Colonialism’s dark legacy spans the entire globe and many of the Indigenous communities fighting for survival are up against the same challenges — but can they address them with similar solutions?
That’s the question driving the final presentation of the year for the Aurora Research Institute Virtual Speaker Series.
Closing their year of presentations, the ARI presented research chair Julián Idrobo, who hosted a workshop on Indigenous Approaches to Environmental Management Dec. 16 from the Fort Smith campus.
“You are going to see a lot of things resonating with what is happening here in the Canadian north that are also happening in Colombia,” said Idrobo. “Regions all over the world are confronted by climate change and globalization so it is a little bit of a double-whammy in which people have to expect. Climate change is an impact of globalization releasing carbon but also there are other drivers associated with globalization that put stress on the ways of life of people who depend on the land.”
Up until now, Idrobo’s research has focused on how Indigenous groups in Columbia are reconciling their relationship with the land with the realities of existing in a globalized economy. However, he noted the techniques pioneered on the Pacific coast could easily be transplanted to the Arctic coast, which is what brought him to the north.
Focusing on the region of Coastal Chocó, Idrobo highlighted some of the challenges faced by the people living there. It is the ancestral land of the Embena, who were called Chocó by the Spanish invaders in the 1600s. It was also later settled by Afro-columbians after the abolition of slavery in the 1800s. Much like the north, it is considered a biodiversity hotspot — one of the riches pockets left on Earth — and many parts of it are so remote they can only be accessed by airplane or boat. Also similar to the north, the needs of the region have been frequently overlooked in favour of those of more urban population centres. There is also a long history of drug trafficking and armed conflict in the region, and the lingering after-effects of colonialism weigh heavily on individual families in the south as much as it does in the North.
“The question is how global eruptions manifest at a local level and how people respond to this in their ways of life,” said Idrobo. “We focus on those who who want to stay in their territory and what they do to make their territories places that are meaningful for them to live and work. What people are doing to celebrate their traditional knowledge and using it as a practice to innovate and create ways that make it worthwhile to be in the traditional lands.”
Globalization has affected Indigenous communities around the world, but each in unique ways. In the North, mining and resource extraction have left a long, polluted legacy. In Columbia, Indigenous livelihoods have conflicted with commercial fisheries and infrastructure development.
Another parallel between the struggles of the Columbian Pacific and the Canadian Arctic coasts is rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather due to climate change. Acidification of ocean water is also having a negative impact.
Noting a deep water port was constructed just 10 kilometres away from a national park and vital whale nursery, Idrobo said further pressures on traditional lifestyles was likely with Columbian economic planners looking to the ocean as the next driver of economic development.
The ghosts of colonialism continue to haunt its survivors as well. When the Spanish Empire invaded and occupied much of South America, countless Indigenous peoples were killed by introduced diseases, slavery and genocides. To feed a growing population of consumers in Europe, the Spanish elites then brought slaves taken from Africa to work their sugar plantations. When legal slavery was finally abolished in the 1800s, many emancipated Afro-columbians settled in the Coastal Chocó region.
”What you find there is that these places have have been neglected by the state have been isolated,” said Idrobo. “A lot of people live in poverty without a basic need satisfied and a there is a lot of unemployment and illiteracy.”
Decentralize and diversify
To counter all these pressures, grassroots organizations are working to create small-scale economic systems focused on meeting both community and ecological needs. Similar to Inuvik, Community-based tourism is emerging as a powerful economic tool for low-income communities as well. Idrobo said the emerging alternative approach to development is being driven by a philosophy known as Buen Vivir, which very roughly translates to Well Living.
As opposed to only looking at potential returns on investment, Buen Vivir takes the human, ecological and spiritual needs of a community into account for major decisions, to ensure historical ways of life aren’t disrupted by modern initiatives.
But equally important, noted Idrobo, is giving people living in remote communities the opportunities to participate in the global society and learn the skills needed to do so.
“People want to be more than fishers,” said Idrobo. “People want to be to engage in with the world in their own terms.”
Communities are addressing this with a practice called Biocultural design, tailoring products and services to individual communities so to enhance or at least not inhibit traditional practices. Instead of bringing in development, the idea is for the community to engage in self-creation.
In the context of the Coastal Chocó region, when the people were able to regain legal control of their ancestral lands, they established protected areas and regulated fishing to be in line with best practices — no gill nets, beach or tuna seines, mandatory closure of the shrimp and trawling fisheries during key seasons.
Culture as an economic asset is also strongly integrated into the idea of Biocultural design. An example Idrobo highlighted was a Food Festival to attract tourists but also for local groups to interact.
Much of the philosophy is oriented around the fact traditional knowledge is still very much alive.
”It allows to people see traditional knowledge not as something that is fixed on the past but but a platform on which people can engage and create the worlds in which they want to live,” said Idrobo. “Traditional knowledge, from this perspective becomes a platform to look into the future to look into what’s possible with values anchored in who you are who you want to be and who you are you feel proud of.”