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

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


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