An Indigenous Perspective on Environmental Sustainability
Indigenous peoples and environmentalists both highly value environmental protection and preservation.
Indigenous peoples have long taken an ecocentric view of the land and its resources, seeing them inherently valuable and deserving of protection. This perspective recognizes the fundamental importance of the larger ecosystem of which human beings are simply one part. The environment is inherently valuable, not merely valuable because of its derivative benefit to human beings.
While Indigenous peoples commonly hold this view, it is by no means exclusively held. Many others see the protection and preservation of the environment as of the upmost importance.
Most conflicts arise when environmental protection is pitted against economic gain. In this case, environmental resources become something to be used for human benefit, rather than maintaining their inherent value. Therefore, when faced with a choice between environmental preservation and economic gain, the former is often sacrificed for the latter.
One recent example of such a conflict is the new Enbridge pipeline development in British Columbia. Several B.C. First Nations groups are launching constitutional challenges in an effort to block the pipeline, claiming an infringement of their Aboriginal rights. Members have spoken out on the issue, asserting that they are solely seeking the protection of the land and the environment, and criticize the provincial government for failing to properly consult with First Nations groups.
While ecocentric views of the environment are prone to conflicts with economic interests, the two are not necessarily incompatible.
“By fostering a closer connection and understanding of Aboriginal culture, perhaps we can foster this more ecocentric attitude.”
One of the problems with taking an anthropocentric (economic benefit-first) view of the environment is the likelihood of over-utilizing natural resources to the point of foregoing sustainability. Taking a more ecocentric view of the environment would not require us to entirely forego our economic interests, it would simply require that these interests be pursued in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
This is precisely where we can benefit by learning from Indigenous peoples. For centuries, they have utilized the land to their socioeconomic benefit but done so in a way that recognizes the value of the land outside of its utility, and that maintains sustainability and renewability of natural resources.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took this position at the Paris COP21. Trudeau explained that Indigenous peoples have learned how to care for the planet, and that the rest of us can learn how to care for the planet by following their example. By fostering a closer connection and understanding of Aboriginal culture, perhaps we can foster this more ecocentric attitude.
While environmental advocates and Indigenous peoples are often in agreement and share congruent interests, there are also points of divergence. One such issue is banning or limiting traditional Aboriginal practices such as fishing that have long been the norm and custom for these groups.
Many environmentalists argue that these limits are justified on the basis of protecting a threatened species. This is not to say that in such circumstances Indigenous peoples do not care about these resources or are subordinating environmental interests in favour of their own. Their contention is simply that Indigenous groups are having these important and highly valued practices, which they have been doing for hundreds of years, taken away from them.
The question then becomes: what is the appropriate balance? While the legitimate concerns on both sides of the issue are evident, the answer or solution to this question is not.
Zoe Knes-Gray (1L) is a contributor to Juris Diction.