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Indigenous Peoples worldwide hold unique perspectives on development, human rights, and the role of the State and corporations in the green economy. These perspectives have a deep connection to the environment and hold solutions for the climate crisis we are facing today. Even though they constitute 6.2% of the global population, Indigenous people safeguard approximately 80% of the Earth's remaining biodiversity across various habitats such as forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments, which they have inhabited for centuries. Despite their crucial contribution to maintaining a resilient and thriving planet for both humanity and other species, Indigenous efforts often go unnoticed, are under-supported, and too often put Indigenous lives at risk. After 33 years, merely 23 countries have ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization.
Three principles of Indigenous Peoples across the world that ground our ways of being, knowing and doing address this disparity and protect our planet: reciprocity, respect, and relationality. They emphasise a holistic and interconnected approach to real and powerful sustainable development. In a just transition to a green economy, these principles play a pivotal role in promoting environmental stewardship, cultural preservation, and social justice.
More on the Forum Network: A Friend to Climate-Affected Communities by Runa Khan, Founder, Friendship
Society, conscience, humanity are all facets of the same fact—that we cannot exist without each other. So why can’t we be friends?
Reciprocity - Paying Attention to Mother Earth
Botanist and a distinguished professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York, Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi) in her book Braiding Sweetgrass states that “paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.” Reciprocity does not start with giving back, or exchange; reciprocity is a principle that starts with paying attention to the close relationship we have with the environments we live in: humans, animals, plants, rivers, forests, oceans, and all beings.
Our well-being is intricately tied to the health of the environment. It is not possible to be happy, healthy, and prosperous if our environments have been destroyed.
Central to Indigenous perspectives, reciprocity includes limits, proportionality and responsibility: limits about how much we can take from the planet, and what must be given back proportionally. Reciprocity is about equal terms. We cannot talk about humans being caretakers, as we are caregivers, of the Earth. We don't take; we share and care because She, Mother Earth, shares and cares about us. Indigenous communities view themselves as custodians and stewards of the Earth, the rivers, the forest, and all species that form our lifeweb. Our well-being is intricately tied to the health of the environment. It is not possible to be happy, healthy, and prosperous if our environments have been destroyed. Climate change, global warming, and diseases are driven by unsustainable development practices, such as soil depletion, river contamination, and deforestation, which have disproportionately affected Indigenous Peoples.
In the race for more raw materials, such as transition minerals, to decarbonise our technology, the green economy must embrace reciprocity by integrating sustainable practices that ensure the well-being of ecosystems and communities alike. This Indigenous principle can bring justice not only to humans, but to all beings on Earth. Reciprocity is more than a practice; it is our way of life, the way of life. Instead of focusing solely on economic growth, without limit, we must pay attention to check whether all beings are enjoying life in a healthy place. Without it, the green economy project will fail the reciprocity that our home, Earth, deserves.
Respect - More Than Just Words
Respect comprises actions and attitudes to honour human rights, Indigenous rights, and nature’s rights. Respect for nature and environments must be paramount in the green economy. Indigenous Peoples, the best stewards of nature, often face marginalisation and displacement due to corporate activities and projects carried out without their consent, participation, and guidance. The principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) safeguards Indigenous rights in decision-making processes. When carried out correctly and on Indigenous Peoples’ terms, FPIC can offer a unique opportunity for corporations and other institutions and civil society to work together towards Indigenous self-determination.
Shawn Wilson (Cree) states in Research is Ceremony, “Respect is more than just saying please and thank you.” It is a relational engagement: not a business encounter, but an everyday practice. Consultation becomes invaluable when we embrace the opportunity to learn from one another, fostering respectful engagement and reciprocal exchange of wisdom and knowledge.
In the green economy, States and institutions must adhere to FPIC, acknowledging Indigenous Peoples as rightful stakeholders and partners in sustainable development initiatives to ensure that the biodiversity of our planet is protected.
