Extreme heat and the resultant forest fires are an annual occurrence in Canada. The impacts can be devastating for communities and could alter Earth’s climate. There is growing recognition that Indigenous fire stewardship has a positive long-term impact on managing forests and mitigating the risk of uncontrollable fires around the world.

Indigenous fire stewardship (IFS) is the use of fire by diverse Indigenous people to assist in “responding to climate and local environmental conditions to promote desired landscapes, habitats, [and] species.” IFS serves “to increase the abundance of favored resources to sustain knowledge systems, ceremonial, and subsistence practices, economies, and livelihoods.” Indigenous fire stewardship practices are collaborative and attempt to support communities to become more “fire dependent” by enhancing a community’s reliance on fire to create optimal conditions in the landscape that support a community’s livelihood and capacity to protect the ecosystem from the adverse impacts of wildfires. This compares to simply being “fire adaptive” and remaining “informed and prepared” to “safely coexist with wildland fire.”

Diverse Indigenous nations are implementing fire stewardship practices and are “revitalizing traditional burning” to develop “wildfire mitigation strategies that can maintain or enhance cultural attributes of First Nations communities.” Also referred to as “cultural burning” the controlled burning of dead grass, for example, improves the habitat for some animal species, and encourages new vegetation. Drawing from intergenerational knowledge about fire and sharing “beliefs and practices among fire-dependent cultures,” IFS consists of a combination of “fire regimes, fire effects, and the role of cultural burning in fire-prone ecosystems and habitats.” The impact of IFS on Indigenous communities is strongest where there is also a connection between rural wildland and urban regions, and where a combination of permanent and seasonal human settlements exists, along with trails and roads that involve managed habitats for food, among other gifts of Mother Nature.

Along the West Coast of the United States (i.e., region of California), the Karuk Tribe and the Yurok Tribe have engaged in partnerships with the Nature Conservancy Training Exchange (TREX) and the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership to ensure that Indigenous fire stewardship practices are implemented across multiple tribal, federal, and private lands and jurisdictions. In another example, The First Nations Adapt Program, funded by Indigenous Services Canada,  assesses  “climate change vulnerabilities and [identifies] Indigenous cultural values and traditional burning knowledge.” The partnership of The First Nations Emergency Services Society – Forest Fuel Management (FFM) and three First Nations communities, the Shackan Indian Band, Xwisten (Bridge River First Nation) and the Yunesit’n National Government, has resulted in key educational outcomes including a storytelling project and videos from the Shackan and Xwisten Indian Bands, outlining the importance of cultural burning revitalization.

Given that complete fire suppression is impossible, fire can be used as a tool for forest management. In turn, centuries-old Indigenous practices of controlled burning – fighting fire with fire – must become part of a global solution to reduce the risk of wildfires ravaging the planet.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Matt Palmer, Unsplash)

Biodiversity loss exacerbated by climate change puts Indigenous food systems at risk of slow erosion, if not sudden collapse. Sustainable farming practices, such as regenerative agriculture, intercropping, and polycultures are several ways that Indigenous peoples sustain the gifts of Mother Earth, such as soil and water, while growing crops to feed people. These farming practices are also being put into place by non-Indigenous farmers for sustainable development.

Regenerative agriculture is about revitalizing, rather than, degrading soil through farming. Regenerative practices promote energy sequestration in the soil and offsets greenhouse gas emissions. Planting the Three Sisters (i.e., beans, corn, and squash) is a form of intercropping, a practice where certain plants are sown and grown next to each other to build symbiotic relationships rather than competitive relationships with each other for water, oxygen, and soil. Polyculture contrasts with monoculture and industrial, commercialized farming practices whereby different crop species are planted next to each other at the same time to increase soil nutrients and reduce the risk of pests and rampant disease. Intercropping is a form of polyculture too. Together, these practices also combat food insecurity among Indigenous peoples, which is historically the result of land dispossession due to colonization.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has pointed to the importance of including Indigenous voices and agricultural practices in policy and planning. As noted in the FAO’s recent report, “the world cannot feed itself sustainably without listening to Indigenous Peoples.”


