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ENVIRONMENT: Listen to the Earth, Say Indigenous Peoples

MÉRIDA, Mexico, Nov 19 2009 (IPS) - The idea of wilderness is “an interesting concept; it is a Western concept. Our people have always lived and interacted in the environment,” said Illion Merculieff, an environmental activist from the Aleut community in the north-western U.S. state of Alaska.

The Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreilles tribes all share the Flathead Reservation in Montana.  Credit: Wildland Recreation Programme, Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation

The Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreilles tribes all share the Flathead Reservation in Montana. Credit: Wildland Recreation Programme, Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation

The Aleuts have inhabited the islands and coastal areas of the Bering Sea, in the northern Pacific, for more than 10,000 years, having adapted to the extreme climate.

“Adaptation is absolutely essential,” according to Merculieff, “but not adaptation as it is understood in the scientific community. This is adaptation that comes from retrieving information and communicating with the environment, so the environment would tell us what is happening.”

He explained that since he was a child he has communicated with the ocean, which has told him when there will be high tides and where the best places are for fishing.

East of Alaska, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, lives Gerald Antoine, former Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations. “The word ‘wilderness’ is not in our vocabulary,” he said, “but the people are always talking about protecting the wilderness. For us it is natural, the land sustains us, and we need to be respectful, because nature provides us things.”

Merculieff and Antoine met in the south-eastern Mexican city of Mérida with other chiefs, leaders, advisers and members of the world’s indigenous communities, at a session of the Native Lands and Wilderness Council at the 9th World Wilderness Congress, Nov. 5-13.

Wilderness lands, which in many cases are indigenous territory, are faced with problems of all kinds. And the ways the challenges are dealt with reflect the unique identity of the peoples who inhabit them.

For example, the community of Santa Clara Pueblo, in the south-western U.S. state of New Mexico, suffered fires that destroyed 10 percent of its forests. For Joseph Gutiérrez, a resident of Kha’po Owinge, or Valley of the Wild Roses (the traditional name of the community), the response of his nation has kept with traditions and customs.

Gutiérrez said that when the tribal council realised that the forest fires had also affected fishing, it became clear that it would be “a blow to our culture.”

The community created a forestry and restoration department managed by the tribe, “and since then we have planted more than 1.7 million trees,” he said.

In the Amazon region of southern Colombia, Rose Mary Parente was elected governor of the indigenous Tikuna community of Castañal de los Lagos, population 536.

“If you work with the people, the people tell you what they want to do. As governor, one collaborates in the management of resources for community work,” Parente said in an interview.

One of the biggest problems of Castañal de los Lagos is deforestation, despite having its own government. “Many trees have been cut down, but we haven’t been the ones doing it. They are people from other parts. Our elderly also cut down some and now they realised that what we really need is trees, and they are collaborating with this project,” she said.

Parente has taken on the task of managing projects with international groups not only to reforest but also to preserve Lake Yahuarcaca and to promote productive initiatives of “la chagra,” the traditional small farm.

There are many other examples of initiatives on indigenous lands around the world. Thanks to their sense of unity, the Yawanawá people of Brazil were able to escape lives of virtual slavery and obtain independent territory in the north-western Amazonian state of Acre, where they preserve their culture and protect the land.

In Ecuador, the creation of the Indigenous Federation of the Cofán Nationality brought together 13 grassroots communities which, among other achievements, started up a programme of certified park rangers.

Inherited traditional values also allowed the Flathead Nation, in the north-western U.S. state of Montana, to become the first to designate one-seventh of its territory as protected area, as well as taking action for the conservation of the bison, the northern plains buffalo.

“The global community needs to return to its origins, to the earth, and in that way change its mentality,” said Brazilian Yawanawá chief Tashka Yawanawá.

The rate at which the planet’s species are going extinct must be reduced by next year in order to meet the terms set by the international community in the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The world’s indigenous people are demanding recognition for the role that they can play in that effort.

Julie Cajune, of the Flathead Nation and coordinator of the session in Mérida, said indigenous peoples should be the principal agents of conservation, but at the same time there must be mechanisms for decision-makers to hear and take into account their points of view.

Terry Tanner, also of the Flathead Nation, told this reporter that the tribe’s elders have many stories to tell about “our mountains, hunting, berry picking and about our people.”

Merculieff summarised this combination of spirituality and knowledge: “We have to know how to listen to our heart… The mind can lie, but the heart never lies.”

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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