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Indigenous knowledge and advocacy is now seen as vital to the fight against climate change

A diverse group of protestors with their right arms raised hold a banner reading: Indigenous Justice is Climate Justice
Image Credit: John Englart/Climate Action Network

As nations develop strategies to combat climate change, they're beginning to turn to solutions from the indigenous communities that have been on the front lines of the efforts to protect the planet.

A 2021 report from the indigenous rights organization, the ICCA, details just how much the rest of the world depends on indigenous communities for preserving planetary health.

"In Latin America and the Caribbean, Indigenous and tribal peoples manage between 330 and 380 million hectares of forest," the ICCA report said. "Those forests store more than one-eighth of all the carbon in the world’s tropical forests and house a large portion of the world’s endangered animal and plant species. Almost half (45 per cent) of the large ‘wilderness’ areas in the Amazon Basin are in Indigenous territories and several studies have found that Indigenous peoples’ territories have lower rates of deforestation and lower risk of wildfires than state protected areas."

Overall, indigenous people are only five percent of the world’s population, but their land contains 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, according to a report from the United Nations.

Now, governments are beginning to see the value in returning lands claimed during colonization to the tribes that had historically settled them and turning to indigenous fields of knowledge for insights into planetary preservation.

"80% of the world’s biodiversity needs to be chaperoned and shepherded by people who know the land," said Keolu Fox, a Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and assistant professor at University of California, San Diego, affiliated with the Department of Anthropology, the Global Health Program, the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, the Climate Action Lab, and the Indigenous Futures Lab.

Fox, one of the Science Leads for FootPrint Coalition's fast grants Science Engine, has long advocated for applying indigenous knowledge to develop climate change solutions.

"It looks like invisible technology to people, because it’s not necessarily an iPhone," Fox said. "[But] one thing that we’re searching for, striving for, and attempting to touch is this ancient knowledge system."

In some cases, tribes across the US are taking matters into their own hands and buying up thousands of acres of land -- with the help of state governments -- in an effort to preserve their territories and apply that indigenous knowledge themselves.

For instance, earlier this year Virginia's Rappahannock and Chickahominy Tribes reacquired hundreds of acres of sacred land. At the same time, California initiated a program that would provide $100 million to the state's tribal communities to buy back land.

Meanwhile, in Northern California the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council working with the Save The Redwoods organization and the utility Pacific Gas and Electric, reclaimed 523 acres of redwood forest in Northern California, adding to land reacquired since 1997, as The Washington Post reported.

“Too often, California Native American tribal communities are overlooked and suffer many of the worst impacts of climate change,” said Governor Newsom, in a statement. “The California way is not to hide from our past, but to embrace it with a commitment to build upon our values of inclusiveness and equity for everyone who calls this state home.”

The proposal is part of Newsom's commitment to preserve one third of California's existing natural resources by 2030.

For some, the commitment from California is a step in the right direction, but far more needs to be done.

“It’s a baby step in the right direction, but I have a lot of questions,” Joely Proudfit, a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians and the director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at Cal State San Marcos, told Grist.

Other members of the indigenous community said that the money is just a small fraction of what would be needed to truly protect and restore native lands -- especially given the price of real estate in California and the grievous harm inflicted on tribal populations by colonizing settlers.

"Land back as an initiative and an idea and an ideology is a powerful one. It’s not just about biodiversity it’s about people charting the future," said Fox. "It’s the root of indigineity and how they’re tied to the space. What individual communities do with the space is going to be the most important part."

Beyond the land back movement, researchers and policy makers are also turning to indigenous knowledge for climate positive solutions.

“There’s so much that we need to learn, obviously, from the tribal communities about how to do this,” Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary told Grist. “We’ve disconnected ourselves from all the tribal ecological knowledge that we need to heal and care for the lands.”

Thousands of miles from California, around the Arctic Circle, scientists are taking initial steps to incorporate indigenous knowledge into their research.

That's where an organization called SmartIce is working with 32 Inuit communities to track and measure sea ice in the Arctic Circle.

With its capacity to store thousands of gigaton of carbon dioxide within permafrost and the ability to reflect solar rays across thousands of miles of ice sheets, the Arctic is vital to climate stabilization.

Now, as that ice is threatened, scientists are turning to indigenous knowledge to understand what can and can't be done -- and how exactly things are changing.

“Inuit are the original Arctic scientists,” Trevor Bell, a geography professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and co-founder SmartICE (now an independent Inuit operation) told Bloomberg. “They’ve been there making observations of the ice and the land for centuries to millennia. In their heads, they have the longest records of sea ice changes in the world.”

With FootPrint Coalition's Science Engine, Fox is responsible for finding and allocating funding for the next generation of these projects.

"Let’s go back to... creating a system of abundance," said Fox, of the goal for the grants he's making through the Coalition's Indigenous Futures research. "How can we find ways that these two complimentary systems of technology create ways that are much more efficient together... Like, what happens when we couple indigenous understanding with new technologies. What happens when we embed these technologies, CRISPR CAS9, AI?"

In fact, two programs that Fox and FootPrint Coalition are funding exemplify how these technologies can be leveraged by indigenous communities to support a better understanding of the world around us.

In British Columbia, scientists are working with First Nations tribes to develop computer-vision models to automate counting and species identification for real time data integration. The idea is to optimize for fishing and population management so that fisheries don't over harvest when populations are low or under-fish when they're higher.

"When we envisioned providing fast grants for projects focused on Indigenous futurism an d climate resilience this is the type of project that we hoped would come our way," Fox wrote of the project. "Indigenous fishery knowledge systems and computer vision! It doesn't get much cooler than this."

Another project initiated by Michael Martinez, a member of Alaska's Yup'ik and Otomi ethnicities, is working on a process to genetically engineer microbes to mine for the minerals and metals vital to the transition to a renewable energy-based economy. The process would be less intensive than current mining techniques and potentially better preserve the land.

As the project notes, the technology "could help prevent future mine leaks by lessening the acids used in extraction and even aid in cleaning up the 550,000 U.S. abandoned mines; cost to clean these mines was estimated at $54 billion... Implementing biomining could make for a surgical-like approach to sustainable extractions in Arctic mines."

These approaches are still relatively new, but the hope is that coupling indigenous systems of preservation with technological innovation could lead to a more abundant and sustainable future.

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