highest form of politics.
The people who are living on this planet need to break with the narrow concept of human liberation, and begin to see liberation as something which needs to be extended to the whole of the Natural World. What is needed is the liberation of all the things that support Life—the air, the waters, the trees—all the things which support the sacred web of Life.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy addressed these words to the United Nations in September 1977 at a time when First Nations on Turtle Island were seeking legal recognition of their existence and protection of their human rights. They might as well have been spoken today, as the second half of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, or COP15, gathered in Montréal over the past week to develop a plan on preserving global biodiversity over the next decade.

The opening week of COP15 brought together representatives from nation states, businesses, NGOs, and activist groups to discuss “nature positive” policy frameworks and targets under 30x30, a much touted (and controversial) plan by the global community to conserve 30 percent of terrestrial and marine habitat by 2030.

As business delegates emphasized changing consumer behaviour as a critical condition of meeting this target, a sliver of the market driving energy demand reflects a convoluted picture. Alibaba, the Chinese multinational manufacturing, e-commerce and shipping company, which presented at COP15, reported an almost 23 percent increase in annual revenue for 2022 totalling $134.567 billion in profits. The Bezos Earth Fund, another participant in the 30x30 initiative, continues to parcel out $10 billion of the Amazon founder’s wealth. Meanwhile, the company reported yet another annual increase in profits approaching 10 percent at $502.19 billion in revenue. Meanwhile, traditional ways of life like pastoralism are pitted against conservationism, instead of targeting the destructive and abusive practices of big agricultural corporations.

Millions of dollars in funding for biodiversity preservation, conservation projects, and “nature-based solutions” have been announced at COP15 by states and philanthropic foundations alike. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed $350 million in federal funding “to protect nature.” Québec Premier François Legault announced a $650 million investment over the next six years for the protection of 30 percent of the province’s territory under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Among the key axes of this funding, Legault described investment into Québec’s north intended to redistribute the economic advantages historically held by the south of the province, emphasizing Indigenous leadership in biodiversity protection.

But the relationship between state-governed conservation areas and Indigenous communities remains a strong point of contention amid negotiations for the 30x30 target at COP15. Representatives from Amsterdam-based environmental network Friends of the Earth called out the national targets as a “mathematical exercise,” where “greenwashing is being presented as policy,” and Indigenous peoples are threatened with eviction from lands that are to be newly designated as conservation zones.

Apart from state and business delegations, many Indigenous speakers appeared under the umbrella of the Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories (ICCA) Consortium, which receives funding from the San Francisco-based Christensen Fund and the Stockholm-based SwedBio (a branch of the Stockholm Resilience Centre). Along with advocating for a human rights based approach to biodiversity, ICCA delegates emphasized the right of Indigenous communities to benefit from natural resources like timber, natural gas, and critical minerals.

Delegates from the ICCA and NGO representatives repeatedly emphasized how conservation laws and natural parks present another form of land grabbing by state governments, displacing Indigenous peoples and criminalizing traditional ways of life. Scientists debating new biotechnologies and regulations on living modified organisms (LMOs), however, pointed to the protections offered to inhabitants of lands under conservation status, as exemplified by Germany’s Federal Nature Conservation Act which prevents the genetic modification of wild animals and plants within protected areas.

While activists called for the recognition of Indigenous-governed territories as protected areas, centring a human-rights based approach to biodiversity conservation, business lobbies showed how clever interpretation of language can leave room for abuse.

A recent report by the Yokohama-based International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), whose mandate is to promote sustainable management and conservation of tropical forests, quotes ITTO Executive Director Sheam Satkuru: “Sustainable forest harvesting is not deforestation; it is wood security, and wood should be granted the value it deserves.” While Satkuru’s statement referred to forest management practices that conserve soil and water, prevent land degradation and desertification, and reduce risks of floods and landslides, what are the chances of corporate greenwashing under the name of “wood security”?

Indigenous activists protest in front of the Canada Pavilion against Sun Belo, a Canadian mining company, at United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montréal. Photo by Andrej Ivanov.

Gaps and shifting paradigms

“You are not a master. You are a son of this land. You are the son of nature.”

Chief Vyacheslav Shadrin, a Yukaghir Elder from Sakha-Yakutia in the Russian Far East, spoke with Canadian Dimension about how Indigenous knowledge and values are being integrated into scientific paradigms and international laws like the Convention on Biodiversity.

“We have very close connections, and we feel all that has happened with our land.”

As a research fellow, Chief Shadrin has been working closely with the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, following the work of Vasilii Robbek, the late Even leader and scholar from Yakutia, to preserve and integrate Indigenous knowledge into scientific frameworks. Describing the practical applications of Indigenous knowledge over academic theory, Chief Shadrin emphasized a harmonious relationship with the needs of nature.

In the fragile ecosystem of the tundra that he described as currently “sick”, he emphasized the practice of receiving rather than taking, giving time to slow-growing organisms like lichen to regenerate over years.

Referring to the scientific term ‘ecological capacity’ he described the false perception of sparsely-populated lands, such as those of the Yukaghir, as empty, and therefore available to be taken and used. “We say, no, it isn’t empty. Every territory has his masters. Not only the people are masters, but masters [are] wolves, bears, thousands of animals, and others.”

