No feeling is quite like the inconsolable loss felt watching one’s home set ablaze.

Most of us will be fortunate enough never to experience this sense of uprooting and destruction first-hand. To be sure, as many made clear with their presence at the Climate Strike last week, we are all experiencing it indirectly as fires of unprecedented scale continue to ravage the Brazilian parts of the Amazon. Yet for the Indigenous people living in the Amazon basin, the crisis is far beyond a mere rhetorical figure painted onto a protest sign. Their home is, literally, on fire. As hashtags, protests, prayers, and donation buttons proliferate in a global outrage, we are not talking about this immediate human rights crisis behind environmental exploitation nearly enough. 

To Indigenous communities in the Amazon, keeping the forest intact is about more than preserving their livelihoods. “Our ways of being and thinking are centered in the relationships we have with our human and environmental community,” Meghanlata Gupta ‘21 told me when we discussed the fires. Gupta founded and runs Indigenizing the News, an outlet that educates non-Native allies. 

An Indigenous community’s connection with its ancestral land goes beyond the western understanding of place as a mere location that can be changed—it is spiritual, it gives the community its identity and cosmovision, and binds the group as a social unit. “Without the forest, we are nothing,” Txana Sia, a Huni Kuin told NowThis, “the forest is our mother, our house, our home. Without it, there will be no Indigenous people left.”

For Indigenous people across the Americas, the creeping destruction of the natural environment is a matter of survival. It is also yet another episode in a centuries-long struggle against oblivion in the context of settler colonialism. 

That is why Indigenous activists are often on the frontlines of the response to environmental degradation and are the first to resist and raise the alarm on cases of damaging corporate activity or political negligence. It was Native Hawaiians who initiated the ongoing protests against the construction of Mauna Kea observatory on top of their most sacred site, which the environmental analysts found will have a deplorable impact on the mountain’s ecosystem. In Canada, First Nations people play a key role in the heated nationwide debate on the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which apart from alarming environmental consequences, would split an ancestral territory in two. In Brazil, representatives of 14 Indigenous tribes living in the Amazon’s Xingu river basin reportedly convened to put aside long-standing conflicts among the neighbouring groups and unite against the administration of Jair Bolsonaro. 

Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has slashed environmental protections, weakened relevant agencies, and encouraged illegal logging and extraction activity that experts say caused the surge in fires. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) dubs this phenomenon the “Rainforest Mafias” in a recent report.

“What we have is an administration that gives a green light to criminal activity which drives the deforestation of the Amazon and threatens its defenders,” César Muñoz, Brazil senior researcher at the Human Rights Watch stressed to me in an interview. “All Indigenous territories are threatened, even if they’re not directly affected by the fires,” he added.

For all that can be said about Bolsonaro, he seems to get one thing right. His consistently hostile policies targeting both the environment and Indigenous population make clear that there is no separation between the environmentalist and Indigenous rights agenda. That is a lesson we need to learn. 

“While I do see a huge rise in discussions about climate justice, I often see Indigenous peoples being left out of the conversation,” pointed out Gupta, “I think it’s important to remember that Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities are often the most affected by climate change after contributing to it the least.” 

It is high time we see the slow and irreversible destruction of Indigenous communities whose existence depends on the natural environment as the grave and urgent human rights crisis it is. On the other side of the same coin, it is time we understand that they are fighting on our behalf. Indeed, they have been doing so for centuries before we woke up to the toll our profit-driven economic activity has had on the planet. 

Strengthening Indigenous people as the first line of localized resistance is our best bet at addressing environmental destruction on the ground. “Environmental activists have everything to learn from Indigenous communities,” said Gupta. As the HRW report highlights, land held securely by Indigenous peoples is much less prone to illegal deforestation, and organizations such as the Amazon Watch now acknowledge that their best strategy to protect the forest is to listen to its Indigenous residents and respond by giving them the support they need. 

Gupta explained the importance of listening and not coming into a situation with a “savior complex,” with a garden work metaphor: “Indigenous peoples are attempting to water their gardens and lands every day. Instead of taking the bucket of water from them and trying to water it yourself, which is foolish because you know nothing about these lands or gardens, an ally’s job is to hold the bucket, untangle the hose, do some weeding, etc. Support local stakeholders and activists that have been doing this work their whole lives.” 

It is simply the moral thing to do. Indigenous peoples have been fighting this crisis alone for centuries, and against enormous odds everywhere from Canada to Chile. As legacies of colonial policies hostile to their existence persist, and diplomatic solutions to the climate crisis fail to yield results, acknowledging, elevating, and supporting this work is the very least we can do.


Featured photo courtesy of the EPA.

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