Climate-resilient policies lack inclusivity: Indigenous communities can help

Climate-resilient policies lack inclusivity: Indigenous communities can help

The Watut River in Papua New Guinea. Indigenous communities are disproportionally affected by climate change-driven flooding. Photo credit: Betty Nen/FHI 360

Nearly every country has committed to preserving 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030 to protect against biodiversity loss.

This is an urgent and necessary commitment. But as governments work to meet this and other environmental goals, Indigenous populations — who manage, use or occupy at least a quarter of the planet’s land area — are facing displacement and violence. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that more than 250,000 Indigenous people have been evicted in the name of ecotourism, carbon-offset activities and “other activities that fall under the banner of conservation” over the past two decades. The number of people is expected to rise. 

As the climate crisis intensifies, we must not turn our backs on Indigenous communities. Rather, we must support and learn from them — and incorporate their environmental knowledge into policy.

Indigenous knowledge and perspectives are essential to climate response 

Indigenous communities are the stewards of 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Although for generations they “have sustained themselves through their ability to work with nature and climate variance, relying primarily on precipitation patterns, temperature variances and local biodiversity” (UNESCO), the extent of their localized knowledge has often not been recognized on larger national platforms. Historically, policymakers and government officials have ignored Indigenous methods of resilience and community perceptions of climate-related natural disasters and hazards. If left ignored, Indigenous communities will continue to suffer the brunt of increased climate-related natural disasters while failing to receive adequate support. Governments will be forced to reckon with their complicity in the widespread devastation of these communities.

The experience of an Indigenous community in Malaysia shows what happens when communities’ needs are not reflected in government policies. The Orang Sungai people — who are native to the Kinabatangan area in the country’s Sabah state — rely on subsistence farming and fishing, which have become increasingly difficult to do because of increased flooding and landslides from heavy rain. The Malaysian government’s pursuit of climate change strategies that prioritize mitigation over adaptation — in addition to its slow integration of Indigenous communities into adaptation and climate resilience planning — has resulted in patchy disaster preparedness coverage that does not serve the most vulnerable people in Malaysia. 

While there has been a loss of valuable localized resilience practices, there is also an opportunity to address shortcomings in climate resilience policy. To better integrate Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into all aspects of climate policy, governments must pursue the following actions:

  1. Invest in women and young Indigenous leaders

Within Indigenous communities, women and young people are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. To develop comprehensive and inclusive policy, we must listen to their expertise on localized climate resiliency. Many programs already exist for Indigenous people to become climate advocates, but there needs to be a focus on women and young leaders. Indigenous women play a particularly important role in the preservation of knowledge, technologies and governance principles, while Indigenous young people are often at the forefront of advocacy movements for environmental justice and political action.

  1. Craft inclusive climate governance

Comprehensive climate governance policies can employ preexisting resources to start building an inclusive framework for future policy. Governments should build partnerships between intergovernmental organizations, local climate organizations and Indigenous community leaders to develop mutual respect, strengthen emergency preparedness and response and draw upon localized knowledge to inform policymaking. Through identifying and collaborating with key Indigenous partners, governments can show their respect for the vast amounts of localized knowledge held within these communities — and also share Indigenous perspectives with a larger platform.

  1. Strengthen capacity within Indigenous communities through training and leadership opportunities

Governments must understand the value of strengthening capacity within Indigenous communities. Policymakers would benefit from participating in community conversations to better understand how familiar Indigenous communities are with government and/or state emergency preparedness mechanisms and early alert warning systems. This will allow them to better understand where accessibility issues or procedural gaps exist and how to improve them.

There are already successful examples of policymakers working in tandem with tribes and Indigenous communities to develop useful tools that benefit both parties. The University of Washington’s Tribal Climate Tool, for example, uses both Western science and Indigenous approaches to help tribes access resources and evaluate their vulnerability to climate change.

The future of Indigenous people is linked with the well-being of the planet, and some resiliency solutions lie within local wisdom. Governments around the world are beginning to take note, but as the world continues to warm, their actions are simply not fast enough. Policymakers and governments must act now to protect Indigenous communities from further harm in the name of conservation and incorporate Indigenous knowledge and communities into climate policy. There is no time to waste.

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