Why engaging with indigenous youth is essential for environmental protection

Bhavna Choudhury
Bhavna Choudhury
Indigenous peoples defender and founder at The Indegenous

Stockholm+50 is a crucial opportunity to commemorate the 1972 Stockholm Declaration and chart a common path for the next 50 years of environmental multilateralism. This time, however, indigenous people, particularly our youth, must be included in the conversation and our voices heard.  

The World Bank estimates that there are more than 500 million indigenous people in 70 countries worldwide. They manage or hold tenure over 25% of the world’s land surface and support about 80% of global biodiversity, yet account for 15% of the world’s poorest.  

Indigenous people have always fought for nature. In fact, the first environmental movement started way before the alarm for the climate crisis was sounded. One can point back to 1730 in the desert of Rajasthan, India, when members of the Bishnoi indigenous community vehemently opposed deforestation by the royal house of Jodhpur; as many as 363 people were massacred ruthlessly as they hugged Khejri trees torn up from the ground for construction. This small evergreen tree has been hailed as the lifeline of the Thar Desert. Today, the responsibility of mitigating climate change has had much of that same spirit: spearheaded by children, youth, women and indigenous peoples.  

Leave no one behind

The 1972 Stockholm Declaration failed to include indigenous peoples as a stakeholder in protecting the Earth and its resources. Until the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, indigenous peoples had been largely excluded from environmental governance. As the largest managers of biodiversity on the planet, the lack of representation is astounding. Even while defining and developing at the time the Millennium Development Goals – the precursor to the Sustainable Development Goals – there was no consultation, or engagement made with indigenous peoples. As a result, there was no mention of indigenous peoples in the MDGs. Not surprisingly, it meant that they were effectively “left behind” in the development process.  

The largest milestone for indigenous peoples has been the establishment of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous (UNPFII) in 2000 and the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development (IPMG) in 2015. And yet, the level of engagement has been limited in the last 22 years and the lack of representation from indigenous people, especially youth, remains a major issue. Given the commitments by member states to “leaving no one behind”, the inclusion of indigenous peoples and youth must be emphasized in high-level policymaking.

Here’s how can we create a policy environment that takes indigenous peoples’ voices into account:  

1. Inclusive policies and consultations  

Indigenous populations – who represent only 5% of the planet, but support about 80% of the global biodiversity – must be part of the process. When such a large responsibility rests on the shoulders of indigenous peoples, policymakers must be inclusive. As the custodians of nature, we call for a wider framework that carries out public consultations with indigenous communities. We also need to learn how to better live in harmony with nature – indigenous cultures can lead and inspire this fundamental process. It is time to accelerate the promises made to indigenous peoples at COP26 and turn them into action. In this context, eco-resurgence is proposed as a bottom-up global environmental governance mechanism where indigenous societies, their cultural richness and traditional philosophies play a major role in the ecological transition.  

2. Easing funding mechanisms and more equitable access  

Indigenous communities are of various types: forest dwellers, communities dependent on rivers, small island state nation communities, nomadic communities and many more. These populations often carry invaluable knowledge resources on forest management, soil restoration, biodiversity and organic methods for sustainable agriculture, among others. However, traditional indigenous knowledge tends to stay within communities. This is mostly due to a lack of education and funding opportunities. Separation from urban areas and low levels of formal education makes it difficult for indigenius people to get access to mechanisms for funding, including for forest management and biodiversity projects. Most indigenous people literary data, knowledge and culture are not well researched. With few expectations, censuses are outdated or rarely analysed. For example, the last tribal peoples population update was done by the Government of India in 1965. The academic disadvantage of indigenous people has resulted in several of the recurring issues such as poverty and underemployment. Investments in education and easing access to funding would contribute to economic and social development, creating avenues for social mobility, job opportunities and better understanding of indigenous people knowledge on the environment.  

3. Call to action for addressing rapidly deteriorating habitats

Rapid industrialization in urban and rural regions has resulted in depletion of forest cover in our lands, which is causing a slew of ecological concerns. Indigenous peoples and local communities from all over the world occupy at least a quarter of the land. Historically, our livelihoods have been inextricably intertwined with the environment, whether via agriculture or fishing, among many other occupations. However, indigenous people traditions, lands and way of living are increasingly threatened by the changing environment. Indeed, environmental deterioration, deforestation and climate change are putting our lives at an existential risk. Despite the growing environmental challenges, indigenous peoples often continue contributing to ecosystems’ long-term viability. For this reason, indigenous peoples’ voices and experiences should be put on the forefront in the efforts to address climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.  

Listen to our youth  

At The Indegenous – a nonprofit working to reduce inequalities for indigenous peoples through knowledge sharing – we are doing the work that our governments have failed to do. As a part of our consultations with over 150 indigenous youth, we have compiled data sets about indigenous populations in North-East India, Western India and throughout Africa. We are also a thriving community led by leaders of the Global South.  

We hope that by engaging with Stockholm+50, our voices – the voices of educated indigenous children – will create a bridge between the Global North who pledged over $1.7 billion at COP26 for indigenous people through the Declaration on Forests and Land Use and the indigenous youth they pledged it to.  

The past two years have been crucial as a lesson for humanity. The COVID-19 pandemic has showed us that our relationship with nature needs to fundamentally change, but also that we are indeed able to collaborate on a global scale in order to respond to a collective crisis.  

The power of social media, education and collective responsibility can be used as tools for environmental actions. We have already seen how the grassroots movements led by children and youth who are worried for their future were effective in mobilizing support. We need to start a dialogue and encourage more young people to become involved in making our communities ecologically conscious. We should make a push to include indigenous peoples’ experiences and perspectives on the environment into formal education curricula.  

But most importantly, we ask governments to step up, transform commitments into actions and work towards a healthy planet for all – including indigenous people. This is what we hope from Stockholmn+50.