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Fight Climate Change, Give Indigenous People Their Land Back

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that Indigenous knowledge is crucial to fight climate change. So is there a relationship between climate change and the “Land Back” movement?

And maybe you’re wondering, what is Land Back? And what does it have to do with climate change?

Good question.

Historically, indigenous communities have suffered from colonization, possession of their lands, corporate greed, discrimination, and denial of their rights. This invasion and loss of land have led to poverty and put the culture’s entire history and knowledge at risk. As a result, while the world’s indigenous population is only 5%, they represent the poorest 15% of the world population.

Valley of Fire petroglyphs. Photo 189092154 / Native © Filip Fuxa |

While often the focus is on the effect climate change will have on indigenous communities, the role indigenous populations can play in fighting climate change is monumental.

Let’s break down the effects of climate change and the role of indigenous communities.

First, what is “Land Back”?

Ronald Gamblin, the National Learning Community Coordinator at 4Rs Youth Movement (a nonprofit focused on changing the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth), explains:

“When I hear Indigenous youth and land protectors chant “Land Back!” at a rally, I know it can mean the literal restoration of land ownership. When grandmothers and knowledge keepers say it, I tend to think it means more the stewardship and protection of mother earth. When Indigenous political leaders say it, it often means comprehensive land claims and self-governing agreements. No matter what meaning is attached, we as Indigenous nations have an urge to reconnect with our land in meaningful ways.”

While the Land Back movement seeks to reestablish political and economic control by indigenous and ancestral populations of lands that traditionally and historically belong to them, this campaign goes beyond territory. Land Back strives for the respect and rights of these communities. It also promotes the preservation of their traditions and languages. Another critical component is to ensure food sovereignty. But, at the core, it’s about facing colonialization.

Read Gamblin’s full article for more information about Land Back and some tips for non-Indigenous people.

Ottawa, Canada (July 2021) Protest sign held up at “Cancel Canada Day” protest against the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada. “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know were the seeds.” Photo 223020166 © Colin Temple |

Climate change and land rights

Land Back may not just be ideal for Indigenous populations but also the planet. The 2019 Climate Change and Land Special Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states the importance of securing land rights and climate change:

“There is medium confidence that land titling and recognition programs, particularly those that authorize and respect Indigenous and communal tenure, can lead to improved management of forests, including for carbon storage.”


Let’s look at the facts.

Indigenous people are the best conservationists

Over 30% of the world is conserved, and it’s not due to environmental organizations. Instead, this conservation is because of Indigenous people and local communities. They conserve more than the designation of national parks and forests (estimated to only account for 14% of land on earth according to the ICCA Consortium).

2019 study found that Indigenous territories in Brazil, Australia, and Canada had more biodiversity than protected wilderness.

And a 2020 study found that Indigenous control of land can protect against deforestation as much as formal protections (in some cases even more!)

Indigenous communities currently protect 80% of the forests despite being only 5% of the world’s population. And it is no secret that ecosystem protection is a crucial solution to climate change. 

Approximately 50% of the Amazon is considered Indigenous land, and this land accounts for only 4% of its deforestation. In short, 96% of Amazon deforestation occurs outside the Indigenous reserves.

Past and ongoing Indigenous resistance has also delayed (or stopped) many greenhouse gas emitting projects equivalent to 24% of North American annual emissions.

North Vancouver, Canada (October 2017) Protest signs against the Kinder Morgan Pipeline Expansion. Photo 123911018 © Adam Melnyk |

But do Indigenous communities get recognition for their conservation efforts?

The short answer, no.

Indigenous conservation is underrated

This year, Vox interviewed the Kashia Pomo tribal leader, who expressed the local Sonoma County conservation efforts only recognized the efforts of conservation organizations and not of the Kashia Pomo tribe.

And this is just one example, and Vox notes that:

“In general, most areas that Indigenous peoples protect aren’t considered in tallies by environmental organizations of how much land on earth is conserved, unless they fall within formal protected or conserved areas. And where these regions do overlap with protected areas, Indigenous peoples are often the de facto custodians of the resident biodiversity — but rarely do they formally govern the areas.”

Indigenous knowledge and climate change

Indigenous communities play a vital role in stopping climate change due to the relationship they have with nature. Their interactions focus on a lifestyle that understands their environment as a whole. While not every Indigenous community is the same, conservation is more engrained in the culture compared to Western cultures.

The IPCC recognizes this knowledge of sustainable land management by Indigenous communities as a critical role in fighting climate change (and they associate this claim with a high level of scientific confidence). Indigenous communities have used sustainable land management (controlled burning, canal creation, grazing, etc.) to maintain ecosystems for a very long time.

