Indigenous people and the stewardship of nature

12 January 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

As noted last week, the 2019 Human Development Report – which was focused on inequalities in the Human Development Index (HDI) – did not look at an inequality that is particularly important in Canada: The HDI of Indigenous people. Happily, Indigenous Services Canada has done this, at the request of the Assembly of First Nations – although only for “Registered Indians”, which misses Inuit and Métis people. 

Shockingly, the report notes that while Canada ranked 12th on the HDI internationally in 2016, the Registered Indian population as a whole would have ranked 52nd out of 189 countries (the same as Bulgaria, Montenegro and Romania that year), while the on-reserve population ranked 78th, the same as Grenada and about the same as Thailand, Brazil or Colombia. 

So it is more than a bit ironic that in his December 2nd 2020 speech on the state of the planet, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres discussed the important role of Indigenous people in protecting nature and helping us move towards a healthy, just and sustainable future.

He noted that “Indigenous peoples make up less than 6 per cent of the world’s population yet are stewards of 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity on land”. Moreover “we know that nature managed by indigenous peoples is declining less rapidly than elsewhere”, even though their land “is among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation”. We need, he said to “heed their voices, reward their knowledge and respect their rights”.

His words were in part inspired, it seems, by the 2020 Human Development Report, which focuses on the Anthropocene and discusses the important contribution of Indigenous people to achieving sustainable development. A section in the report on Indigenous peoples as shapers and defenders of nature, for example, refers to their contributions through agroforestry, protection of coastal ecosystems and sustainable land use management.But the report also addresses issues of the rights of Indigenous people, including their right to land, and the importance of Indigenous knowledge about land management and our relationship with nature.

Indigenous knowledge, which Mr. Guterres noted has been “distilled over millennia of close and direct contact with nature”, is receiving increasing attention. It is also emphasized in the 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (the ecosystems equivalent of the better known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and recognized in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which was recently passed into law in BC.

Here in BC we are learning from First Nations about clam gardens and other marine management practices, while there is growing interest in learning how Indigenous people in the Americas used fire in managing their lands.  More broadly, the 2020 HDR emphasises that “indigenous peoples’ knowledge systems reflect sophisticated governance practices that advance human wellbeing while maintaining bi­ocultural diversity”.

But perhaps the most important thing to learn from Indigenous people is to be found in an entire section of the 2020 HDR devoted to instilling a sense of stewardship of nature. “Recognizing our humanity as part of a larger net­work of connections that include all living things”, the report notes, is an important part of many philosophical and religious traditions. For many Indigenous peoples, it adds, “wellbeing and devel­opment begin where our lives with each other and with the natural environment meet”.

For me, this was beautifully summed up in “Waiora: The Indigenous Peoples’ Statement for Planetary Health and Sustainable Development”, which resulted from a global conference on health promotion held in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2019. Strongly influenced by Maori traditions (‘Waiora’ being a Maori word for health that is derived from the words for water and life), the statement noted:

“Core features of Indigenous worldviews are the interactive relationship between spiritual and material realms, intergenerational and collective orientations, that Mother Earth is a living being – a ‘person’ with whom we have special relationships that are a foundation for identity, and the interconnectedness and interdependence between all that exists, which locates humanity as part of Mother Earth’s ecosystems alongside our relations in the natural world.”

This is the worldview we need if we are to achieve high levels of human development while remaining within the Earth’s ecological limits.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Human development as if the planet mattered

(Published as ‘Canada’s heavy ecological footprint hurts its human-development ranking’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 January 2021

699 words

Last week I quoted from the December 2nd speech by Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, on the state of the planet. It made for grim reading, but it is the reality we need to face. But Mr Guterres did not end on a pessimistic note; instead he pointed to many indications of opportunity and hope. He concluded: “We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth. Instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path. . . . Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world – and with each other”.

One recent UN report helps us chart this new course, in part by addressing one of the challenges Mr. Guterres noted: “More and more people are recognizing the limits of conventional yardsticks such as Gross Domestic Product, in which environmentally damaging activities count as economic positives”.

The UN Development Programs’s Human Development Report began in 1990 “precisely as a counterpoint to myopic definitions of development”, as the 2020 report puts it. Specifically it offers the Human Development Index (HDI) as an alternative to the GDP, one grounded in human rather than economic development, reminding us that “economic growth is more means than end”. Human de­velopment, says the 2020 report, “is about empowering people to identify and pursue their own paths for a meaningful life, one anchored in expanding freedoms.”

The HDI has 3 main components: education, health and income per person. The first two represent basic capabilities that are key to people enjoying a high level of human development, while the income component is intended to reflect “command over resources to enjoy a decent standard of living” by acquiring other key requirements such as shelter and food.