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Doan Tuan, Unsplash)

Seed saving is about more than food; it is also about protecting future food crops on Mother Earth and facilitating Indigenous food sovereignty around the world. Saving seeds from one harvest to the next is necessary for Indigenous communities to meet their need for certain food crops, traditional medicines, as well as other cultural and social needs.

As a highly evolved process involving different stages, seed saving can include “optimal season times for seed saving, seed-saving rotations, containers, and storage units that lasted for hundreds of years, processes that considered pollination patterns and systems, and associated cultural meaning to different stages of the seed-saving process.” The importance of seed sovereignty has increased with the commercialization of seed markets. Seed sovereignty is “[t]he farmer’s right to breed and exchange diverse open-source seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants.” Seed sovereignty also aligns with “seven pillars of food sovereignty” that:

  • Focuses on food for people
  • Builds knowledge and skills
  • Works with nature
  • Values food providers
  • Localizes food systems
  • Puts control locally
  • Food is sacred.

Seed saving enables Indigenous communities to get back to their roots and to reconnect with Mother Earth. Saving seeds holds spiritual significance for Indigenous peoples. Seeds are understood as living beings from which humans are descended and with whom humans hold a reciprocal, if not symbiotic, relationship. Therefore, with seeds as their relatives, “members of an extended family,” Indigenous peoples must take care of them by preserving them for future generations.  Returning seeds to Mother Earth, their original home, is sometimes referred to as “seed rematriation.”

Seed banks and seed sanctuaries are vital repositories to protect the genetic diversity of food crops on the planet. They are intended to protect seeds for the future. There are seed sanctuaries operated by collaboratives, such as the Native American Seed Sanctuary, which involves Akwesasne, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, and until the end of May 2021, Seedshed.  Indigenous nations have also developed their own seed banks, such as the Cherokee Nation Seed Bank and the Kenhte:ke Seed Sanctuary and Learning Centre; the latter is managed by Ratinenhayén:thos in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. The most significant seed bank on the planet is the Svalgard Global Seed Vault, located in Norway, which securely stores the world’s food crop diversity. The Cherokee Nation was the first Indigenous nation to contribute seeds to the vault.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, often referred to as “The Seed Treaty,” is “a global agreement on sharing and caring for seeds.” The Seed Treaty serves to ensure that there is genetic diversity in seeds for the world’s food; however, the treaty does little to protect Indigenous knowledge about the seeds, nor does it protect against commercial exploitation. Clear documentation and agreements are needed when seeds are first collected and deposited in seed banks in order to reinforce Indigenous peoples’ seed rights.

By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Melanie Hughes, Unsplash)

In May 2016, Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), almost ten years after it was adopted by the UN General Assembly. As an international law, “UNDRIP affirms Indigenous rights to protection of the environment” and has increasing potential to inform environmental protection policy in Canada.

According to Article 25 of UNDRIP: “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.” Article 29 goes further to highlight the rights of Indigenous peoples to the “conservation and protection of the environment.”

In Canada, UNDRIP is gaining traction in guiding environmental policy. Bill C-69 was passed in 2019 and resulted in changes to the federal environmental impact assessment process, including requiring “early and regular engagement with Indigenous peoples based on recognition of Indigenous rights and interests from the start.” Bill C-69 can be interpreted as an effort by the Canadian government to build consistency between Canada’s environmental protection policies and UNDRIP.

