Indigenous-led Conservation and Climate Action Benefits Everyone

By: Tonio Sadik, Curtis Scurr, Jamie Lavigne & Graeme Reed (c) 2021

Climate change is a daily reality that is experienced by most First Nations. Whether it is due to extreme weather-driven events (e.g., fires, floods), or the more insidious impacts of an ecosystem in crisis (e.g., biodiversity loss, food insecurity), the Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) Environment, Lands & Water Branch (ELW Branch) has been working to advance a narrative of First Nations climate leadership as a means to challenge conventional approaches to the climate crisis.

First Nations’ climate leadership has been led in large part by First Nations leadership and technicians and was best articulated in a 2019 resolution where the Chiefs-in-Assembly declared a First Nations Climate Emergency. In this resolution, leadership recognized that “…climate change constitutes a state of emergency for our lands, waters, animals, and peoples,” stressing the need for urgent and transformative climate action to reduce emissions in Canada 60% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, while simultaneously addressing income inequality within First Nations as part of the mobilization for a just transition.

First Nations are climate leaders and, as such, are active drivers of positive change.

AFN ELW Branch, 2021

Taking direction from this mandate, the ELW Branch hosted its first-ever National Climate Gathering in Whitehorse, Yukon, in March 2020 – it was a tremendous success. It offered an opportunity to show that, despite the disproportionate risks, First Nations possess a deep and holistic understanding of the root causes of the climate crisis. This way of understanding and interacting with all of creation positions First Nations as stewards of the environment and active leaders in the drive to avert catastrophic climate change. In this light, the Gathering sought to achieve a better understanding of how the climate crisis is accelerating and exacerbating existing challenges that First Nations face, as well as to examine and discuss First Nations-led solutions from across Turtle Island.

In collaboration with its 10 Regional Climate Change Coordinators (RCCCs) and other First Nations experts, the AFN is advancing the development and finalization of a National Climate Strategy that incorporates the concept of a First Nations ‘Climate Lens’. The First Nations’ Climate Lens challenges conventional conceptualizations of First Nations as ‘vulnerable’ populations and ‘passive recipients’ of climate impacts. Instead, it focuses on how First Nations’ cultural, spiritual, and social connection to the land and water provide a unique source of strength, understanding and resilience. The First Nations’ Climate Lens is based on an alignment of three concentric spheres of activity that help bring into focus the relationships between First Nations’ climate impacts, climate action, and the broader climate context. It stresses the fact that First Nations are climate leaders and, as such, are active drivers of positive change.

Climate lens.

This Climate Lens has, for example, been used to challenge conventional conceptualizations of the dichotomization of adaptation and mitigation that do not take into account the multi-dimensional, inter-connected, and inter-related solutions required to address a growing climate crisis. Similarly, while carbon pricing remains perhaps the single most important pillar in a suite of activities aimed at reducing GHG emissions, the Climate Lens demonstrates how the application of such a price to many rural/remote First Nations disproportionately affects their already marginal economic status and neglects to account for their inherent and constitutionally protected rights, including the exercise of their jurisdiction.

In addition, the Climate Lens can help to show how a concept like ‘Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas’ (IPCAs) can bridge conservation and climate action, while creating an important mechanism and social innovation to enable First Nations to exercise traditional responsibilities, methods of governance, and on-the-land stewardship practices to move us towards more innovative and meaningful climate solutions. IPCAs are integrated shared spaces with the potential for multi-use management approaches to support mutually beneficial outcomes that address the global climate and biodiversity crisis, in addition to the growing nexus between the environment and the economy. Among other things, IPCAs are spaces and places where First Nations are leading efforts in both social and economic development including the green/clean energy transition, nature-based climate solutions, conservation economies, ecosystems services, carbon sequestration and a post-COVID economic recovery.

Indigenous-led conservation and climate action have the potential to benefit everyone. It enables us to reclaim the traditional roles and responsibilities of First Nations women relating to the environment – for example, as Water Protectors or Carriers – and offers a unique opportunity to advance reconciliation, foster new relationships, build stronger communities, boost more diverse economies, and most notably, to support thinking around a healthier environment for seven generations to come. Our success in this regard will help to transform mainstream climate narratives and, hopefully, create a more meaningful response to this most urgent global crisis.