Since the global climate strike earlier this month and the impassioned speech by Greta Thunberg at the 2019 UN climate action summit sparking nationwide conversations, the fate of our planet is on everyone’s mind; and if it isn’t, it ought to be. We’re currently in the middle of a massive global extinction. In the midst of these discussions surrounding how to protect our land, we’ve been ignoring some integral voices that have been advocating for years: indigenous groups. Despite comprising less than 5% of the world's population, indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity.
A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy compared levels of biodiversity in thousands of areas in Australia, Brazil and Canada, the first of its kind to compare biodiversity and land management on such a vast scale. Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) compared 15,621 tropical areas across three continents, with great variations across climate, species and geography.
While area size and geographic location had little impact on species diversity, an unexpected aspect did — indigenous land management. The study reads, “We found that indigenous-managed lands were slightly more vertebrate species-rich than existing protected areas in all three countries, and in Brazil and Canada, that they supported more threatened vertebrate species than existing protected areas or randomly selected non-protected areas… Partnerships with indigenous communities that seek to maintain or enhance indigenous land tenure practices on indigenous-managed lands may, therefore, have some potential to ameliorate national and global shortfalls in land protection for biodiversity conservation using a mix of conventional protected areas and indigenous-managed lands.”
Though this study was not conducted in the United States, it provides a framework for how to move forward here, especially in Louisiana, where we are feeling some of the worst of the effects of climate change. Indigenous groups have no choice but to rise up as advocates for change, especially since they seem to be the first groups to have their lives affected drastically by these events. The people of the Isle de Jean Charles, the vast majority of whom are Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, are being regarded as the first group of individuals forced to evacuate their homes in part due to the effects of climate change.
The Indian Removal Act, which forced American Indians to migrate west of the Mississippi in the 1830s, relocated the tribe here from Louisiana’s mainland. At the community’s peak, 300 families called Isle de Jean Charles home, but only about 26 remain. Erosion fueled by a mix of climate change and land subsidence accelerated by the extraction of groundwater, oil, and natural gas in a coastal area.
The Louisiana Office of Community Development (OCD) won a grant in 2016 with $48 million for the tribe’s resettlement but were it not for the staggering effects of climate change, they would be able to remain on their now historical land.
According to a study in 2011 published by America’s WETLAND Foundation, coastal wetland loss in Louisiana from 1985 to 2010 averaged approximately a football field an hour (although the rate was not constant). As wetlands and barrier islands disappear, the wells, pipelines, ports and roads that make the energy industry possible will be more exposed to open water, wave action, storm surges and water traffic.
A branch of the Indigenous Environmental Network, L’eau Est La Vie (translated to Water is Life) has been an outspoken group against oil and gas companies, especially the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. The pipeline ran through Chata, Houma, Chittimacha, and Atakapaw territory, the same territory that would be used to protest the pipeline. The BBP was an extension of the Dakota Access pipeline protested at Standing Rock, which later did burst. On Aug. 9, 2018, a group of their protesters were arrested under “critical infrastructure” laws while kayaking near the proposed Bayou Bridge pipeline. This law introduced last year made it a felony to protest oil and gas pipelines. The now complete Bayou Bridge Pipeline has been involved in another legal challenge since April, as they may be in violation of their permit for operating without having an approved emergency response plan.
While political engagement and protest have been integral to bringing forth awareness and change, we need a shift in cultural awareness and laws that reflect it. The water and the land we live on is part of us: it provides the food we eat, purifies the air we breathe and gives us water to drink. We have a duty to keep it clean and to maintain the balance of the planet. The link between oil companies and climate change in Louisiana is virtually undeniable, and unless we begin to shift our economic growth away from oil production, we’ll only add fuel to the flames.