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

It’s all right to ask that question. But if you do, you need to listen to the answer.

Western culture is so pervasive that it’s often hard for its people to understand there are other ways to see the world. But the simple truth is that Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people have different experiences of reality. Why does this matter? What could Indigenous worldview bring to your life, or to the world, that’s important enough to be worth your time or attention?

The answer is pretty simple: Indigenous environmental practices work, and they work so effectively that they can save the Earth at this point in time.

Here is the evidence: Indigenous people make up only 5% of the world’s population, yet we care for 25 to 30% of the world’s remaining healthy ecosystems. And we care for these ecosystems so well that 80% of the biodiversity left in this world is on our lands.*

Compare this to the track record of Western-led initiatives — not in a critical or judgmental way, but just objectively. How many Western-led environmental initiatives have been implemented over the past 50 years? How much money has been put into these Western-led initiatives, by international governments, non-profits, and private philanthropists?

And have things dramatically improved as a result of all this effort and all that money? There have been small but meaningful victories here and there, yes. But how does the world’s environmental situation today compare to how it was in 1970? Think about extreme weather events, biodiversity, natural resource availability, soil quality, polar ice and sea levels, prevalence and spread of new pathogens, and the prognosis for global survival. It’s pretty clear that things have continued to grow steadily worse despite all of Western culture’s efforts to improve them over the last 50 years.

So it seems pretty obvious that Indigenous people are doing something very different from what Western people are doing. And it seems pretty obvious that what we’re doing works better than what you’re doing.

It must be pointed out that there are those who would say that there’s really no difference, that the quality of life and environmental stability on Indigenous lands has decreased since 1970 too, in parallel to its decrease elsewhere. But that decline has been much slower than the parallel decline in the dominant culture, and it’s rooted in the large plunge in environmental quality caused by Western culture’s practices. It is absolutely the case that the disastrous impact of Western culture’s environmental practices has harmed Indigenous lands and peoples.  A prime example is the many ways that Western practices have warmed Arctic permafrost,  harmed wildlife habitats, and raised sea levels enough to flood Indigenous Arctic villages, at the same time that the use of PCBs and other toxic chemicals has polluted the marine animals Arctic peoples eat. All of these things together have caused a tremendous decline in the health of Arctic ecosystems where Indigenous people live, and it’s a decline driven by Western practices. Published literature is filled with abundant documentation of the fact that the decline that’s taken place on Indigenous lands worldwide, despite our best efforts to stop it, is the direct result of Western practices in the very same way. Yet, despite all this, Indigenous lands still make up nearly 30% of all the world’s remaining healthy ecosystems and contain 80% of its biodiversity.

As environmental crises escalate, it’s would be wise for Western culture to acknowledge the effectiveness of Indigenous environmental practices. And it would be wise to support at least some Indigenous-led projects, among the many efforts underway to preserve, revitalize, and restore the world’s ecosystems. That support needs to be financial. Western-led ecosystem restoration projects get funding support, after all. They don’t happen purely as voluntary efforts. Even the organizations that arrange for volunteers to clean beaches have salaried staff and an office to support their work. Big organizations that monitor river water pollution or deal with invasive plant species have even larger budgets, supported by more donations of many different kinds. Yet people somehow expect Indigenous people to do the same work, even more effectively, but without support of any kind. This is not hyperbole or metaphor, but actual fact.

How much more could Indigenous people do, if you helped us do it? The answer is: exponentially more. Imagine the difference would that make to the world, and to your own life.

There’s a tipping point after which it will be too late for a decision to support Indigenous environmental projects to matter anymore. How close to that point do you think we are now? Look at recent weather patterns and natural events such as “100-year” storms and floods every other year, massive wildfires in places that never used to burn catastrophically, and new diseases sweeping through everything from people to the crop plants we depend on for food. Ask yourself again about our proximity to that tipping point, and have the courage to really face the answer to that question.

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


*”Indigenous Peoples are 5% of the world’s population, yet research shows they hold tenure over 25% of the Earth’s land surface and play a vital role in defending and protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity.” Benally, Suzanne; Rajasvini Bhansali; Carla Fredericks: and Tia Oros Peters. 2021. Philanthropy Must Support Indigenous-Led Climate Solutions. Inside Philanthropy (November 2, 2021). Retrieved from https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2021/11/2/philanthropy-must-support-indigenous-led-climate-solutions on May 1, 2022. Data cited are from Raygorodetsky, Gleb. 2018, here.

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