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Sustainability News

August 25, 2014

Rebecca Tsosie 2011A Thought Leader Series Piece

By Rebecca Tsosie

Note: Rebecca Tsosie is a senior sustainability scientist and Regents’ Professor of Law at Arizona State University.

There are two ways to view the relationship between Indigenous peoples and sustainability policy. One approach places them at the center of sustainability studies, and one relegates them to the periphery. The latter approach became the subject of a recent controversy between experts commenting on the latest draft of the United Nations’ new sustainable development policy.

Significance of the term “Indigenous peoples”

Several weeks ago, a panel of experts from the United Nations expressed concern that the latest draft of Sustainable Development Goals had deleted all references to “Indigenous peoples,” substituting instead the phrase “Indigenous and local communities.” The shift might seem harmless to the uninformed reader. However, as the U.N. experts noted, the effect of the change was to undermine the success that Indigenous peoples have had in claiming their rightful identity as “peoples” with a right to “self-determination,” equivalent to that of all other peoples under international law.

The historic recognition of Indigenous peoples’ political status emerged in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by a majority consensus of the United Nations General Assembly in 2007. Since that time, the term has been used in a wide range of national and international legal and policy documents. The term “peoples” within international law designates autonomous political groups who have the right of self-governance in their domestic affairs and who must be treated with respect and dignity by national governments in their collective capacity.

The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples contains 46 articles that delineate the rights of Indigenous peoples to protect their lands and national environments, to safeguard their cultural heritage (including language, religion and cultural resources) and to maintain their own institutions of self-governance. The declaration also counsels national governments to involve Indigenous peoples in policymaking decisions, and to obtain their “free, prior and informed consent” before taking actions that would jeopardize their fundamental rights.

The decision to omit “Indigenous peoples” from the Sustainable Development Goals represents a “step backwards for Indigenous peoples,” said the U.N. experts, particularly because “Indigenous peoples face distinct development challenges, and fare worse in terms of social and economic development than non-indigenous sectors of the population in nearly all of the countries that they live in.”

Impacts of climate change on Indigenous peoples

In fact, most Indigenous peoples throughout the world live in areas that are being heavily impacted by climate change and forms of development (including timber harvesting and mining) that are quite damaging to the natural environment. Indigenous peoples, such as the Inuit people in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, are facing destruction of their homes by flooding and are having difficulty continuing their traditional, subsistence lifeways, given the destruction of sea ice and the impacts upon sea and land mammals in the Arctic.

In addition, Indigenous peoples throughout the world often lack the educational or professional training necessary to transition into an urban economy, and their very survival as distinct, land-based cultures would be jeopardized by such a shift. Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier made this point quite emphatically. In her 2005 statement in support of the petition filed by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference against the United States in the Inter-American Commission for harms caused by climate change, she stated, “Inuit are an ancient people. Our way of life is dependent upon the natural environment and the animals. Climate change is destroying our environment and eroding our culture. But we refuse to disappear. We will not become a footnote to globalization.”

Most experts agree that Indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable populations in the world to the projected impacts of climate change. The question is how global nation-states should respond. The U.N. experts counseled that “the new Sustainable Development Goals present a unique opportunity to remedy [the] shortcomings [of current policy] and the historical injustices resulting from racism, discrimination and inequalities long suffered by Indigenous peoples across the world.” They encouraged states to “affirm that the human rights-based approach to development should be a key framework in achieving sustainable and equitable development.”

This advice accords with other current United Nations activities, including the continuing commemoration of an “International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” and the conclusion of a second “Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.” Both are designed to bring continuing recognition to the place of Indigenous peoples within the global politics of cultural and environmental protection.

Sustainability practices of Indigenous peoples

Those lessons are equally applicable to the United States, which maintains a trust relationship with over 560 federally-recognized American Indian and Alaska Native Nations, and recognizes that these Indigenous Nations are separate sovereigns with governance authority over their lands, resources and members. In this respect, federal and state agencies ought to consult with tribal governments as they develop sustainability policies for the future, and there are executive orders and other policy mandates in the United States that require such consultations in many cases.

However, all too often, tribal consultation protocols become a “procedural” requirement, overlooking the substantive value of involving tribal governments in policy design. In fact, the place of Indigenous peoples within the politics and practice of sustainability has a substantive dimension that is deeply rooted within Indigenous cultures. For this reason, Indigenous sustainability might be better positioned at the center of sustainability studies.