Sadly, the formalization of protected areas can put an end to these practices and displace communities. 

In fact, the creation of protected areas has displaced 10 million people.  

Indigenous lifestyles are highly sustainable; their cultivation, production, and interaction with the environment come from respect for the earth. They only take what is needed and know when it is enough. They also make sure that the land can recover so that descendants also have what they need. 

This ancestral knowledge calls us to look for production alternatives that generate less impact on ecosystems. We can support this by using brands with environmental commitments in the territories where they operate, allocating part of their resources to environmental awareness campaigns, tree planting, and support for Indigenous and local communities.

A group marching for Indigenous People’s Rights during a climate change protest in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo 22724687 © Mattmcinnis |

What is “Climate Justice?” It’s more than science

Climate justice develops the concept of global warming beyond an environmental or natural problem but instead frames it as an ethical and political dilemma. In addition, climate justice acknowledges climate change’s effects on different communities, including the interconnectivity with equality and human rights.

Climate justice also acknowledges that some impacts of climate change will have different social, economic, health, or other negative consequences on underprivileged groups.

Thus, climate justice highlights that the people most affected by climate change are the least responsible for the problem. 

Let’s say that again.

The most vulnerable are the least responsible

Often, an increase in “economic development” results in more emissions and pollution. But the heavy polluters are usually not the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Over the past two decades, the countries most affected by climate change are emerging countries. Some of the most impacted include Puerto Rico, Myanmar, and Haiti. Puerto Rico tops the list due to the devastation and damage caused by Hurricane Maria. Myanmar’s second place is a consequence of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which caused some 140,000 deaths within the territory. Finally, Haiti was devasted by the impact of two hurricanes that occurred in a short period of 3 years (hurricane Jeanne in 2014 and Sandy in 2016). 

The fact that indigenous peoples are dependent on natural resources and ecosystems makes them highly vulnerable to climate change. However, this same characteristic makes them the solution to this crisis. They have genuinely sustainable practices and their cultural relationship with the land leads them to assign it a value beyond something purely economic.

While Indigenous people have a large part in fighting climate change, they are also more impacted by the lack of climate action 

The IWGIA (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, a human rights organization focused on Indigenous rights) summarizes this balance of environmental stewardship and impact:

“Armed with millennia-old knowledge of living in harmony with nature, Indigenous Peoples are stewards of the environment. Their vast territories preserve 80% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity and at least 24% of carbon stored above ground in the world’s tropical forests. Despite their environmental stewardship, Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected by climate change due to such ramifications as rising sea levels, extreme weather events, droughts, forest fires and coastal erosion. Furthermore, they are increasingly negatively impacted by top-down climate actions on their lands and territories.”

Building chimneys. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The world’s largest polluters

The countries accelerating climate change are the least impacted. The countries that generate the most carbon dioxide emissions annually are China, the United States, and the European Union.

Climate justice seeks accountability and to establish an economic commitment from the largest polluters.

Citizens of the countries with the most significant environmental impact have the responsibility to demand leaders adopt policies that reduce these impacts and support the migration to environmentally friendly production alternatives. And as consumers, we can influence the market by only buying products from companies with a long-term vision of sustainability, a circular supply chain, and minimized emissions.

School environmental strike signs. Image by Goran Horvat from Pixabay

Can Land Back solve climate change? 

According to the IPCC, Indigenous knowledge is crucial in the battle against climate change.

Returning land that historically belonged to Indigenous communities represents a lifestyle change, but there are many advantages. Indigenous communities have demonstrated their ability to caretake land in a sustainable way. And these communities take sustainability a step further by ensuring the land is even better for the next generation.

We don’t need novel scientific breakthroughs, we need to learn from those that already know how to take care of the earth. This is why at Melomys, we recognize the important role Indigenous people have in climate action.

Read more about the NDN Collective’s LandBack Campaign.

 Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth

Chief Seattle
Kirsten Runyan

Kirsten Runyan

Kirsten is the founder of melomys. She founded melomys when she realized the sad irony of wearing a shirt with an environmental slogan that does so much environmental damage. Kirsten is a former engineer with a passion for art, people, and the planet. Most of the designs featured on melomys apparel were created by Kirsten! If she's not hiking, rock climbing, or spending time with her dogs, she's busy educating herself and others about the environment.

All Posts »
Kirsten Runyan

Kirsten Runyan

Kirsten is the founder of melomys. She founded melomys when she realized the sad irony of wearing a shirt with an environmental slogan that does so much environmental damage. Kirsten is a former engineer with a passion for art, people, and the planet. Most of the designs featured on melomys apparel were created by Kirsten! If she's not hiking, rock climbing, or spending time with her dogs, she's busy educating herself and others about the environment.

All Posts »

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