In June 2021, Bill C-15, a bill to ensure that “the laws of Canada are consistent with” UNDRIP, passed third reading in the Senate, and will now require “meaningful consultation” with Indigenous peoples before implementation. It remains uncertain whether or not Bill C-15 will also ensure that Indigenous treaties are honoured.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Photo Credit: Gunnar Ridderstrom, Unsplash)

There are currently 197 renewable energy projects associated with Indigenous communities in Canada; however, very few are controlled by Indigenous communities. Renewable energy, or clean energy, is energy that is naturally derived and processed from resources like water, wind, and sunlight. This energy is “replenished at a rate that is equal to or faster than the rate” at which the resources are consumed. Indigenous engagement in renewable energy projects is motivated by several factors, including economic development, self-determination, and climate change adaptation.

Renewable energy is recognized as an economic opportunity by, and for, Indigenous Peoples. The Cowessess Renewable Energy Storage Facility is one example of a First Nation-owned renewable energy project that contributes to the economic sustainability of the nation. The facility harnesses energy from both solar power and wind power, and as such, is referred to as a hybrid facility. This project was developed by Cowessess First Nation in 2013, and in partnership with the Saskatchewan Research Council; it provides enough power for 340 homes. SaskPower, the power authority in Saskatchewan, is contracted to buy electricity from the project for 20 years, with profits going to Cowessess First Nation. In addition, the project supports Indigenous businesses and trains and hires members of the First Nation to sustain the project.

In another example, the Pic Mobert First Nation (population 350) owns 50% of the Gitchi Animki Hydroelectric Project located in White River, Ontario. The Pic Mobert First Nation also operates the two generating stations of 18.9-megawatts that were constructed with band members, in partnership with Regional Power Incorporated. The project generates revenue that benefits the community and has been supplying energy to the province of Ontario’s power grid since 2016.

A primary motivator for Indigenous-owned-and-operated renewable energy projects is energy autonomy, a form of self-determination. Also referred to as energy self-sufficiency, energy autonomy, reflects a community’s ability to generate, store, distribute, and sustain an energy system locally, without the need of external intervention. In turn, some Indigenous communities are “participating in renewable energy development as a way to assert their collective rights to land and self determination.” The 20/20 Catalysts Program is one way that Indigenous communities are supported to learn and build knowledge and skills in developing community-based renewable energy projects.

Indigenous-led renewable energy projects and associated infrastructure projects, like energy-efficient housing, can contribute to climate change adaptation efforts. A recent report by the Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE) Network calls for energy efficiency as a catalyst for a future that embraces clean energy as foundational to Indigenous health. Financing the construction of energy efficient homes and the retrofitting of older homes to be energy efficient is proposed by ICE as a crucial component to both climate adaptation and sustainable development, by reducing energy emissions, and by facilitating job creation for Indigenous people.

Fostering reconciliation through renewable energy projects demands free, prior, and informed consent and financing to ensure that more Indigenous communities control their own projects, both during and after the development phase.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Karsten Wurth, Unsplash)

The protection of Indigenous land rights helps to secure the carbon stored by forests and soil on Indigenous traditional territories and treaty lands. Carbon capturing and storage or ‘carbon sequestration’ in the air, lands, and trees, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) world-wide and are crucial to mitigating climate change.

Tree cover loss continues to be a threat to climate change. “Indigenous peoples and local communities manage[d] at least 17 percent, or 293,061 million metric tons (Mt) of the total carbon stored”, in about 69% of the world’s forest cover, in 2017. If carbon held underground in forests and lands is released into the atmosphere, it would add to global CO2 emissions, the majority of which comes from road transport.

Forest protection and securing Indigenous land title are linked. Titling Indigenous community lands “significantly reduces both clearing and disturbance” in the short term. For example, in the Peruvian Amazon, deforestation was reduced by 81% in the year that followed titling. Drawing from the interactive maps available online by LandMark Global Platform of Indigenous and Community Lands, current users can see total tree cover loss from 2001-2019 on Indigenous and community lands.