Chief Shadrin related a story of how he, as a Yukaghir, experiences an empathetic connection with non-human life. “I have a tree,” he began, revisiting a story he cut short at a press conference days earlier, “who is a twin brother to me.”

He continues: “Maybe I was the last Yukaghir who received this ritual. It means that we have relations. I have relations with this tree. My relatives who live in my homeland see this tree and know about me—what’s happened with me, what I feel, what I am now. I am here, thousands and thousands of kilometres away, but they know what’s happened with me.

“And it’s real. I’m a mortal person, but I feel it and understand that I have some relations, not only with this tree. We have relations with our lands. That is why when we speak about climate change and civilization, our elders say that we can adapt to all changes, but we can’t adapt without our land.”

Such an intimate entanglement may be inscrutable under worldviews that don’t recognize the lifeforce of non-human entities, and don’t consider the interconnected nature of all matter. But epistemic shifts in Western sciences have gained critical momentum with the integration of Indigenous knowledge that recognizes planetary entities like forests, rivers, and mountains as imbued with a sense of vitality, life, and agency.

Studies on traditional ecological knowledge and complex non-human agency in the works of academics like Eduardo Kohn, Marisol de la Cadena and Robin Wall Kimmerer have brought notions of animacy, agency, sophisticated non-human languages, and interdependence into the frameworks of contemporary natural and social sciences, philosophy, and physics.

Though Indigenous worldviews have long viewed non-human beings as “persons,” this formalization of knowledge can influence the future of legal systems, regulations, and policies such as those being debated in the context of COP15. Recognition of the personhood of rivers, like the Mutuhekau Shipu, or Magpie River, by the Innu, and the Whanganui River by the Māori are symbolic victories for the rights of non-human life on the planet. Movements like Stop Ecocide are lobbying to recognize mass damage and destruction of ecosystems as a crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, an ICCA delegate from Nepal and co-chair of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), acknowledged the challenge of reconciling Indigenous rights, environmental concerns and the global demand for natural resources that are found on Indigenous territories. “The challenge is really, will Indigenous peoples be in the decision-making seats?” he asks. “Will Indigenous peoples get the driver’s seat of that kind of nature-based solution?”

“It looks good, when you say ‘we recognize this as a solution, now we’re coming to your territories’,” he told Canadian Dimension, despite carefully acknowledging improvements in business rhetoric from extraction to ‘solutions.’ “But the solutions that are coming in are always leading to human rights violations, always creating problems. Because when it’s about money, it’s very easy to divide the community. You create conflict within the community.

“There is a fear that this could be another intervention to take away, but for me it should be the other way around. Give back what you have taken away.”

Yakutia, Russian Far East. Photo by Eugene Kaspersky/Flickr.

Fighting for biodiversity in the wake of a coup

Speaking to an almost empty room amid surrounding presentations on financing biodiversity, Indigenous activists from Myanmar had no qualms about explicitly decrying privatization as a cause of biodiversity loss. Some activists used pseudonyms to protect their identities upon their pending return to Myanmar, where the military junta has killed over 2,500 civilians and arrested 16,000 people, creating over one million internally displaced persons since the February 2021 coup.

The Indigenous Karen and Kachin peoples are among many ethnic groups experiencing violent state oppression under Myanmar’s military government. In a country rich in minerals, Indigenous activists fear reprisal as business executives collaborate with the Burmese military, providing revenue while the latter kills dissenters with impunity.

A brief published by the All Burma Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance (ABIPA), a network of over 40 Indigenous peoples’ organizations, described how mining projects were impacting Kachin and Karen territories.

Gold mining projects involving local businessmen in the Tanintharyi Region are causing rapid environmental devastation and impacting communities living downstream of the Tanintharyi River. In the Myitkyina region, Kachin jade tycoon Yup Zau Hkwang has been accused of lawlessly expanding mining operations around lands purchased by the Jade Land Company since the coup nearly two years ago. In Putao, commercial fishing, hunting and unregulated gold mining continue to expand, affecting local agricultural lands without recourse from authorities.

Steward, of ABIPA, described how Indigenous peoples’ existence is not recognized under state law. Despite the existence of around 390 land-related laws and policies in Myanmar, as Steward explained, “Indigenous peoples, their existence and their practices are technically speaking illegal. They are not recognized.”

Steward described how the situation for Indigenous peoples in Myanmar has deteriorated since the coup, as they face the challenges of both military oppression and the growing climate crisis. Steward also described how conservation laws enacted by the Myanmar government, like the forestry law and the Conservation of Biodiversity and Protected Area law of 2018, are actually dangerous for Indigenous peoples.

“These laws, according to our understanding and experiences,” he explained, “are made to [displace] Indigenous peoples from their own land. And these laws are made in favour of investments, privatization and the so-called free-market economy at the expense of Indigenous peoples.”