Relationality - Walking Gently on Earth
For Indigenous communities, lands and resources are not commodities but an integral part of their identities, spirituality, and life. However, the interconnectedness between humans and nature forms the foundation that connects all of us, not only Indigenous Peoples. Stewarding ancestral lands and the environment is vital to maintaining our well-being.
By centring Indigenous voices and incorporating traditional knowledge, the green economy can achieve holistic environmental stewardship and cultural strengthening, benefiting not only Indigenous communities but the entire global community.
In the green economy, relationality calls for recognising and valuing the intrinsic link between biology, spirituality, culture, and the environment - ecology is exactly this, a link between all our values. Policies and initiatives should actively engage Indigenous Peoples in sustainable resource management and land stewardship. Indigenous concepts of ecology contribute to global efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. By centring Indigenous voices and incorporating traditional knowledge, the green economy can achieve holistic environmental stewardship and cultural strengthening, benefiting not only Indigenous communities but the entire global community. States, corporations, and policymakers must embrace these principles and work collaboratively with Indigenous leaders to create a greener and more inclusive future for all.
There is a way to bring Indigenous practices into public policy following these principles. Cultural Survival, the organisation I’m proud to be part of, for 51 years, has partnered with Indigenous communities to secure a future that respects and honours Indigenous Peoples' inherent rights and dynamic cultures. We have learned how deeply and richly interwoven in lands, languages, spiritual traditions, and artistic expression, those principles are. They are powerful because they are rooted in self-determination and self-governance.
In 2022, almost 40% of the attacks related to transition minerals were against Indigenous Peoples or their communities.
To address the green economy, we have united with Indigenous-led organisations and allies to create the Securing Indigenous Peoples' Rights in the Green Economy (SIRGE) Coalition to champion a just transition to a low-carbon economy. As the global demand for the minerals necessary for renewable and green technologies continues to grow, we call upon government, corporate, and financial decision-makers to avoid the mistakes of the past: Avoid dirty mining and protect the rights and self-determination of Indigenous Peoples around the globe, many of whom live in areas rich in these minerals. Of 5,097 mining projects globally that involve some 30 minerals used in renewable energy technologies, 54% are located on or near Indigenous Peoples' lands and territories according to Nature Sustainability. Just in the United States, 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt reserves are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations, according to MSCI. Over a period of 12 years, there were 510 human rights allegations made against all 115 companies involved in transition mineral extraction; 49 of the allegations involved Indigenous Peoples according to Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. In 2022, almost 40% of the attacks related to transition minerals were against Indigenous Peoples or their communities. Our work creates a platform for Indigenous leaders, States and corporations to work together to guarantee a just transition.
As the Indigenous philosopher Ailton Krenak (Krenak people) from Brazil, points out, "The future is ancestral, and humanity needs to learn from it to tread gently on the Earth. We only exist because the earth allows us to live. It gives us life; there is nothing else that gives life. That's why we call it mother earth. We have disconnected ourselves from the body of the Earth, going through a divorce, believing that we could live on our own terms. But there was a condition: to extract, dominate, and exploit everything that comes from Gaia. We divorced ourselves from this organism that sheltered us, yet we constantly continue to usurp it."(from the book Ideas to postpone the end of the world).
We are relatives of the Earth, of all organisms that walk on and live on this planet, and are part of it. Relationality offers an opportunity to reconnect, to return home, to rebuild our dreams of the future, progress, and development. Our dream should be with her, with our home and our Mother Earth.
Reciprocity, respect, and relationality offer a paradigm between Indigenous Peoples, States and corporations, for the sake of our planet and all of life.
Learn more about OECD's work on: Linking Indigenous communities with regional development
This project was launched on 19 September 2017 at Wendake First Nation, Canada. It includes country case studies and a pan-OECD report that offers policy recommendations for OECD member and non-members under the auspices of OECD Regional Development Policy Committee. This work has closely involved Indigenous leaders and communities in Australia, Canada and Sweden—a network which we hope to expand in the future as we continue work on this topic.