Indigenous rights to land and recognition by governments of these rights may not only secure Indigenous rights to carbon but may also facilitate Indigenous access to carbon markets and reforms to regulatory processes. These interventions could more powerfully manage CO2 emissions and mitigate the global effects of climate change.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image credit: Chuttersnap, Unsplash)

Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA) are crucial to fighting climate change and to mitigating losses in global biodiversity. Drawing from geospatial data, potential areas for IPCA designation cover approximately, “38 million km2 in 87 countries” around the world. Although IPCAs are varied, they share common characteristics, including enhancing Indigenous rights and responsibilities and a commitment to Indigenous stewardship.

As noted in the 2018 report We Rise by the Indigenous Circle of Experts: “IPCAs are lands and waters where Indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems. Culture and language are the heart and soul of an IPCA.”

In 2017, Mary Simon, Canada’s Special Representative of Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada indicated in the report A New Shared Leadership Model that there is strong link between Arctic conservation and healthy community building, with a crucial role for Inuit environmental stewardship programs to uphold “an Indigenous vision of a working landscape.” The notion of a “working landscape” shows how IPCAs can also be recognized as having a crucial role in sustaining Indigenous local economies. The Arqvilliit Indigenous Protected Area, which includes the Inuit community of Inukjuak on Hudson Bay, relies on Indigenous-led monitoring and conservation efforts to address climate change impacts such as melting sea ice, the decline of polar bear and seal populations, and reduced access to country food.

More recently, the Kaska Nation has proposed the Dene K’éh Kusān, otherwise known as the Kaska Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (KIPCA) which would further support Kaska Dena stewardship practices based on “honouring cultural responsibility to care for the land.” Dene K’éh Kusān means “Always Will Be There” in Dene language. Indigenous stewardship draws from Traditional Indigenous Knowledge in environmental conservation. The Dane Nan Yḗ Dāh Network, which is the Kaska Land Guardian network, plays a key role in sustaining Indigenous stewardship and co-management practices from one generation to the next, and is rooted in Kaska cultural and value systems.

In another example, the Australian Government has given Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA) a “specific designation” within the country’s legal framework for conservation management, where cultural values are recognized as integral to long -term conservation planning practices. IPAs are also recognized as Indigenous country,  whereby “country” refers to “land and waters that have enduring cultural, social, and economic linkages for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (TSI) peoples.” Indigenous governance by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is also a crucial component to Australian Indigenous Protected Areas. Enhancing and supporting the network of Indigenous Rangers through ‘Country Needs People’ is also vital to sustaining cultural and ecological Indigenous-led conservation practices in Australia. Aboriginal title, as proof of land “ownership,” is a crucial requirement for inclusion in Australia’s Indigenous Protected Area system.

Despite these encouraging developments, there is so much yet to learn about Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas from the standpoint of Indigenous knowledge keepers around the world.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Kalen Emsley, Unsplash)

Indigenous weather and climate forecasting indicators offer important information to facilitate adaptation to climate and weather variability. Dynamic processes involved with linking modern meteorological climate and weather forecasting with traditional Indigenous approaches, point to opportunities for the co-production of knowledge.

Among farmers and pastoralists in Eastern Africa, Indigenous weather forecasting indicators are varied and can incorporate meteorological and astrological components. Forecasting seasonal climate change at the local level is crucial for farmers and pastoralists, and Indigenous “traditional weather and climate forecasting remains the most accessible and affordable source of weather and climate information.” For example, the Afar pastoralists from the Horn of Africa predict climate and weather changes by observing behaviours and indicators from trees, insects, animals, birds, and livestock and triangulate this traditional information with scientific information from modern sources. Afar pastoralists use a system of three different traditional approaches to “collect, share and analyse” climate and weather information gathered from both scientific and traditional sources. The system consists of information gathered from traditional scouts on rangelands (the Edo); a traditional network for secure and reliable information sharing and exchange (the Dagu); and the traditional Afar governance system (the Adda) to facilitate information analysis prior to community decision making.

