On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, four states and numerous cities across the US choose to acknowledge how the colonization of indigenous people of the western hemisphere changed humans’ relationships with the natural world. The shift away from a celebration of Columbus Day took momentum with the 2012 General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists, which passed a resolution condemning the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery has been part of US American law, history, and dominant culture and invalidated or ignored the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.
Today, instead of celebrating Columbus’ impact on a 10,000-year old culture, we’re looking at ways that indigenous people are being inspired and empowered to take direct climate action. With special knowledge of their regional environments, indigenous people are a substantial resource to build comprehensive solutions to climate change.
Legacies of Indigenous People and Renewable Energy
The United Nations estimates that indigenous peoples make up more than 5% of the world’s population, or about 370 million people. 2017 is the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Indigenous people are inheritors and practitioners of interconnected ways of relating to other people and the environment.
Climate and energy issues need to be considered as strategic leadership elements when advocates work toward inclusivity, cultural respect, and equity for indigenous people. Enhancing quality of life for indigenous people includes transitioning from reliance on fossil fuels and the movement toward renewable clean energy sources. Solar, wind, micro-hydro, and biomass have sparked efforts in 2017 to support a clean economy and communities where indigenous people reside. These solutions help to power and empower indigenous people.
And indigenous people are embracing clean energy and tech in many places. Let’s take a look.
Canada’s 2017 Budget Begins Indigenous Peoples’ Shift from Fossil Fuels
Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) is an indigenous-led organization that works to inspire action for climate justice while supporting indigenous communities to build power and drive climate solutions. As the only indigenous-led climate justice organization in Canada that prioritizes indigenous people and communities as agents of change for climate solutions, ICA is an example how collective community advocacy can provide education and assets in combination with knowledge and wisdom to drive climate solutions.
Their activism helped to ignite the first Indigenous Peoples’ Meeting on Climate Change, in which indigenous leaders from across Canada were invited to come together to discuss climate change and the unique rights of indigenous peoples.
Bringing indigenous people together to demand their rights are included in many climate change solutions.
Canada’s Budget 2017 contained several allocations to directly support indigenous communities’ shift away from fossil fuel energy systems and to address the climate change challenge. According to the Pembina Institute, $83.8 million over five years, beginning in 2017-18, will be directed to integrate traditional knowledge, to build better understanding of climate change, to guide climate adaptation, and to enhance indigenous community resilience. A further $26.4 million over five years is committed to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to support indigenous collaboration on climate change. Key investments like these in indigenous issues, including investments in health, climate initiatives, and community infrastructure, offer a pathway to quick and systemic energy use change.
Another important step will be reducing reliance on diesel, and that will start with supporting the deployment of renewable projects in communities that rely on diesel for electricity and heating. A further $220 million over 11 years to reduce reliance of rural and remote communities south of Canada’s 60th parallel on diesel fuel and more sustainable power solutions has also been announced.
As British Columbia’s Andrew Weaver, leader of the Green caucus, and Adam Olsen, Green caucus spokesperson for the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said in a joint statement, “Through working together, we can show our children and grandchildren how we can at once create a more just society, address historic wrongs, and build prosperity for the future.”
Panama Eco-Leader Implores Indigenous People To Protect the Environment
An indigenous leader from Panama who was present at violent protests in Brazil in April says it’s crucial for indigenous people to defend forests. Candido Mezua spoke at events prior to the COP23 climate conference in Bonn, recognizing that “all people living within life systems of tropical forests experience climate change as a daily reality.” Protests over differing legal interpretations of the rights of indigenous people, he says, have no other goal than to protect the indigenous lifestyle and forests.
When indigenous people live in line with ancestral climate principles, Mezua continued, they protect the spiritual connection with water, forests, and animals. However, when they
abandon their traditional way of life, the forests of the “Amazonia, of Indonesia. or of the Congo basin” disappear. Sometimes people are not aware of traditional principles and “only see the forest as a source of economic gain that they want to own.”
Pre-COP23 climate meetings exerted pressure for the Paris Agreement to include topics such as the importance of indigenous ancestral knowledge for the sustainable management of forests. Indigenous people, Mezua argues, “have to take an active role in implementing it.”
Indigenous Communities Tackle Renewable Energy Projects in Australia
At the end of the power line in northwest New South Wales, many of the 300+ residents of Goodooga pay electricity bills of nearly $3,000 a quarter. Other indigenous people in the area turn to expensive and emissions-heavy diesel-powered generators for electricity. But things may be changing.
Twenty-five Indigenous leaders in a new First Nations Renewable Energy Alliance advocated for renewable energy in Indigenous communities in February at the Community Energy Congress as a way to circumvent high power, associate poverty, and climate change. Instead of driving Indigenous people off their traditional lands, renewable energy such as solar or wind power generation alongside battery storage has the potential to empower remote communities.
Melbourne’s 360 Energy Group has contributed $10,000, office space, and expertise to help the alliance build cohesion and stability. Director Michael Anthony says, “We can build a power station where the community exists, so people are able to successfully live in the environment the way they want to live and have access to power which enables them to better determine their economic future.”
