Cultural preservation and climate justice

Eighty percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found in Indigenous lands. Endangered cultures are leading the fight for climate justice.


The International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) falls in a year of climate breakdown that speaks to the need to rethink our societies and cultures.

IYIL prompts us to listen to the voices of Indigenous Peoples. It encourages us to appreciate, to preserve and to respect their living cultures.

This encouragement could not be more timely: our environmental crisis demands that we abandon the social, political, economic and cultural systems that have brought us to this precipice. Let us heed the call to redefine our relationships with the non-human world.

Traditional ecological knowledge

Globalist cultures are the most removed from the natural environment: often nature and society are concepts placed at odds. Yet, it is crucial that we don’t lose sight of how culture leaves its mark on the living planet.

Indigenous Peoples tend to have strong cultural ties to the living planet and so traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is culturally ingrained. IYIL brings these cultures to the forefront of international discourse, at a time when global movements like Extinction Rebellion (XR) and School Strike for Climate (SS4C) show a will for change.

The link between cultural diversity and biodiversity has long been recognised; we must now commit to policies that relate cultural protection and environmental protection.

In the world’s biodiversity hotspots there is a confluence of ethnic and linguistic diversity (a key marker of cultural diversity). Eric Smith’s defines cultural change, in ​On the Coevolution of Cultural, Linguistic and Biological Diversity​, as “a form of co-evolution between cultural information and the social and natural environment” goes some way towards explaining this relationship.

It suggests a symbiotic relationship between culture and nature: when they are aligned, the one shifts with the other. Looking at the diversity of indigenous cultures and their lands, we can see that there is truth in this theory.

Declining diversity

Globalist culture, which champions a ‘one-size-fits-all’ ideology, is the opposite. We prefer one economic, political and social system. This preference for a singular way is reflected in our environmental governance: we create monocultures, farm only particular species of animal, and raid the Earth’s natural resources.

The way that we inflict our monoliths on the natural environment has consequences. We have reduced agrodiversity and genetic diversity in wildlife; we have destroyed countless habitats and ecosystems; we have caused a crisis of global heating. We have erased most of the world’s diversity and the result is climate breakdown and the unprecedented loss of indigenous cultures.

When we lose these cultures we lose cultural understanding of the environment and how to live within the constraints of nature. And when we lose this, we lose the knowledge and practices that enable sustainable living, and so we lose ecological integrity.

This demonstrates to us why protecting endangered cultures is so important for our planet. It also demonstrates why we need to diversify our own culture.

Supporting diversity

Here, I will share stories from some of the indigenous-led projects I have worked on with InsightShare to demonstrate the impact of cultural preservation on the natural environment.

In Nagaland in north-east India, the arrival of settlers and missionaries who privatised land and water resources caused the erasure of traditional Naga culture. Looking to revive their traditional culture, a local women-led organisation, the North East Network (NEN), chose to use participatory video (PV) to film millet farming.

This film, titled ‘Millet - Securing Lives’, was screened in local villages and surrounding communities and inspired a renaissance in millet farming. The environmental impacts of this cultural revival are significant.

The farming of millet improves agrodiversity, and biodiversity festivals showcasing millet and seed exchanges improve food security. Furthermore, farming millet does not require many external inputs -no fertilisers or pesticides, no need for irrigation, making it an economic and environmentally-friendly food source.

Territorial defence

In 2009, we co-founded a project called Conversations with the Earth, amplifying indigenous voices on climate change.

As well as raising public awareness and challenging so-called false solutions, such as carbon trading, geo-engineering, and “sustainable growth”, over 60 videos were produced by communities that shared a refreshingly alternative paradigm. Our community video network brought together groups of Indigenous Peoples from Eight countries and used a participatory approach to raise collective intelligence to address the ecological crisis.

Our Peruvian partners created a video called ‘Indigenous Peoples of the Peruvian Andes and Climate Change’ in which the participants reflected on how climate change had impacted them.

Through this process, the community of Karhui, Cusco, made the decision to reforest their sacred mountains with native trees, to start to revere once more the ancient Springs, replacing invasive Eucalptus with native medicinal plants, and singing and dancing to nurture Mother Water, reviving the annual water festival previously banned by the Evangelical Mayor. This decision, that has clear environmental benefits, was rooted in cultural beliefs and spirituality.

Similarly, our indigenous partners in North West Mexico are using PV as a tool for territorial defence. One film documents the threat posed by a water dam in Sorona to the safety of the Guarijio’s sacred lands - their pristine deciduous forests and agricultural lands.

Illegal pipeline

Another, ‘October 21st’, tells the story of Yaqui resistance to a gas pipeline in Loma de Bacum. ‘Yooram Luturia’, offers a version of the famous Yaqui oath, which reminds each member of the tribe to recall their commitment to protecting the environment and territory.

These films indicate the importance of the natural environment to indigenous culture in Mexico. The creation of sacred natural sites and the community commitment to protecting them serve to remind us all that respect for the living planet needs to be re-incorporated into our own culture.

Ten years on, these activists have established local video collectives, which remain connected and work together to articulate a collective vision for a Living Cultures movement. In Mexico, La Marabunta Filmadora video collective is fighting a campaign against an illegal gas pipeline that lies across their lands, and now addressing illegal logging through producing short social media videos.

In Tanzania, Oltoilo Le Maa is fighting land-rights violations, including defending traditional grazing lands from a private hunting safari, as well as challenge the growing number of lands being demarcated by the government to be sold off into private hands.

In Nagaland, NEN is spreading millet revival to more communities and educating youth in the traditional agroecological farming approaches once practised by their ancestors. Each video team offers a platform for indigenous voices to be heard. Initially the films are screened locally; much like holding up a mirror.

Living planet

Community screenings create safe spaces to reflect back to the wider community some of today’s challenges and help surface a diversity of responses, supporting collaborative innovation. Some videos may be targeted at governments and other external audiences to persuade the other stakeholders to protect their lifeways and their lands.

Policies that operate at a grass-roots level have the highest potential for success. Self-governance, land rights and political empowerment enable indigenous communities to keep their cultural identities and their land, which in turn allows them to play a central role in the conservation and management of their territories.

Governments across the planet must recognise that 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found in Indigenous lands. What better way to mitigate against climate change than to urgently protect these territories of life, to support the traditional custodians of biocultural diversity?

Participation is the engine for change. Without participation there exists no active citizenship, no engagement, no agency and no access to decision-making. Participation decolonises top-down systems and opens up a myriad of communication between groups of people.

Movements like XR and SS4C need to align with emerging indigenous-led movements like the Pan-African Living Cultures Alliance (PALCA) to rethink our cultures and societies and to redefine our interaction with the living planet.

We must invite Indigenous Peoples to participate in the conversations that they should be leading; helping shift the balance away from separation and individualism to connection and collaboration.

This Author 

Nick Lunch is a director and co-founder of InsightShare.

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