November 21, 2014

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Indigenous Voices: The Rise of Self-determination in Climate Activism

Whom indigenous peoples align (or do not align) with is not the issue. Their voices are valuable in their own right.

Sara_santiago_future500

By Sara Santiago, Stakeholder Analyst, Future 500

Over the past few years, the climate fight has been predominantly fixated on a single piece of symbolic infrastructure, the Keystone XL pipeline, whose recent environmental impact statement from the U.S. State Department has set the stage to green light the project.

As activism heats up in response, environmental organizations are likely to pull out all the stops to prevent tar sands extraction and shipment, including growing more powerful connections with both potential and already established allies. In particular, mainstream NGOs and First Nations have increasingly worked in solidarity and aligned with one another in the past year.

As environmental groups have built their campaigns, so have indigenous people, with mounting voices on the issues of sovereignty and self-determination. Just a little over a year ago, Idle No More (INM) mobilized around Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike in response to Canada’s Bill C-45, and INM quickly grew into an international movement. INM has put indigenous voices on IdleNoMorethe map.

Yet, we don’t often hear indigenous voices in the mainstream debate.

In the U.S. especially, we are privy to the messages of immensely mobilized and savvy campaigners like 350.org, Sierra Club and Greenpeace, but indigenous voices continue to be largely absent from the mainstream landscape. In Canada, on the other hand, the stakeholder network is filled with a diversity of indigenous voices, though mainstream environmental NGOs have traditionally been – and remain – the loudest.

Land Rights: Litigation on the Rise

However, indigenous concerns and claims to sovereignty may be integral to environmentalists’ end game as land rights provide a legal basis to halt resource extraction. This year especially looks to be one rife with litigation to prevent tar sands development. For example, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation is collecting research on the cumulative impacts of tar sands on their communities and the environment in order to “mount an unprecedented constitutional challenge against the Albertan and Canadian government on behalf of the entire nation.” Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) lawyer Larry Innes predicts: “All litigation, all the time, is what I see on the horizon.”

Treaty rights present a critical leverage point for environmentalists to meet their goals: stopping the expansion and development of fossil fuels and bolstering global and national climate campaigns. According to Clayton Thomas Muller, a prominent environmental justice and indigenous rights organizer, in a recent keynote speech to Canada-tar-sandsthe Parkland Institute:

"[The] indigenous rights base will be the legal basis to stop oil sands expansion. In the history of environmentalism in Canada, no major environmental victory has been won without First Nations people at the helm and a very sophisticated social movement apparatus backing them up, for the last 40 years."

Question of (Mis)Representation

Although treaty rights pose an opportunity to defeating infrastructure projects, with the intentions to cut off resource extraction and ultimately to protect the climate, they also highlight challenges.

For instance, First Nations present a multitude of voices, not necessarily a single, homogenous one that could easily be integrated into mainstream NGO campaigns. With requests spanning a range of approaches from resource development with consultation and conditions, or for no development whatsoever, this diversity may provoke fractioning in NGO campaigns, posing a challenge to rallying behind a single, clear ask.

But whom indigenous peoples align (or do not align) with is not the issue, as their voices are valuable in their own right. So often historically and to date, there have been conflicts between the interests of indigenous communities and major environmental NGOs, who have conserved land on the premise that they are unpopulated, pristine wilderness.

In the Arctic, for instance, indigenous peoples hold a strong stance as Duane Smith, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Canada, claimed in ICC Alaska’s June 2013 newsletter: “We certainly have no need or appetite to invite environmentalist groups to come to the Arctic and do the work under their logos and on our behalf.”

Is it not the indigenous communities who live, breathe and subsist upon the earth impacted by extraction who should be equal stakeholders amongst corporations, governments and NGOs in what happens to the land on which their communities thrive?

Meaningful Relationship Building

Keeping a running history with challenging relationships in mind, the converging of First Nations and environmental activism poses a great threat to tar sands companies in 2014. Increasingly so, these groups are acting in solidarity, with musician Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties Tour directly supporting AFCN’s litigation and groups likes Rising Tide, 350.org and All Against the Haul First-Nations-chiefs-CanadaWarm Springs uniting with indigenous communities like Nez Perce, Umatilla in resisting megaload transit.

First Nations are smack dab in the center of resource development projects and should not be pushed to the periphery. It is therefore imperative that their voices are heard and communities engaged meaningfully, beyond a letter of support or attending an event in solidarity. Ignoring First Nations insights and decisions and neglecting to include their stories in the extraction narrative is a disadvantage to all parties involved.

An organization may even consider Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) when engaging indigenous communities the way First Peoples Worldwide promotes of companies, governments, researchers and NGOs alike. Through genuine and respectful engagement, a truly unified front is likely to emerge not just on tar sands, but on other issues like Arctic drilling, mining and deforestation, which impact communities and the environment at a global scale and demand thoughtful, nuanced engagement.

About the Author:

Sara Santiago is a Stakeholder Engagement Analyst at Future 500, a global non-profit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds – often corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others – to advance systemic solutions to environmental problems.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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