In contrast to the environmental abuses of private companies and military control under state oversight, Saw Paul Sein Twa of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) highlighted the success story of the Karen-founded Salween Peace Park (SPP). Considered a major success due to the collaboration between numerous Indigenous communities despite the presence of the junta, the park now covers 6,700 square kilometres and is entirely self-governed by local communities.

The park, Paul explained, is based on the Karen worldview and principles of co-existence with nature. “We firmly believe that humans are part of nature, not its masters,” he said, describing how the community-led park blends Indigenous and scientific techniques, is accountable to the people, and exists as a conduit for community needs.

“The Salween Peace Park’s lifeblood is its over 200 Indigenous territories where decision-making centres firmly at ground-level and customary tenure is formally recognized by local governmental law.”

With politicians and philanthropists dedicating millions toward efforts to protect biodiversity amid the COP15 negotiations, Paul called for fair access and simplification of grant requirements for donors to make similar projects possible. “We need to shift the paradigm away from donor-driven projects and targets, and refocus on listening to local community needs, so that the vast part of global climate and conservation funding can be used effectively to ensure the sustainability of community-driven projects like the SPP.”

Salween River, Salween Peace Park, Photo courtesy of Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).

Geopolitical games with fragile ecosystems

As activists from Myanmar demonstrated, militarization has profoundly detrimental effects on biodiversity and the integrity of Indigenous ways of life, and cannot be seen separately from global efforts to preserve biodiversity. While polar ice melts and remote and northern regions emerge as geopolitical hotspots, supply chain companies are also opportunistically expanding their shipping routes through the Arctic Ocean, The fragility of polar ecosystems and the integrity of Indigenous ways of life are inextricably linked in a dash for resources that has been dubbed the ‘Arctic Rush.’

The Arctic’s growing accessibility for industry has attracted not just countries with polar regions. Other Asian energy giants like India’s oil consortium of state-owned firms including ONGC Videsh Ltd., Bharat Petroresources Ltd., Indian Oil Corp. and Oil India Ltd. have sought to capitalize on unexplored hydrocarbon reserves. India has sought to whet its appetite for Siberian oil and gas following international sanctions on Russia this year, aiming to increase its already $16 billion stake in the country.

Responding to the impacts of this emerging energy reality and the growing militarization of polar regions, Chief Shadrin spoke delicately, highlighting the need for robust protection in federal legislation for Indigenous communities and nations.

Yakutia is one of the autonomous regions within Russia’s Far East that has strong measures supporting Indigenous self-governance. Regional laws are a means of compelling dialogue between local communities and industrial companies. “We can’t stop the process of industrialization, because this is one of the results of Russian geopolitics. But we try to find the tools,” said Chief Shadrin.

“Transnational companies, when they come to our lands, they must recognize our legislation,” he added, noting how Indigenous communities are currently trying to improve the existing federal law in Russia to recognize status.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent international sanctions regime weigh heavily on Indigenous communities. “All civil society is under pressure now, in Russia,” Chief Shadrin explained. “All the sanctions [have] stopped our work with other Indigenous organizations in the world, stopped our relationships with other brothers and sisters abroad.

“We must change the minds of politicians. Not only Russian politicians—Nordic countries, the US, Canada, and others. They must understand, when they speak about policy, they must think about the voice of the land, and of peoples who live on this land.”

Mount Everest—known as Sagarmatha in Nepal and Qomolangma in Tibet—is considered sacred to Indigenous communities in Nepal. Lakpa Nuri described the relationship of sherpas with the Himalayas: “They always perform rituals before they start the climbing. That’s to say you’re paying respect, because you’re stepping your foot on the mountains.”

While numerous presentations at COP15 emphasized “reducing drivers,” there is a clear paradox in the growing demand for lithium for consumer products and electric vehicles, as well as for military-grade batteries.

As companies look to source lithium from outside the South American “lithium triangle” and closer to the majority of battery manufacturers—in an effort to evade national protectionist policies—countries in Central and South-East Asia are being targeted by prospecting. In any shift away from fossil fuels, the rare earth metal is primed to become as strategic as oil.

Earlier this summer, Chinese scientists discovered a lithium deposit in the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas. Mongolia, often dubbed the “Poland of northeast Asia,” is also known to have significant lithium deposits. These were initially discovered during the Soviet era, but Canadian prospectors picked up the trail in the past two years.

As a co-host of COP15, China faces harsh scrutiny for its domestic pollution in manufacturing, including the lithium flats in Inner Mongolia. Close to 60 percent of global battery manufacturing for electric vehicles takes place there. The region is home to Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. a leading producer which supplies Tesla, BMW and Volkswagen. While factories, supply chains, and new sources of lithium are integrated into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the environmental cost of the “green energy” revolution comes into sharper focus.

Looking beyond the clear abuses of the fossil fuel industry to the growing need to keep the nascent ‘clean’ energy industry in check, Paul told Canadian Dimension: “If the raw materials are sourced from countries like Burma, or other countries in conflict situations, it creates a lot of unregulated businesses, exploitation, or extractive activities that further lead to human rights violations.”

“The problem is not with China, on the one hand,” added Steward. “We are used to blaming China. But I think it’s also something that has to do with Western hypocrisy. And if we can look into that, I think we can find some solutions.”

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.


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