Why Is It Important to Support Indigenous-Led Environmental Projects?

In a 2018 National Geographic news release, Gleb Raygorodetsky reported data summarizing how much biodiversity remains in different places around the world. One of the most important things this research demonstrated, that surprised Western people but not Indigenous communities, is the real effectiveness of Indigenous ways of caring for the land.

At some point in history, Indigenous Peoples were everyone, everywhere. That changed with the birth of Western culture, which is not Land-based. Colonization spread Western culture into the nearby lands and cultures of Indigenous peoples, and eventually even into Indigenous lands far from the areas where Western culture began. So Indigenous people now make up only about 5% of the world’s population, and our lands have steadily decreased since historic times as well.  Yet a whopping 80% of the world’s total remaining biodiversity exists on the one-quarter of the world’s surface that’s still protected by Indigenous people. So it seems pretty clear that Indigenous people know something very significant about caring for ecosystems in effective ways, that people in Western culture don’t know or perhaps forgot somewhere along the way.

As environmental crises escalate worldwide, therefore, it is time for Indigenous people to take the lead on environmental initiatives of many different kinds. This is a transformative call to action that plays out in local and regional environmental healing and restoration projects on the lands, rivers, and seacoasts of Indigenous communities worldwide. It demands a complete restructuring of the power dynamic between Western and Indigenous communities, particularly as these are expressed in the agendas and processes of philanthropic organizations. As Suzanne Benally, Rajasvini Bhansali, Carla Fredericks, and Tia Oros Peters have pointed out, Indigenous people can only take the lead in environmental initiatives in a meaningful way if Western philanthropy starts funding those efforts.

According to a major 2023 report by Dorceta E. Taylor and Molly Blondell of the Yale School of the Environment, only about 4% of all the grant funds awarded to environmental organizations between 2015 and 2017 went to groups with annual revenues of less than $1 million dollars. Most Indigenous groups doing environmental work fall in this category, but so do many other small non-Indigenous mainstream environmental organizations. So only a fraction of this 4% of the pie went to Indigenous groups. But not even all of those groups were actually Indigenous-led. About half of all the grant funds awarded to “Indigenous environmental organizations” actually went to groups headed by a team of white executives, even though white-led organizations make up only about 6% of the environmental groups that describe themselves as “Indigenous.” So no matter how you slice it, it’s pretty clear the piece of the grant funding pie that winds up in the hands of Indigenous-led environmental organizations isn’t even 2% of the total. In fact, these statistics make it pretty clear that less than 1% of all the grant funds awarded to environmental organizations go to Indigenous-led groups.

Yet we are the people with a demonstrated track record of effective environmental initiatives.

For funders to step up to the plate, they have to stop selectively awarding half of their grant funds to the 6% of “Indigenous organizations” that are led by non-Indigenous people. They also need to direct more than 4% of their funds to the kinds of small, local organizations that authentically represent Indigenous Peoples and Places. Fundamental changes in the evaluation processes funders typically use to assess the environmental work Indigenous peoples do are an essential part of the necessary change too. For example, Western evaluation criteria hold Indigenous people accountable to Western values that undercut the systems and methods of Indigenous environmental practice. This results in acculturation that destroys the very effectiveness the funder wanted to support and facilitate to begin with.  So, as prominent Māori evaluators Fiona Cram and Donna Mertens have pointed out (2016:177), “Collaboration is not about ‘democratic or equal participation in decision-making’; rather, it is about indigenous peoples having the final say.” In fact, more and more, Indigenous-Western collaboration is about Indigenous peoples having the FIRST say — initiating what happens, and establishing agendas, goals, methods, and evaluation processes  that support and facilitate the Indigenous methods of healing Lands and Waters that are effective enough to make a real difference.

If these changes do not take place, how are Indigenous people who are already marginalized supposed to keep caring for their lands and the biodiversity on those lands? Western-led ecosystem restoration projects get fiscal support, so why not Indigenous-led projects when they are so clearly more effective even without external support? What could happen if funding was commenserate with simple demographics: 5% of the grant pie going to Indigenous-led groups? Mainstream environmental groups don’t have to work without financial support, and many of their staff members are not economically marginalized to begin with. Even the organizations that arrange for volunteers to do the work of cleaning beaches or rivers have salaried staff and an office to support their work. Big organizations that monitor river water pollution, protect endangered species, or deal with invasive plants have even larger budgets, supported by more donations of many different kinds. So why do people somehow expect Indigenous communities to do the same work, even more effectively, but without any financial support at all?

Obviously we are not suggesting that only Indigenous-led environmental initiatives should be funded. It’s not logistically possible for 5% of the world’s population to turn the tide of environmental destruction single-handedly. But an increasing number of Indigenous-led projects are among the many efforts underway worldwide to preserve, revitalize, and restore the world’s ecosystems. Yet, and demonstrably, almost NO grant money supports these efforts.

The time has come for Western culture to support Indigenous-led and -implemented initiatives to preserve, revitalize, and restore the Land — because Indigenous-led environmental initiatives work. The world is out of time for anything less than that.

You can read a story that exemplifies the role of Indigenous Knowledge in environmental initiatives here. It is followed by a page of additional resources.

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