This month, President Biden announced America’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. It’s an ambitious, eleventh-hour effort to meet our climate goals and stave off catastrophe.  Can it succeed? Yes, but only if we follow the lead of Indigenous people — in the U.S. and around the world.

To prevent a climate crisis, we must do two things: 1) keep every possible ton of unreleased CO2 locked where it currently is; and 2) generate every possible joule of energy from renewable sources. Indigenous people are uniquely positioned to lead on both fronts.

Even though billions in private capital are flooding into carbon capture and storage technology, the world’s forests remain the most cost-effective, abundant and strategically dispersed mechanism to capture and store carbon. Where are these forests — the lungs of the world — located? 

On Indigenous land. Rights and Resources International estimates that, in tropical countries alone, Indigenous people manage 300 billion metric tons of CO2 stored above and below ground. This amounts to 33 years’ worth of global emissions (using 2017 as a baseline). The United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Program cites decades of research showing Indigenous people manage forests more effectively and at lower cost than corporations or national governments. 

Indigenous people have known this was true for generations. Not waiting for outsiders to act, they are taking effective action to prevent climate change. For example, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state manage over 500,000 acres of forest. Every year, they prevent about as many CO2 emissions as a typical state’s annual vehicle tailpipe emissions. By selling carbon offsets into the California market, the tribes are attracting outside investment into a conservation enterprise that is Indigenous-owned and -led.

Indigenous people are also taking the lead on adapting to climate change. The president of the National Congress of American Indians and vice president of Quinault Indian Nation, Fawn Sharp, has travelled the globe to raise awareness about the impact of sea level rise on her coastal community. Her work has also raised capital from outside funders and investors to move the Quinault village of Taholah — currently threatened by constant flooding — to higher ground. This year, the Nation will complete work on a major construction project in the new village. They raised capital to fund this project through an innovative partnership with another tribe — the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.  

At the same time, Indigenous communities are fighting for land rights in the courts — and winning. The Brazilian Supreme Court recently ruled narrowly in favor of the Guarani Kaiowa people last month. The ruling allows for a new legal review of a past land demarcation and has emboldened other tribes to file similar challenges. Panama’s Indigenous Naso people recently won a land settlement in their court system. And NDN Collective — an Indigenous advocacy and development organization — is leading the LANDBACK campaign, which would restore land to Indigenous communities who will restore its ecological health. Individual tribes — such as the Yurok in California — are attracting outside investment to strategically repurchase and rebuild their land base.

The list of other models across Indian Country is too long to fit here. Each solution is tailored to its Native community. But they have a common theme. While they might receive investment from outside, the solutions themselves come from and are owned by the community.

How can we support these successful efforts? Leaders across these diverse international communities know where they want to go. National governments mostly need to get out of their way. Governments can provide clear land title in areas where it is ambiguous. They can provide direct financing and credit support for purchases. But to be effective, the ownership and leadership must reside with Indigenous people.

Indigenous-led energy development can also produce the clean power needed to fuel a just economic transition. America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates the total renewable energy generating potential of Tribal lands to be 20,000 terawatt hours. It would cost $75 billion to develop these assets. 

The global pool of money is deep enough to supply the capital. Tribes and tribal enterprises are poised to put it to work. The U.S. government can expand economic incentives and loan guarantees to match investors and projects. 

Indigenous leaders have built a legal and political infrastructure to ensure this reinvestment sits on a strong foundation of tribal sovereignty. Carla Fredericks's — the executive director of The Christensen Fund — work on implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples helps ensure communities can play a leadership role. Author Edgar Villanueva published “Decolonizing Wealth” — a must-read for any non-Native ally looking to deploy capital. In May’s issue of The Atlantic, David Treuer urged the U.S. government to return the National Parks to the tribes. Treuer cites tribes’ demonstrated track record of managing land and balancing interests: “Through hard practice—and in the face of centuries of legal, political, and physical struggle—Indian communities have become adept at the art of governance.”

Indigenous communities around the world have incubated effective climate solutions. To meet our climate goals and prevent catastrophic warming, national governments must support the expansion of those solutions on Indigenous land and the adaptation and replication of those solutions everywhere else. 

Phil Glynn is president of Travois, a certified B Corporation that provides financing, development consulting and architectural services to American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities. His Twitter is @glynnkc.


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Published on May 24, 2021