Since it was founded in 1991, Bioneers has always included authentic, original Indigenous voices and perspectives on the most pressing environmental and social issues facing the planet. To maintain this commitment, our Native-led Indigeneity Program and Indigenous Board Members guide Bioneers in providing a platform for Indigenous frontline changemakers to share their first-person perspectives. When this is not possible as a first option, we promote our dear friends and allies to Indigenous Peoples who are in a position to share their perspectives, knowing that the views expressed may reflect non-Indigenous ways of interpreting and understanding these issues. The following is a perspective from one of our allies.
Though Indigenous peoples today represent a small percentage of the global population, they maintain and care for more than a fifth of the Earth’s surface. From Thailand and Russia to Ecuador and Canada, ecologist and environmentalist Gleb Raygorodetsky has spent decades visiting and observing these communities and how global climate change has affected their lives. In his book, The Archipelago of Hope (Pegasus Books, 2017), Raygorodestsky shares some of what he’s learned over the years. The following excerpt is from the book’s prologue.
We have the knowledge that can contribute to finding solutions to the crisis of climate change. But if you are not prepared to listen, how can we communicate this to you?
—Marcos Terena (Xané leader, Inter-Tribal Committee of Brazil)
“We, the Maasai,” says Mr. Olood Saitaga, a respected community elder, “are completely dependent on our cattle. When the cattle die, we die too.” Even Mr. Saitaga’s skin, the color of dark-roast coffee, seems to offer little protection from the scorching heat of the Kenyan sun. He tucks the traditional crimson-blue shúkà robe between his legs and, folding his lanky, angular frame, squats in the mottled shade of a small acacia tree. From the welcome coolness, he looks out toward the distant mountains—a shimmering blue band suspended between the vast expanse of hazy sky and scorched savannah streaked with the rippling plumes of acacia trees. Mr. Saitaga delicately positions his wide-brimmed leather hat on his right knee. With the palm of his large sinewy hand, he brushes his close-cropped hair, the color of the large, silver hoops stretching his earlobes.
“We used to know when it would rain,” he says softly. “Now it is hard to predict whether it will rain or not. We haven’t had long or short rains for years and are suffering in the extreme.”
Mr. Saitaga’s metal bracelets clink as, clearing his throat, he wipes his parched lips with the back of his hand. “Animals, women, children, and men—all have suffered greatly. Most of our animals have died,” he says, gesturing toward the mummified carcass of a cow a few yards away, its teeth protruding through sun-withered lips in a ghostly snarl. The flies buzz incessantly over the cow’s carcass, as the unyielding sun continues to roast the savannah, vaporizing Mr. Saitaga’s quiet lament.
Less than two generations ago, local stories about the impacts of—and responses to—climate change would have been unheard of anywhere in the world. Today, there are thousands stories that are similar to the one Mr. Saitaga shared on video with the Conversations with the Earth project co-founded and facilitated by the participatory video nonprofit InsightShare. Super Typhoon Haima in the Philippines, Hurricane Matthew in Florida, record flooding in the Canadian Rockies and California, Australia’s mega fires, Peru’s deadly deluge—not a month passes without mainstream and social media buzzing with the news of yet another record-breaking weather-related calamity. While arguments about global warming rage on among politicians and lobbyists, there is no denying that the overall trajectory is toward extreme weather events becoming more frequent and intense—which is exactly what climate science foresees to be the future of our planet—as the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and temperatures continue to rise. Climate change, in other words, is no longer something that is likely to happen in a distant future—it is already here.
Nobody knows this better than Indigenous communities who, having developed an intimate relationship with landscapes and ecosystems over generations, have been observing climate change for decades and increasingly bear the disproportionate burden of its impacts. Skolt Sámi reindeer herder and salmon fisherman Mr. Jouko Moshnikoff knows firsthand that winters are becoming warmer in his part of the world, and the outbreaks of parasitic autumn moth are becoming more frequent and widespread. The moths are threatening to wipe out birch forests—an important source of spring food for his people’s reindeer. For the Indigenous communities like Moshnikoff’s, climate change is not a theory, a political spin, or a fund-raising strategy—it is an inescapable reality of daily life.
These communities—islands of biological and cultural diversity in the ever-rising deluge of development and urbanization—are humankind’s “Archipelago of Hope,” for here lies our best chance to remember—or learn—how to care for Earth in a way that keeps it healthy for our descendants.
Within these pages, we will encounter diverse Indigenous peoples around the globe reaching deep into the well of their traditions and innovating to come up with creative responses to the many challenges of climate change. Though culturally and ecologically fitting to their specific circumstances, their approaches are ultimately relevant to all of us.
The Archipelago of Hope is based on over two decades of my work with Indigenous peoples around the world. Drawing on this deep experience, I have sought to explore how climate change fits within the multitude of other challenges—whether ecological or economic—affecting Indigenous communities, and what it takes for them to find ways to deal with the added pressures. We visit local peoples on different continents where climate change is a fact of life—the Skolt Sámi in Finland, the Nenets and the Altai in Russia, the Sápara in Ecuador, the Karen in Thailand, and the Tla-o-qui-aht Nuu-chah-nulth in Canada. Intimate portraits of local men and women, youth and elders, spiritual leaders, and craftsmen emerge against the backdrop of their traditional livelihoods, helping readers understand what it is like to live on the front lines of climate change. What these people recount is sometimes brutal—corruption that disempowers, pollution that sickens, education that rips children away from their families, and even development that kills—but this is balanced with the positive, the adaptive, the compelling, and often the spiritual.
While I draw on the most up-to-date climate science, my aim is not to write a treatise of facts and predictions but to help those of us living a step or two removed from the natural world engage with these rich cultures, and to understand our collective biocultural heritage that is intertwined with traditional practices. We might learn how to carve a halibut hook, listen to spirits, plant a medicinal garden, or catch a reindeer.
An important disclaimer—though there is no single definition of “Indigenous,” there are a number of common characteristics that the United Nations uses to describe Indigenous peoples. They must:
• possess a distinct, often a minority, population relative to the dominant postcolonial culture of their country;
• have a distinct language, culture, and traditions influenced by living relationships with the ancestral homeland; and
• demonstrate a resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.
To my knowledge, none of these apply to my own ancestors. The Archipelago therefore is in no way my attempt to speak on behalf of the Indigenous peoples. Rather, I hope it is a way to respectfully share with readers what I have learned over the years of being an ally to the Indigenous peoples working on climate change, conservation, land-use management, and many other critical issues of our time.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Archipelago of Hope by Gleb Raygorodetsky, published by Pegasus Books, 2017.