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Land rights, bushfires and indigenous rights online

"I believe indigenous peoples can teach us a lot about the power of resilience, alongside lessons on how to save Planet Earth. May we be open to them."

Nyangala Zolho
28 January 2020
Autumn Peltier, 13-yr old water advocate addresses UN, 2017.
Autumn Peltier, 13-yr old water advocate addresses UN, 2017.
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Screenshot YouTube.

With 20,000 acres of the Amazon rainforest lost to flames and unprecedented bushfires causing a catastrophe in Australia, indigenous voices offer the world innovative ways of solving our biggest challenges. Despite being historical champions of environmental protection, indigenous voices in mainstream media and politics continue to be marginalised, as their struggle for equal rights remains stagnant. Aided by growing eco-consciousness in the wake of the climate crisis, social media influencers and a global appetite for change, in 2020 expect to see the world to turn its attention towards indigenous rights and a growing global movement.

As a woman of colour who is not indigenous herself, I feel it is important to state from the outset that my knowledge is entirely situated in what “I” see as an emerging social movement (that I am not part of, nor speak on behalf of). While indigenous peoples have been fighting for their rights for centuries, the tipping point I identify relates to the transnational reach of an old and deeply ingrained struggle over the last year. This reach is beginning to tap into public consciousness, seeping from popular culture to geopolitical agendas.

A global indigenous movement

Indigenous peoples have a strong connection to 80% of Planet Earth’s biodiversity. Indigenous cultures are deeply rooted in protection of the environment and their knowledge of how to protect fragile ecosystems and adapt has aided conservationists for many decades. Conservation giants such as WWF, IUCN, The Rainforest Alliance and many other environmental groups have long recognised the importance of indigenous peoples’ knowledge in the fight to protect the planet’s resources. At the same time, rights groups recognise that human rights violations against environmental defenders have hit indigenous communities the hardest. Environmental destruction and the lack of global indigenous rights have gone hand-in-hand in many ways.

From Chief Deskaheh of the Cayuga who attempted to speak at the League of Nations in 1923 to the Mapuche flag being raised during Chile’s protests in October 2019 – indigenous people today continue to call for rights many of us would assume twenty-first century citizens are assigned from birth. While many indigenous groups, particularly in Latin America, have historically been strong collective organisers, coming together nationally or even globally has been difficult for indigenous peoples because of their inherent diversity. But a transnational movement uniting indigenous peoples could soon reach a tipping point.

From Polynesia to the Americas, indigenous peoples – no homogenous group – share a common struggle for rights in and over their traditional lands, often under legal jurisdictions that deny their very existence. Like all movements of oppressed peoples, theirs is a story of physical occupation, socio-political marginalisation and cultural discrimination over generations. Many of the rights movements over the past century – anti-colonialism, black, women, gay, workers and other liberation movements – have reached the mainstream and influenced global public consciousness in a way that calls for indigenous rights have not. In the age of social media where hashtag activism appears to facilitate the re-emergence of age-old movements – from #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo – indigenous peoples and their struggles have yet to become a trending topic for the “woke”. But there are signs of turning tides.

Digital reach

Without essentialising the role that digital technologies play in movement making (there has been much written on its limitations), there is recognition that new media helps bring people together across space and time to form identities that can organise and raise awareness of issues. From the apartheid movement in South Africa to #MeToo, though movements from varying eras, both gained power and traction once awareness extended across borders, peoples and culture. South Africa’s apartheid movement organised itself over decades, solidifying collective aims and effecting policy change in a real way. As Zeynep Tufekci has argued, while online movements struggle to emulate the same policy level change, they carry their own strength in a new form of politics that challenges the status-quo. In the case of indigenous rights, social media has facilitated the formation of a collective identity that allows inherent diversities amongst indigenous peoples to remain intact, whilst inviting others to support #FirstNations, #Blackfella, #SagueIndigena peoples. Digital connectivity has allowed the coming together of various efforts in a space where differences can coexist while discoverability online grows.

Algorithms led me from Luke Pearson, founder of IndigenousX, to Neil Morris (DRMNGNOW) and the Still Here community in Australia, to Sonia Guarajaja’s activism against President Bolsanaro and Katu Mirim #IndioNaoEFantasia (#MyCultureIsNotACostume) in Brazil. I discovered Hateepah and Autumn Peltier (some argue the first “Greta Thunberg”) in North America. Alongside these influencers, more mainstream celebrities identifying as indigenous have also called for greater rights and protection of indigenous land and culture. Actor Jason Momao joined the Manua Kea protests in Hawaii and Princess Nokia has long been outspoken about the discrimination against indigenous culture. Discovering what young indigenous peoples think, read and are advocating for stretched borders almost immediately, without the need for traditional forums such as the United Nations summit that brought together the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus in 2000.

Alongside this growth in visibility of indigenous influencers, to return to Tufekci’s analysis that movements converging online often lack the institutional capacity to influence those in power, this in many ways is covered by successes already gained on an international policy level. The importance of indigenous peoples particularly in connection to environmental protection, has already led to the inclusion of indigenous voices in the UN Climate Summit. UN authorities such as the UN Climate Programme and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as well as other global institutions like the World Bank, have called for indigenous-led conservation areas, land rights and recognition of indigenous peoples knowledge as ways to effectively mitigating the effects of climate change. At a national-level Indigenous leaders in Australia have warned about bushfire risks as a result of land mismanagement, as Xingu tribes in the Amazon raised alarm bells when they noticed changes in the soil composition of the rainforest. Both locally and globally, indigenous people’s voices are becoming stronger.

The dawn of a new day?

Innovation is often best carried out by those closest to the challenge being tackled. Innovation in the real-word requires collaboration, an openness to learning and iterating, as well as space for creativity. This space is often only afforded to those allowed a seat at the table. The fight for indigenous rights under these conditions becomes something we should all champion for, if we are serious about confronting an environmental catastrophe. Solutions are unlikely to come from technology, politics and the status-quo alone. We need to broaden participation, and make room for those who have been marginalised for too long. If new solutions are to pave the way for a fairer, more just and environmentally balanced world, we must remain critically reflective of who the decision-makers are guiding us in new directions.

Final words

The world needs to strive to do better. Inspired by Angela Davis’ thinking on intersectional solidarity for peace and freedom, I turned my attention to indigenous movements after recognising that in their struggle lay the reminiscences of an old colonial present many believe no longer exists. Indigenous peoples, under the rule of law of what many of us would consider to be modern democracies, need overdue global support for equal rights, particularly land rights recognition. ‘Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it’s only optimism of the will’ says Davis in Freedom is a Constant Struggle. And indeed, in relation to indigenous rights, I believe there is much to be optimistic about. A new political era that is transitioning to allow for a diversity of voices in collective action, means a global indigenous rights movement is today more possible than ever before. There is a commitment at an international policy level to recognise the need for indigenous voices in the fight against climate change, and the climate crisis is knocking on all our doors.

My hope is that having our house set on fire will lead to a world that is intersectional and transnational in its outlook, and open to new ways of innovating. I believe indigenous peoples can teach us a lot about the power of resilience, alongside lessons on how to save Planet Earth. May we be open to them.

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