The income component of the HDI has been particularly problematic from a sustainable development perspective.  Having more income is very important in low-income countries, where a bit more income can ‘buy’ a lot more human development, both at a personal level and in terms of the country being able to afford universal education and basic health care and meet other basic needs. But that is not the case in high income countries, where having more income not only may not increase human development much but – because they have high ecological footprints – may actually harm human development by increasing ecological harm.

Over time the HDI has been revised to include measurements of inequality and gender disparity, and indeed the 2019 report focused on inequalities in the HDI.  Troublingly, perhaps because it is focused on nation states, the report did not look at an inequality that is particularly important in Canada: The HDI of Indigenous people. This – and the important role of Indigenous people in protecting nature around the world – are issues I will return to in my next column.

But I want to focus on the 2020 Human Development Report, entitled “Human development and the Anthropocene”. Not only are we “destabilizing the planetary systems we rely on for survival”, the report notes, but the combination of social strains due to inequality and the strain on our planet “reinforce each other, amplifying the challenges”.

For the first time, the HDI is adjusted for ‘planetary pressures’ – the impact that countries make on Earth’s biocapacity and resources. Specifically, the Index is adjusted to take into account both a country’s carbon emissions and ‘material footprint’ per person, the latter reflecting the use of materials (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metal ores) for domestic consumption. 

So where is Canada on this scale? Well, in 2019 we ranked 16th in the world for the HDI. But once our HDI is adjusted for the planetary pressures we create, it declines 22 percent and we fall to 56th place, which is a poor performance compared to most of the 66 countries in the ‘Very high HDI’ group. While a bit better than the USA and quite a bit better than Australia, we are way behind the countries of Western Europe, which with New Zealand occupy the top ten positions.

The challenge we face is to become a ‘One Planet country’, with a high HDI and a low ecological footprint – and soon.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

“Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century” – UN Secretary General

29 December 2020

Dr Trevor Hancock

697 words

(Published as ‘To heal the planet, we need to embrace solutions that are already here’)

On 2nd December 2020 the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, gave an important if somewhat overlooked speech on “The State of the Planet” at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum. Mr Guterres was blunt: “To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken”, he said; “humanity is waging war on nature” – and that “is suicidal”.

It’s worth quoting in full the litany of problems he laid out, because this is THE challenge we face throughout the 21st century, and especially in the 2020s: “Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes. Deserts are spreading. Wetlands are being lost. Every year, we lose 10 million hectares of forests. Oceans are overfished — and choking with plastic waste. The carbon dioxide they absorb is acidifying the seas. Coral reefs are bleached and dying. Air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually – more than six times the current toll of the pandemic. And with people and livestock encroaching further into animal habitats and disrupting wild spaces, we could see more viruses and other disease-causing agents jump from animals to humans.”

Mr. Guterres then turned his attention specifically to climate change, noting “two new authoritative reports from the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme [that] spell out how close we are to climate catastrophe. . . . The past decade was the hottest in human history. Ocean heat is at record levels. . . . Arctic sea ice in October was the lowest on record – and now re-freezing has been the slowest on record. Greenland ice has continued its long-term decline, . . . Permafrost is melting and so releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly the new normal. . . . carbon dioxide levels are still at record highs – and rising. . . .  In 2020, the upward trend has continued despite the pandemic. Methane [a potent greenhouse gas] soared even higher – to 260 per cent” of pre-industrial levels.

Today, he added, “we are at 1.2 degrees of warming and already witnessing unprecedented climate extremes and volatility in every region and on every continent.  We are headed for a thundering temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century. The science is crystal clear: to limit temperature rise to 1.5-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent every year between now and 2030. Instead, the world is going in the opposite direction — planning an annual increase of 2 per cent.”

But Mr. Guterres did not give way to despair. Instead he said “Let’s be clear: human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos. But that means human action can help solve it. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.”

Our work must begin with facing the facts and acknowledging the challenges we face. As Mr. Guterres makes clear, this litany of challenges calls for resolve; we must – and we can – turn this around. The good news is that in many cases we have long understood the solutions we need to implement. Indeed, they largely exist already, and in many cases are being applied in some places around the world.

So my resolve in 2021 is to focus as much as I can on the solutions – and not the solutions that are ‘out there’, but the solutions that are right here. Inspired by the McGill University-based project ‘Seeds of Good Anthropocenes’, which documents examples of existing initiatives that hold the potential to shape “a more just, prosperous, and ecologically diverse world”, the Conversations for a One Planet initiative I founded will spend 2021 focusing on the Seed of a One Planet Region to be found right here in the Greater Victoria Region.

We will bring stories of hope and practical application to our monthly Conversations, and we are also planning to create a ‘Seeds Catalogue’ – an online resource that will help people connect to, learn from and be inspired by what I am calling the One Planeteers. Stay tuned. 

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.