Grist: Collaborator or colonizer? Tribes debate sharing climate solutions with outsiders

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, a spokesperson for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, looks over a river during Dakota Access pipeline protests in 2016.Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, a spokesperson for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, looks over a river during Dakota Access pipeline protests in 2016.Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

To share or not to share?

Tribes risk exploitation when sharing climate change solutions.

By Paola Rosa-Aquino on Nov 21, 2018

The Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation stretches for 25 square miles along the United States’ border with Canada. Akwesasne, as the land in Upstate New York is also known, translates roughly to “land where the partridge drums.” Nestled at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence River and several small tributaries, including the St. Regis and Raquette rivers, this ecologically rich environment consists of more than 3,000 acres of wetlands along riverbanks, islands, and inlets.

But the landscape can’t escape the encroachment of nearby pollution.

Tribal members live downstream from several major industrial facilities, hydro dams, and aluminum smelters. The Saint Lawrence has become an international shipping channel, and its sediments mix with heavy metals from old ship batteries and toxic chemicals from nearby Superfund sites. These pollutants have leached into the Saint Regis Mohawk way of life, shifting the range of flora and fauna on which many of their traditional practices rely.

The trash and toxic runoff are bad enough. They are killing off the tribe’s local fish population and medicinal plants. But now the Saint Regis Mohawk face another challenge: negotiating with the Environmental Protection Agency about how best to tackle these contamination issues while incorporating — and respecting — the tribe’s traditional knowledge.

Native communities are one of the groups most impacted by a changing climate — and many of the human activities that have precipitated it. They are also a necessary part of the solution, according to the newest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Indigenous peoples comprise only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet their lands encompass 22 percent of its surface. Eighty percent of the planet’s biodiversity is on the lands where they live — and it may not be a coincidence. A significant part of traditional indigenous identity is linked to the natural world. “There is medium evidence and high agreement that indigenous knowledge is critical for adaptation,” the 2018 IPCC report states. And that’s due to their methods of managing forests and agro-ecological systems, as well as their traditions passed down through the generations.

Indeed, some in these communities believe that disseminating these traditions can help to address challenges, like climate change, that the world faces. But while the wider environmental community — and the rest of us — may benefit from gaining access to their knowledge, indigenous communities have no guarantee that their cultural values, secrets, and traditions will be respected if they offer it. That potential pitfall is prompting some Native Americans to question whether there is a way to share this knowledge that benefits the environment, as well as a tribe.

“It’s both a risk and an opportunity for indigenous peoples,” said Preston Hardison, policy analyst at the Tulalip Tribes Natural Resources Treaty Rights Office in Washington state. According to Hardison, many elders feel that they’d like to help the world heal, but they want their knowledge to be employed in the right way (without any sort of exploitation). For instance, sharing their knowledge about their land and how they use it could be employed to indigenous people’s detriment by limiting their access to it.

Even when the government taps indigenous groups for input, many of the resulting collaborations don’t show respect for the tribal people or the accumulated knowledge they possess. Take, for instance, in 2011, when the Saint Regis Mohawk received an EPA grant to create a climate adaptation plan for its natural resources — their animals, their crops, their medicinal plants. Initially, the EPA called for a plethora of scientific vulnerability and risk assessments to parse what resources were important for the Akwesasne way of life. But tribal members felt the testing was an unnecessary step to get to the heart of the issue.

“We didn’t need them to tell us what’s important to us,” said Amberdawn Lafrance, coordinator at the Saint Regis Mohawk Environment Division. “We already know.”

There are a lot of well-intentioned guidelines for asking indigenous groups to share their environmental knowledge with outsiders. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that, if you do have access to these communities’ resources or knowledge, it should only be with their free, prior, and informed consent. In 2014, the EPA released a report with 17 policy recommendations for its work assisting tribal groups in protecting their health and resources. But the protocols don’t include requirements to forcefully protect tribal knowledge. Take principle seven, for example:

The EPA considers confidentiality concerns regarding information on sacred sites, cultural resources, and other traditional knowledge, as permitted by law. The EPA acknowledges that unique situations and relationships may exist in regard to sacred sites and cultural resources information for federally recognized tribes and indigenous peoples.

In other words, the agency will do its best not to disseminate sensitive tribal information relevant to environmental impact. But once tribal information is shared with a governmental body, it’s not always easy to keep it under wraps.

The Department of the Interior approached the Klamath and Basin tribes in 1995 when deciding how to allocate water rights in southern Oregon and northern California. Communities located in the Klamath Basin shared confidential information with the government about their fishing methods and other cultural practices in order to inform the decision. Then the Klamath Water Users Protective Association, a nonprofit group of farmers and ranchers in the region dedicated to maintaining irrigated agriculture filed federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of Interior, demanding that the tribes’ responses be disclosed. When the agency refused, the association took them to court.

The Supreme Court concluded that if a tribe consults with an agency, most of the information provided during such consultations is subject to FOIA. (Hence the EPA’s “we’ll try our best” stance.)

“Ultimately, tribes face a Hobson’s Choice,” wrote legal scholar Sophia E. Amberson in a 2017 Washington Law Review article. “Risk disclosing proprietary information, or lose their seat at the environmental regulatory table.”

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