Creating synergies between Local Indigenous Knowledge on weather forecasting and modern scientific meteorological methods can meet the short-term and long-term climate information needs of local Indigenous farmers to support their decision making to adapt to climate change.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Alfred Quartey, Unsplash)

Indigenous people show how to nurture, defend, and protect biodiversity while living off the land. Their efforts are crucial to the Convention on Biological Diversity signed by 150 countries in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to implement the principles of Agenda 21 (the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests) and the current push to protect 30% of the Earth’s land and water by 2030. However, a coalition of Indigenous groups are calling for an increase of the target to 50%, and they have not been invited to participate in the United Nations’ (UN) Biodiversity Conference scheduled for Kunming, China in October 2021. What is global biodiversity and how are Indigenous peoples crucial to protecting Earth’s habitat?

Biodiversity has been described as the “library of life”; it reflects ecosystem diversity, species diversity, genetic diversity. Many ecosystems are vulnerable and require protection from overuse, and imbalances between “sharing and protecting activities”. Increasing the interconnection among these elements strengthens the resiliency of biodiversity in the world.

Current news stories are highlighting the contributions of Indigenous peoples in “leading the way” in nature conservation; this includes protecting the web of humans, animals, insects and plants on Earth, in the context of global warming, overharvesting of forests, overconsumption of land for food, and overfishing. As regions of high biodiversity, some UN Biosphere Reserves offer good examples of protected territories, where scientists have engaged in partnerships with Indigenous communities in land management and biodiversity conservation; one example is the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. In Canada, biosphere reserves continue to work on how to build meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples as partners in biodiversity protection and to practice truth and reconciliation.

Research studies have shown “that overall, Indigenous-managed lands and existing protected areas host similar levels of vertebrate biodiversity in Brazil, Canada, and Australia.” There is a strong relationship between building partnerships with Indigenous communities to enhance their land tenure and protecting land for “biodiversity conservation using a mix of conventional protected areas and Indigenous-managed lands.”

Protecting biodiversity goes together with sustainable development and meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be impossible without Indigenous ecological understanding. Indigenous peoples make up “less than 5% of the population but manage more than one-quarter of the world’s land surface.”  As noted by UNESCO, Indigenous people need to be extricated from the singular category of land manager or resource user and from associated perceptions of what those roles entail, and instead, be recognized as essential partners in protecting biodiversity.

We, as humans, are running out of time to combat the destructive impacts of climate change. It is unconscionable that Indigenous people are being excluded from crucial UN talks about biodiversity. It makes no sense that while the contributions of Indigenous people to the protection of global biodiversity are recognized internationally, that Indigenous groups would be excluded from global policy discussions meant to protect planet Earth.

By Leela Viswanathan

(Image credit: Johannes Pleno, Unsplash)

Big Data involves gathering and compiling massive amounts of information from multiple data sources, rapidly, with the help of technology. Indigenous expertise needs to be included in Big Data research projects from the start, rather than being ignored or included as an afterthought, to more comprehensively understand Arctic change and to have social impact on Indigenous communities.

The Arctic Animal Movement Archive (AAMA) hosted by Movebank combines information from 30 years of ecological research, and from over 200 studies, that tracked the movements of 86 species from around the world using animal-borne sensors. The Big Data gives “a bigger picture of how animals are responding to changes in the Arctic.” For example, ice loss, an earlier arrival of the spring season, and longer autumns influence where caribou and the Pacific Walrus give birth to their calves, and affect Indigenous hunting practices. Currently, a web search for information about the inclusion of Indigenous people in AAMA research processes garners no results. To have meaningful social impact, Big Data projects need Indigenous communities to inform research processes from the start.

Big data projects may learn from attempts at co-management that aim to redress the historical exclusion of Indigenous people from research processes. For example, two St. Lawrence Island Yupik communities, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Eskimo Walrus Commission link oceanographic data with Indigenous hunters’ and fishers’ knowledge to protect walrus populations and sustain access to country food.

By Leela Viswanathan

(Image Credit: Joris Beugels, Unsplash)