Indigenous worldviews in conservation

Indigenous worldviews in conservation

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

Indigenous worldviews in conservation

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

By Chloe Dragon Smith, a Dënesųłı̨né Métis woman based out of Yellowknife, NWT, who holds expertise in cross-cultural collaboration in human-nature-land relationships

Biodiversity Action Agenda Item 4.1

INDIGENOUS WORLDVIEWS: Build on Indigenous worldviews and relationships with the land to offer new collaborative opportunities for affirming and effective conservation strategies, plans, communications and dialogue.

First and foremost, it is essential to appreciate that Indigenous-led conservation has an extensive history – since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have been nurturing understanding and action for taking care of the Land. In this time where the concept of reconciliation has gained traction in Canada, many Canadians are looking for answers. In response to this, there has been recent work published on these very old philosophies and processes, leading to relevant resources.

boat on water at sunrise
Photo by Chloe Dragon Smith

I will repeat what many have said before me… If you haven’t already, please take the time to inform yourself and gain some background on Indigenous worldviews as they relate to conservation. The work of articulating these concepts has been done in multiple ways by dedicated people across the country. I will share some that I have found to be valuable for me.

Helpful resources

The Indigenous Circle of Experts Report, 2018, We Rise Together set a Canadian standard of what an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) can mean on the Land we now call Canada. The report articulates many fundamentals of the concept of working with Indigenous Peoples in an ethical space that creates a healthy balance of worldviews. If you are questioning what you can do to support point 4.1 and you haven’t already read the report, I would strongly suggest making a pot of tea, curling up on the couch, and reading We Rise Together completely.

Exploring further, the Conservation as Reconciliation Partnership (CRP) formed at the conclusion of the Indigenous Circle of Experts, and has continued much of this good work. The CRP is comprised of individuals and organizations, they are a public partnership with lots of information and they can be contacted by anyone willing to help or participate.

Particularly, the IISAAK OLAM Foundation and the Indigenous Leadership Initiative are two organizations that operate in the field of Indigenous-led conservation and are also doing important work. The Land Needs Guardians campaign by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative focuses on Indigenous Guardian initiatives, which is a name given to practices of on-the-Land stewardship that are essential to Indigenous-led conservation.

Perhaps most importantly, there are many individual Nations that are working through their own IPCA processes. There may be work happening on the ground close to where you live. If so, it could be an opportunity to learn, support, and get involved. Remember, no Nation, people, language, culture, or Land is the same. Above all, listen and adapt to the Land and people who have knowledge of the area. If there is no official IPCA initiative, you can still learn about how Indigenous people take care of the Land around your area. No matter where you are in Canada, you are on a Nation’s traditional Land. Here is a tool you can use to get an idea of some traditional boundaries, always remembering that boundaries shift and change over time and were never defined by lines on a map, but rather by Land and peoples.

Person on boat at sunset
Photo by Chloe Dragon Smith

Indigenous worldviews in conservation

What is effective conservation? For this to support productive partnerships, dialogue in the conservation world must evolve. From ‘how do Indigenous worldviews fit into what effective conservation has become in today’s society?’ to ‘what can we learn from Indigenous perspectives that can fundamentally change the way we have been operating and thinking about effective conservation?’

This cannot be seen as benevolence towards Indigenous peoples. It is not to right the wrongs of the past. It is not an act of reconciliation (although if done effectively this may occur). The reason to change the dialogue is because the current paradigm has failed us.

We first have to open our minds to understand this paradigm and how pervasive it is.

From my perspective and that of many other Indigenous peoples I’ve worked with, it is not only the clearly extractive and environmentally ‘evil’ practices that are the problem. Whether one believes they are above nature (ie. conquering, exploiting, etc.), or below it (ie. nature would work better without humans), they are placing themselves as separate from the world around them. Interestingly, vegan organizations who refuse animal products for the “good of the planet” and oil companies that seek to make capital gain from the earth’s resources are coming from this very same paradigm. While they have vastly different values, ultimately they are both separated from the natural world. It is this separation which is the cause of these huge problems we are facing today – climate change, biodiversity loss, capitalistic economic collapse, and pandemics. The separation or interconnectedness with the natural world is a root of the difference in worldviews between Western and Indigenous thought.

atv forest
Photo by Chloe Dragon Smith

Do we see ourselves as part of the Land? And do our actions reflect this at every level?

I believe worldviews as they relate to conservation, need to be center stage in the conversation today. For Indigenous peoples, conservation was living in harmony, taking care of the Land for millennia. We did this with checks and balances, cultivating abundance, and fully contributing to the Land – fulfilling a role with responsibilities. The unravelling began in earnest with imported systems and values that came from foreign and distant lands. The question is now, how can we shift our actions to embrace Indigenous worldviews and perspectives for this Land we are wanting to care for?

What can you do?

To elevate Indigenous systems to a place of healthy balance in conservation, go to the root – our relationships with the Land and each other. By healing these relationships, we can shift the current dominant paradigm to one where we recognize our place on earth and are connected – with our health, happiness, economies, education, governance, politics, and all that we rely on.

While the above requires systemic change, one thing you can immediately affect is your own personal relationship with the Land. Simply, spend time outdoors. Activate your senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting. Get to know what is around you, and express your love in a way that makes sense to you. Share experiences with others that are close to you – and when possible, with children. Eat food together on the Land, and share stories. Sing and create art to deepen your understanding. This solution has the benefit of contributing to your health as well, both mentally and physically! Beyond affecting yourself, if you have the means, you can expand to support others to build their own relationships with Land.

Supporting Indigenous-led conservation can and will take many forms. It is important to do your own learning, and to be curious and ask questions. There are many others working in this space – established networks you can learn from and support. Remember, the Land and people determine actions that need to be taken. Relationships and process determine outcomes, so being present personally and with others is an important key to success. Begin by spending time on the Land wherever you are.

Person in red jacket in forest
Photo by Hilda Weges from Canva

Relevant pieces from this author

To Wood Buffalo National Park, with Love, about her personal experience living in a National Park and Reflections from the Authors, a follow up blog for the Conservation as Reconciliation Partnership.

Creating Ethical Spaces, Land-based learning as it relates to Indigenous-led conservation, based on the Bushkids Initiative which she co-founded in the Northwest Territories.

Balancing Worldviews, climate change and balancing western and Indigenous worldviews in the North of Canada.

About Making Biodiversity Count Series

In February 2019, the Biodiversity Action Agenda, authored by Women for Nature was published. It asks all Canadians to take immediate action on biodiversity loss as there is no recovery from extinction. As a 24-point action agenda, it offers a combination of actions, including low-hanging fruit as well as long-term systemic changes. Follow our blog for regular posts exploring each action.