When you think of the word ‘experts’, what appears in your head? Is it an image of a scientist working in a laboratory, or perhaps a professor teaching a class in university? Well, whatever is it, I believe that the majority of you would not be thinking of indigenous communities that still exist worldwide. Seemingly separate from the rest of civilisation, we tend to think of indigenous people as backward tribal natives that are beyond the reach of conventional sciences.
To continue down this interpretation of what the word ‘indigenous’ encompasses is not only naïve but potentially a fatal flaw in our efforts against climate change.
Firstly, what is ‘indigenous’? A quick search up the dictionary would return definitions relating to people who originated from a particular place. Our current misrepresentations of what indigenous people are, influenced by mainstream media, makes us believe that the term ‘indigenous’ only refers to tribal folks who reside in rural forests untouched by Man. In reality, indigenous people can simply be referring to people who have deep cultural roots and resided on particular lands for generations. Without delving into what constitutes an indigenous identity, let us examine their potential in humanity’s climate change efforts.
Our current focus towards tackling environmental issues places Man at the centre of all our decisions. When analysing environmental issues, we often make decisions based on how a decision will benefit/harm us. While we listen to the voices of scientists, indigenous groups of people are probably the last group of people on our minds to turn to as we seek out new technologies to reduce our carbon emissions. Climate change is undoubtedly a global problem but the main issue is its differing effects onto countries of varying levels of affluence – indigenous people bear the brunt of climate change as they are often situated at the heart of these issues. If scientists are deemed as experts because of their depth of knowledge about these environmental issues, why are we then ignoring the voices of the people who live on those lands and experience these issues in their day-to-day lives (and most importantly, pay the price for the decisions we make)?
Here’s where I argue that humanity should look at people who have co-existed with the environment respectfully and sustainably and incorporate their views into our policy-making.
Too often have indigenous people’s views been dismissed as naïve estimations, limited by a lack of education or at best predicated on “indigenous knowledge”’ (Howe, 2014, p.397). By side-lining the indigenous people, we are potentially missing out on vital knowledge preserved for generations. Would you say that educational background should be a reason why your voice shouldn’t be heard? If these barriers are being lifted in modern society, why are we imposing them on indigenous people?
On a more optimistic note, as Howe (2014) notes, researchers are now finding methods to codify indigenous ecological knowledge to enable the voices of indigenous people to enter the realm of politics and policy-making, signifying the gradual shift away from an anthropocentric view of the world around us.
While we are making progress, the next step would be for society to shift towards an eco-centric view of the environment. An eco-centric worldview, as suggested by its namesake, implies that the environment is placed at the heart of perception of the world around us. This is vastly different from an anthropocentric worldview as the environment is now, and rightfully so, the priority in all our actions and decisions.
In a case study of Cerro Quilish (Mount Quilish) in Northen Peru, Li (2013) observes that the locals have seen the Mountain as a sacred entity while mining corporations have seen it as a resource. While conventional governance and resource theory will side with corporations in seeing Cerro Quilish as an economic resource, here is where we need to consider the identity or identities of Cerro Quilish (or any other natural landform) in the vantage point of indigenous people. By connecting ‘the plane of the secular with that of sentient entities’, Cerro Quilish is brought back into the secular world and into political debate, dissolving ‘the separation of society and nature’(p.404). Simply put, by recognising landforms and their agencies like how indigenous people have, we can gain new insights into the physical world around us and steer away from viewing everything as an economic resource.
Adopting this new perspective is perhaps key to how society will be able to shift from our current exploitive stance on the environment and transit into a respectful and meaningful relationship with nature like indigenous peoples. Appreciating the identities of nature and its agency paves the way towards sustainable use of natural resources to sustain our societies. Only then can we start to take stewardship of the world around us and work towards a cleaner Earth.
To conclude, I have shown that the incorporation of indigenous knowledge and practices into modern society could be a possible solution to reconcile our destructive ways with nature. Arguing for the voices of the indigenous to be heard, I postulate that learning from such communities is key to how society and improve the divide between us and nature and learn to function symbiotically.
Howe, C. (2014). Anthropocenic Ecoauthority: The Winds of Oaxaca. Anthropological Quarterly, 87(2), 381-404. doi:10.1353/anq.2014.0029
Li, F. (2013). Relating Divergent Worlds: Mines, Aquifers and Sacred Mountains in Peru. Anthropologica, 55(2), 399-411. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/24467345?
Written by: Willis