The case of environmental injustice and its impact on indigenous rights


By  Keila McFarland Dias

Climate change is widely perceived as a by-product of our contemporary socio-economic model, which rotates around the exploitation of nature, unrestrained extractivism, excessive pollution, deforestation, land degradation. Nevertheless, the environmental crisis is in itself a consequence of colonialism, as the imperial expansion heavily relied on the widespread plunder of colonies’ natural resources, thus marking the ‘genesis’ of environmental destruction. Nature’s conservation became a priority when colonisers recognised the rapid environmental decay caused by their own activities, as it acted to their detriment of the colonial powers. It is thus important to highlight that, albeit framed as a universal good, the first environmental policies were structured to solely benefit the West.



In the words of intersectional environmentalist Leah Thomas, “environmentalists need to hold themselves accountable and do the inner anti-racism work to achieve both climate and social justice”. Environmentalists are rarely acquainted with the fact that the movement’s pioneers held deeply racist beliefs; for instance, men such as Madison Grant and John Muir espoused white supremacy ideology and blatantly asserted their disdain for native Americans. Scholars, historians and proponents of environmental justice acknowledge that certain environmentalist rationalities, such as the ‘disinterested’ objectivity of environmental science, conservation practices and environmental interventions/custodianships, mirror Western-centric biases. Mainstream environmentalism has thus remained strongly white and middle-class in character. It has repeatedly neglected the experiences and rights of people of colour, reflecting the imbalance of power established through colonialism. Herein lies the weakness of the environmental movement: it traditionally seeks solutions “from the very demographic that is most complicit with causing and benefiting from exploitation and environmental degradation”. 



Colonialism’s multigenerational legacies, including indigenous genocide, the dispossession of native communities and their displacement, are reflected in the environmental crisis, as it compounds the “racialised inequalities between the winners of the rapacious global capitalist system and those who are impoverished by it; those who make claim to ‘global’ resources and those whose claims to territory, livelihood and wellbeing are extinguished at the local level; those whose luxury is being protected and those whose survival is being sacrificed”. Present-day resource extraction is rooted in colonial logic, as communities in developing countries seldom hold political power over their land and resources. This is accentuated by what has been termed by activists as colonial conservation: under the banner of environmental protection and natural preservation, governments and conservation charities are seizing land owned by indigenous populations. 

In 2003, 154 states formalised the commitment to the so-called ‘rights-based’ conservation,  a new paradigm that recognised the centrality of ancestral lands to indigenous groups and included them “in the management of protected areas on a fair and equitable basis in full respect of their human and social rights”. Nevertheless, the aforementioned land dispossession and the ensuing forceful eviction of the native inhabitants constitute a blatant and grave violation of human rights, in addition to causing irreversible social harm for some of the world’s poorest people. In September 2020, over 100 environmental and human rights NGOs positioned themselves against the drive to increase global protected areas: the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) is set to agree by May 2021 on a new target to place 30% of the Earth’s surface under conservation status by 2030. The NGOs warned that this would negatively impact as many as 300 million people, unless stronger safeguards were enacted to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and other traditional environmental stewards. What must not be overlooked is that racial discrimination and environmental injustice lie at the heart of this issue; the persistent patterns of exclusion thus act as hindrance to the achievement of environmental justice. As stated by Stephen Corry, British indigenous rights activist and CEO of Survival International, “the call to make 30% of the globe into ‘Protected Areas’ is really a colossal land grab as big as Europe’s colonial era, and it’ll bring as much suffering and death. Let’s not be fooled by the hype from the conservation NGOs and their UN and government funders. It’s really all about money, land and resource control, and an all out assault on human diversity. This planned dispossession of hundreds of millions of people risks eradicating human diversity and self-sufficiency — the real keys to our being able to slow climate change and protect biodiversity”. 

Local communities and native populations are experts at protecting their land. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has established that indigenous people have crucial knowledge and experience in how to effectively manage land and maintain biodiversity. IPCC’s recognition is based on the growing body of scientific and other literature and data showing the importance of formally recognising and securing the customary lands of indigenous peoples and other communities in order to reduce emissions. For example, recent research shows that indigenous and community lands are a globally important carbon sink, holding at least 22% of the carbon stored in tropical and subtropical forests and at least 17% of the total carbon (including soil carbon) stored in forests. There is considerable potential for more carbon to be stored on degraded indigenous and community lands if they were secured, better protected and restored. American indigenous communities are stepping up to formulate and enact climate action plans to protect their way of life. In 2019, the Karuk tribe of northern California released its climate adaptation plan with a recommendation to return to prescribed burning, an old idea that might help to ease California’s wildfire problems.  “Indigenous peoples have always been on the front lines,” says Nikki Cooley, who grew up without electricity or running water on the Navajo Nation reservation and now co-manages the Tribes and Climate Change Program for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Indigeous peoples have always been adapting to climate change. Now we have to adapt even faster.”


To dismantle discriminatory conceptions and break out of colonial and racist constructs of ecological issues, Malcom Ferdinand, author of Une Écologie Décoloniale, urges us to build alliances and create policies that put dignity at the centre.

Native communities are at the forefront of climate resilience: indigenous science is based on building deep, long-term connections with the natural world. Therefore, native peoples must be at the heart of programmes developed to protect the environment and included in decision-making. Marking a paradigm shift, Native American  Congresswoman Deb Haaland  will be nominated to serve as U.S. interior secretary, leading  the agency governing public lands. “It would be an honor to move the Biden-Harris climate agenda forward, help repair the government to government relationship with Tribes that the Trump Administration has ruined, and serve as the first Native American cabinet secretary in our nation’s history,” Ms Haaland said in a statement on the 17th of December 2020. Fellow progressive Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez praised her nomination as historic on multiple levels, given that Haaland “brings a commitment to climate and justice to the position, and the historic weight of having a Native woman, no less a progressive one, in charge of federal lands is enormous.” Haaland will play a key role in implementing the new administration’s environmental policies, fulfilling the promise  “to secure environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity”.

What can we do as individuals to change the global paradigm permeated by racial, ethnic  and environmental injustices? We must support and empower indigenous communities at the grassroots: for instance, donate to Indigenous Climate Action (ICA), União Amazônia Viva, Indigenous Environmental Network, Climate Alliance of European Cities with Indigenous Rainforest Peoples, amongst many others. Use your voice (and vote) for change: for example, sign the petition to stop Fossil Fuel Companies from polluting Indigenous People’s Land” .


The year of 2020 has crystallised the inextricable link existing between gender, racial, ethnic, social, climate injustices. Environmental destruction and systemic oppression are thus interrelated, as the climate crisis is not divorced from structural inequalities rooted in anachronistic and (white) supremacist norms of domination. It is key to analyse environmental issues not only from a social justice angle, but also in terms of an emancipation from the colonial legacy and racism inherent in the global structure. We must not overlook how the impact of climate change is disproportionately stratified across racial lines as a corollary of colonialism. Developed countries hold greater responsibility for causing environmental damage, therefore they must be held accountable for the perpetuation of colonial legacies and human rights abuses in the developing world. The movement to mitigate the climate emergency must not be devoid of social thought: we are the last generation with the power to not only reverse climate change but to advocate for structural change by unconditionally prioritising justice and equity whilst tackling crises. May we not forget that it is our responsibility to become more ethical than the society we grew up in.


This article was written by Keila McFarland Dias.

Picture 1: A file photo of a rally outside the Capitol in September of 2014.

Picture 2: EDMAR BARROS (Indigenous woman in Brazil wears mask “Indigenous Lives Matter” 

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