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Indigenous leadership is a linchpin to solving environmental crises

Indigenous leadership is a linchpin to solving environmental crises
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Too much of the chaos and tragedy that our world is experiencing is a consequence of our broken relationship with nature. 

A virus has spilled over from wildlife to humans, causing a catastrophic global pandemic. Climate change is fueling weather events that are unprecedented in scale and devastation. From wildfires in the United States, Australia, the Amazon and the Arctic, to dangerous and record-breaking winter storms in Texas. 

There is no easy cure for what ails the environment. No silver bullet can restore the natural world overnight. What we know is that for our planet to remain livable over the long-term, it is going to take thousands of place-based conservation efforts, led by Indigenous peoples and local communities who oversee the most healthy, biodiverse and intact lands and waters left on Earth. 

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That is why it is so encouraging to see President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition MORE and Prime Minister Justin TrudeauJustin Pierre James TrudeauBiden to record video message for 'Vax Live' concert Pranksters trick Canadian lawmakers with fake Navalny aide: report Trudeau voices 'tremendous confidence' in AstraZeneca vaccine after first Canadian death linked to shot MORE publicly commit to supporting Indigenous-led conservation efforts across North America, working in partnership on environmental restoration and conservation and advancing nature-based climate solutions. 

The U.S. and Canada have not always lived up to their conservation-friendly image. But the Trudeau and Biden governments are committed to flipping the script, envisioning and implementing an ambitious conservation agenda that meets the scale of the crisis facing nature — and doing so by building respectful partnerships with Indigenous nations. 

In Canada, Trudeau has affirmed Canada’s commitment to protect at least 30 percent of its land and ocean area by 2030 in partnership with, by listening to and learning from Indigenous nations. The biggest, most ambitious proposals for protecting Canada’s lands and waters are being led by Indigenous nations. 

The recently created Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area, for instance, is five times the size of Yosemite National Park and the proposed Seal River Watershed Indigenous Protected Area is about the size of Costa Rica. Another crowning achievement of this new approach is Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area, a 6.5 million acre landscape in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation led the creation of Thaidene Nëné and in 2019 they signed agreements to co-create and co-manage the area with Canadian governments. The region is teeming with wildlife, it hosts a globally significant sink for carbon and it will be forever protected and overseen by the local Lutsel K’e Dene people. It should be noted that one of us, Steven Nitah, is the lead negotiator for Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation.

Now Biden, alongside his nominee to run the Department of Interior (DOI) Rep. Deb HaalandDeb HaalandHaaland makes endorsement in race for her old House seat Senate panel advances Biden's deputy Interior pick Interior secretary approves new Cherokee constitution providing citizenship rights for freedmen MORE (D-N.M.), who was a member of the Laguna Pueblo and will make history as the first-ever Native American cabinet secretary, are committing to conserve 30 percent of the U.S. by 2030. They are also supporting sovereign tribal nations in their efforts to safeguard their natural and cultural heritage. 

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As a critical first step, and to prove its sincerity, the Biden administration must renew a respectful relationship with tribal nations, honoring federal trust and treaty obligations and repairing damages left behind by the Trump administration. The president can begin by heeding the calls of five sovereign tribal nations in the America’s Four Corners region who have managed this beautiful and austere landscape since time immemorial — and immediately restore the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.

Trudeau, for his part, can build on Canada’s support for Indigenous-led conservation by making an historic investment in Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and Indigenous Guardians programs and accelerating progress on conservation by supporting stewardship, cultural continuity and economic sustainability for Canada’s Indigenous peoples. 

What Biden and Trudeau are committing to might sound like common sense — and it is — but make no mistake, it is also a profound reorientation of national policy. Instead of old approaches, where a national government engineers and delivers a program “on behalf of” Indigenous peoples, Indigenous-led conservation is built from the ground up, with Indigenous nations in the lead, including those long responsible for the land and accountable to youth, elders and future generations.

Through this new model of ethical, equitable conservation and by building lasting partnerships with Indigenous peoples, the U.S. and Canada can leverage the knowledge and understanding of local people to fight the existential threats facing climate and nature. Together, it is a fight we can win. 

Molly McUsic is president of the Wyss Foundation, which supports Indigenous- and locally-led conservation efforts across the globe. Steven Nitah is lead negotiator for Lutsël K'é Dene First Nation and senior leader of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.