Clean Cooking Comes from Clean Tech
What happens when nearly three billion people around the world burn wood, charcoal, animal dung, crop residue, or coal in open fires or in inefficient stoves for daily cooking and heating? This reliance leads to a wide variety of environmental problems, including environmental degradation, air pollution, and climate change. In partnership with UNFCCC and UNIDO, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves co-hosted the first in a series of workshops to provide critical tools to help countries meet their Paris Climate Agreement commitments through clean cooking.
Studies outlined by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves show that controlling both short-lived climate pollutants and long-lived greenhouse gases can increase the chances of limiting global temperature rise to below 2ºC, a long-term international goal for avoiding the most dangerous impacts of climate change. Many of today’s more efficient cookstoves have been shown to reduce fuel use by 30-60%, resulting in fewer greenhouse gas and black carbon emissions. They are also reducing impacts on forests, habitats, and biodiversity. Recent evidence also demonstrates that advanced (efficient and low emission) cookstoves and fuels can reduce black carbon emissions by 50-90%.
Since the atmospheric lifetime of black carbon is only a few days, reducing black carbon emissions can bring about a more rapid climate response than reductions in carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases alone. In addition to having an immediate impact on the climate, reducing black carbon emissions would have a regional effect.
A Mexico/ India Collaboration Helps Indigenous People Learn about Solar
Barefoot College is an innovation and training center for rural and indigenous women who have little or no formal education. In 2017, four women from the Comcaac indigenous group in the northwestern state of Sonora, Mexico spent six months at Barefoot College learning how to mount and repair PV panels. By acquiring solar technologies skills, these women will become leaders in their communities, sharing their knowledge.
“We learned how to install solar panels, how to build solar lamps piece by piece, and how to use equipment in homes or offices,” says Cecilia Moreno, who belongs to the water committee in her community. “It’s a new learning, a unique experience of living together with such a diverse group of women leaders that will be of great benefit for our communities.”
Supported by the Mexican Protected Areas National Commission, the body in charge of protecting of natural reserves throughout Mexico, Moreno joined 35 indigenous women from all over the world, including Botswana, Cape Verde, Kiribati, Madagascar, Mali, Micronesia, Myanmar, Syria, Senegal, Somalia, and Tonga. The participants are known as “Solar Mamas” and international solar trainees.
Pay-As-You-Go Solar Power Reaches 2 Million New Solar Users in 30 Countries
What happens when off-grid consumers don’t have enough cash at any one time to purchase a modern energy device outright? In Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 1.2 billion who do not have access to electricity need a self-supporting solution to scale solar and increase the roll-out speed. San Francisco startup Angaza created Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) software for Android, which allows someone to buy into a solar device, like a lantern, pay it off incrementally, and remove themselves from using polluting fossil fuels for lighting and power.
Angaza’s cloud-based webportal and Android application is optimized for low-end smartphones used in these countries and allows distributors to scale their operational capacity. Distributors of solar energy lighting and battery charging products embed Angaza’s metering technology, offer solar product loans to consumers, monitor their sales, and track payments in real-time — all using Angaza’s suite of software tools.
These Pay-As-You-Go energy devices are enabling over 2 million off-grid people to make the switch from kerosene to solar energy. This encompasses portable solar lights but can scale up to high-wattage solar home systems that can power appliances like TVs and refrigerators.
National Tribal Solar Program Partners with Native American Tribes
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Native American tribes currently have 2% of the land in the United States, and those lands represent 5% of the renewable energy potential in the country. Yet the rapid increase in the US solar industry over the last decade has largely bypassed Native American tribes due to lack of investment tax credit. Sovereign nations don’t pay federal taxes.
But the National Tribal Solar Program at Grid Alternatives is partnering with Native American tribes throughout the United States to enhance solar adaptation. They’ve completed more than 500 residential solar installations with tribes, for a total energy capacity of more than two megawatts. The Bishop Paiute Tribe in California has brought solar PV to a vast majority of homes on the reservation. The Mesa Grande Tribe in Southern California formed a solar company called Tekamuk Energy, and the Spokane Tribe formed an enterprise called Sovereign Power, which is looking at becoming a solar-installation business.
Later this year, the National Tribal Solar Program at Grid Alternatives will be embarking on projects in the eastern part of the Navajo Nation and five more with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. According to Tim Willink, the Program’s director, “The potential for distributed generation in solar is what excites me.”
And to get there, an increase in an indigenous workforce has begun. 400 volunteers to date have ranged from indigenous people who want hands-on training in solar installation to tribal housing-authority employees looking to study system maintenance to tribal college students in construction-education programs.
Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge Indigenous People’s Turn to Wind Turbines
Congress debates the viability and ethics of oil and gas development in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge every year, or so it seems. The 30-year debate centers around whether the US should protect the area permanently as wilderness or extract its natural resources such as fossil fuels. An organization called Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL) is part of a statewide grassroots effort to protect indigenous land from further fossil fuel extraction in Alaska and promote renewable energy instead.
Renewable energy is the foundation of REDOIL’s work. “Putting that wind turbine up in that community was to show the community members that renewable energy is actually viable,” says Faith Gemmill, executive director of the organization, who is Neets’aii Gwich’in, Pit River and Wintu and was raised in Arctic Village, which is 110 miles above the Arctic Circle. “If the land is providing everything we need to survive, we need to protect it and keep it healthy.”