Indigenous peoples have survived as separate and distinct nations within often-challenging natural, political and economic environments precisely because they maintain cultural values consistent with sustainability. Indigenous peoples are unique because they have a long-standing and intergenerational presence upon their traditional territories, and this “ethics of place” is deeply embedded within their cultures and social organization. For most Indigenous peoples, “sustainability” is the result of conscious and intentional strategies designed to secure a balance between human beings and the natural world and to preserve that balance for the benefit of future generations.

Indigenous sustainability is represented by generations of practices, governance structures and complex knowledge systems. These have enabled Indigenous peoples to survive and adapt over many generations, despite the massive shifts in their social and environmental worlds caused by European settlement of Indigenous lands. Resilience, stability and balance are fundamental values within the constellation of Indigenous sustainability practices. Today, Indigenous nations continue to invoke those values and others as they develop and reinvigorate their own survival mechanisms without compromising culture, tradition, or enduring and long-standing lifeways.

Indigenous knowledge is the cornerstone of Indigenous sustainability practices, a fact which has also received global recognition. The United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, for example, highlights its “Traditional Knowledge Initiative,” which seeks to study contemporary Indigenous practices and the use of Indigenous knowledge systems as a way to understand how to use resources efficiently, improve waste management and adapt to climate change.

Indigenous peoples at the center of sustainability studies

Today, many scientists are studying Indigenous traditional knowledge as a tool to identify and document climate change, as well as to design adaptation planning strategies. However, it is necessary to realize that “Indigenous traditional knowledge systems” are complex and diverse. They are also holistic in nature and thus, can only be appropriately governed and maintained by each Indigenous group. Indigenous epistemologies represent important sources of information about the people and their natural environment, including systems of Native science and ethics.

However, Indigenous traditional knowledge should not be “mined” for only those bits of information that are perceived to benefit the entire world. This would be exploitative and represent yet another attempt to “appropriate” from Indigenous peoples for the benefit of others, this time focusing on “intangible” cultural resources, rather than Indigenous lands, cultural patrimony or natural resources. Instead of reprising the historic legacy of past policies, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples directs states to recognize that Indigenous peoples are the owners and custodians of their traditional knowledge, and they must be the ones to set the terms for disclosing or sharing this knowledge with other groups.

Dr. Gary Dirks, the director of ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, has described sustainability as an effort to promote human prosperity and well-being while protecting and enhancing the earth’s support systems. This statement highlights the importance of “Indigenous sustainability.” Indigenous peoples ought to be at the center of sustainability studies because they are key players in the governance of their lands and territories, and because they embody the construct of “cultural sustainability” that is necessary for human survival as “peoples.”

Indigenous peoples are separate social, political and cultural groups who are now subsumed within the political structures of nation-states, but they also have an internationally recognized right to “self-determination,” which enables them to have a distinctive voice and place within larger governance structures. In the United States, tribal governments have an important role to play in the design of sustainability policy. Indigenous cultures are distinctive and often maintain significant knowledge about the natural world because Indigenous peoples have been part of their territories since “time immemorial.”

There are similarities and differences between Western and Indigenous knowledge systems. Because they often have different metaphysical constructions of the natural world, the agency of human beings and “other than human” peoples, it is necessary to understand the ways in which the two sets of systems complement one another and where they diverge. The dialogue about sustainability must be generated from within Indigenous thought systems, as well as from within Western thought systems, and the interchange must proceed from a platform of respect and mutual engagement. This type of intercultural sharing between and among diverse peoples will open new opportunities to discover our potential as human beings in an ever-changing natural world.

About the author: Rebecca Tsosie teaches in the areas of Indian Law, Property, Bioethics and Critical Race Theory, as well as seminars in International Indigenous Rights and in the College’s Tribal Policy, Law and Government Master of Laws program. She has written and published widely on doctrinal and theoretical issues related to tribal sovereignty, environmental policy and cultural rights, and is the author of many prominent articles dealing with cultural resources and cultural pluralism. Professor Tsosie also is the co-author with Carole Goldberg, Kevin Washburn and Elizabeth Rodke Washburn of a federal Indian law casebook. Her current research deals with Native rights to genetic resources. Professor Tsosie annually speaks at several national conferences on tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and tribal rights to environmental and cultural resources.