As people around the world take action for Earth Day, a moment where we might think a little more deeply about environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and personal responsibility, University of Waikato Lecturer Hineitimoana Greensill reflects on what it means to be an Indigenous person on the day.

While the call to “protect our species” is important, what of the Indigenous peoples, cultures and languages that are also under threat?  In order to save our world we must also support the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination.

It might seem like a big jump, but really it isn’t. The beast we know as colonialism was founded on the exploitation of Indigenous lands, resources and peoples. This kind of exploitation continues today and has had serious consequences for both Indigenous peoples and the environment.

In Te Moana nui a Kiwa, the Pacific, a plethora of environmental issues face our region: global warming and climate change, plastic pollution, rising sea levels, unsustainable commercial fishing practices, deforestation, mining, the list goes on. The visibility of these issues has been assisted greatly by environmental movements, but what is often missing from the picture is the connection to people.

In trying to extract people from the equation they miss the point. The lives of Indigenous peoples are inextricably connected to the environment. One cannot be considered without the other.

Aside from a moral imperative to consider the lives of Indigenous peoples in any attempt to address environmental concerns, from an ecological perspective it also makes sense. The interdependent nature of ecosystems is something that we understand from millennia of living with our environment.

In my classes on sustainability in the context of Māori and Indigenous studies, we spend a lot of time thinking about what we can learn from the wisdom of our ancestors. How did they view the world around them? How did they understand their place in this world?  And what kind of impact did this have on the way that they related to the environment?

What we find is an understanding that we are intimately connected to everything in the natural world through whakapapa, our ancestral link to land, sky, ocean and cosmos. This understanding forms the basis of our environmental ethics and enabled our ancestors to develop practices that ensured the survival of species, including themselves, and engendered relationships with the environment built on respect and reciprocity.

The case for a more holistic approach to environmental sustainability that includes Indigenous peoples in the conversation is pretty clear cut.

So how does this all connect to the right to self-determination for Indigenous peoples? Well, when we think about environmental issues in the Pacific we see pictures of an environmental horror story. What is much less visible, however, is the violation of human rights, loss of land, and denial of indigenous self-determination that is also part of the lived experience of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific. This brings us to West Papua.

Gold mining operations in West Papua, which began after Indonesia took over the country, have had a devastating effect on the West Papuan people and their environment, polluting waterways, wetlands, and forest, and all but destroying the subsistence economies of Indigenous communities in areas surrounding the Grasberg mine.

This is part of a much bigger picture, however. Like other colonial regimes, the violent manner in which the land has been treated by mining companies in West Papua echoes the violence that West Papuan people have suffered at the hands of the Indonesian government.

Here in Aotearoa we’ve had much closer brushes with colonial abuses of power in the Pacific which had devastating environmental consequences. It was only twenty three years ago when the French government conducted their final round of nuclear testing in Mururoa.

Indigenous peoples recognised then, and continue to recognise today, a clear link between being nuclear free and being independent in the Pacific. Our calls for decolonisation around the Pacific may be the best chance we’ve all got at finding tangible solutions to the environmental problems that plague us now.

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