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The Media Have Missed a Crucial Message of the UN’s Biodiversity Report

If we want to halt the extinction crisis, we need to indigenize our systems and institutions.

A Samburu woman holds a placard during the Global March for Elephants, Rhinos and Lions, which demanded that governments take action to stop the poaching of endangered species, in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 13, 2019.

Earlier this summer, the United Nations released a report warning of the imminent extinction of as many as 1 million species, the result of climate change, pollution, exploitation of land and sea, and other human-created assaults on the environment. The report has tragic significance, but offers hope if “transformative change” occurs immediately. The problem is that the source of that transformative change has been largely ignored by most media; one must read the report’s summary — all that has been released so far — to realize that such transformative change is largely about Indigenizing our systems and institutions. It is about a worldview that connects us to nature.

It is no mere coincidence that the 5 percent of the global population that are Indigenous are responsible for 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity. The summary of the report says as much. Throughout it are references to the importance of Indigenous “paradigms, goals and values” along with examples of the “wide diversity of practices” that help nurture biodiversity. There is no denying, the authors write, that the destructive extinction trends, so visible across the planet, “have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities…. Nature managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities is under increasing pressure but is generally declining less rapidly than in other lands.”

Beyond these explicit nods, the report also telegraphs a more subtle, implicit message on the need to adopt indigenous models and approaches. In one section, it describes different views about our relationship to nature, such as “the material versus the spiritual domain” and “living well in balance and harmony with Mother Earth.” Under “Key Messages,” the authors write: “Nature embodies different concepts for different people, including biodiversity, ecosystems, Mother Earth and other analogous concepts.” Although they are careful not to alienate the public, such unprecedented language suggests that they are referring to the two core belief systems operating in our world today. One is essentially human-centered, hierarchal, patriarchal, and materialistic. The other animistic, non- hierarchal, matriarchal, spiritual/aesthetic. Considering that a “worldview” is the foundational lens through which we understand the world and is much more than a religion, culture, belief, or ideology, we can assume the report is talking about the dominant worldview and the contrasting Indigenous one.

The degree to which the authors apparently have utilized Traditional Indigenous Knowledge is unprecedented — a point the authors themselves acknowledge in the summary.

Past scholarship has mostly dismissed Indigenous ways of understanding the world. Consider The Invented Indian, published as recently as 1990, by James Clifton, who writes that “acknowledging anything positive in the native past is an entirely wrongheaded proposition because no genuine Indian accomplishments have ever really be substantiated.” Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, published in 1992 by UCLA anthropologist, Robert Edgerton, claims child abuse and other social maladies were far more pervasive in primitive societies, proving the superiority of Western culture. And as recently as 2000, in The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, Shepard Krech was asserting such falsities as the demise of the buffalo was the fault of the Indians themselves.

The UN extinction study clearly challenges such dismissals of the worldview that guided us for 99 percent of human history before we began our conquest of nature. The authors “recognize the positive contributions of Indigenous peoples to sustainability” such as their unique “knowledge, innovations and practices, institutions and values of Indigenous peoples…that often enhances their quality of life, as well as nature conservation, restoration and sustainable use, which is relevant to broader society.” They add that “regional and global scenarios currently lack and would benefit from an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Although every effort to support Indigenous sovereignty should be part of the equation for restoring life systems, there is not sufficient time for whatever positive potential exists for such political transfer of power. So, while we fight for sovereignty in the future, we can immediately begin reembracing the Indigenous worldview, as the report suggests.

More and more scholarship is calling for this to happen. Consider the recent publication, Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom (2019) whose noted contributors describe our original nature-based relational worldview and how it relates to anthropology, psychology, sociology, leadership, science, history and art. Such an effort to Indigenous mainstream education coincides with decolonizing and counter-hegemonic movements in higher education.

As uncomfortable as it may be to reconsider the value of our Western or Eurocentric based assumptions about human-nature relationships, the extinction report is clear about the need to do so. It calls for a very different way of understanding how to live in harmony with nature. Audrey Azoulay, director general of UNESCO, says as much in a statement about the report:

This essential report reminds each of us of the obvious truth: the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity. Our local, indigenous and scientific knowledge are proving that we have solutions and so no more excuses: we must live on earth differently.

The different way to live on earth is not about more reliance on science or technology so much as it is about understanding our place in the world. Whatever diverse religions, cultures or beliefs we may have, and such diversity is vital, the underlying worldview that sees our interconnectedness with Nature, as many Indigenous Peoples still do, is essential. While respecting Indigenous rights and supporting sovereignty, we can all begin to relearn to incorporate such a worldview into our otherwise diverse perspectives. We merely need to bring complementary worldview reflection into our homes and schools, and ultimately our governments and the broader society, using the significant literature available that compares and contrasts dominant and Indigenous worldviews.

I close with a brief success story that further proves the wisdom of the UN report as relates to transformations that align with Indigenous knowledges and worldview. In April of this year Misak educator Gerardo Tununbalá, co-founder of Misak University in Colombia, presented before a group of Navajo students striving to obtain doctoral degrees from Fielding Graduate University. The students want to use the degree to walk in both worlds in ways that can help maintain and nurture their at-risk traditional lifeways and language. Having all but lost their traditional knowledge and language, the 11,000 members of the Misak nation began decolonizing their education systems in the early 1980s. Today most of them now speak their mother tongue and practice their traditional ways of being. Not only are the people happier and healthier, but their local husbandry and ecosystems have been significantly enhanced as a result.

We may not be able to learn the original place-based languages of those on whose land we dwell. Nor will we easily learn their ancient knowledge of the landscapes. We can, however, while doing our best to stop continuing genocide and culturecide of Indigenous peoples and support their goals for sovereignty, reclaim our shared worldview that guided us for most of human history. We can learn to live with just enough modern technical and structural conveniences while creating systems of egalitarianism and sustainable living based on both Western and Indigenous science. With new intentionality, spiritual awareness, trance-based learning, community support and courageous truth-seeking, we might be able to do this before it is too late. Inspired by the vital message hidden in the sobering UN report that the way to live on this planet “differently” involves a new partnership with our original Indigenous worldview and those that still fully understand it, we can have hope for future generations. Of course, concern for future generations may depend on which worldview precepts we choose as well.

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