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Together in electric dreams: Indigenous science challenging Western ideologies

The future of energy affects everyone, not least Indigenous communities. Faced with the direct impact of fossil fuel extraction, an Indigenous rights group is now arguing that they have a vital role in developing energy solutions, but that they are being sidelined. A wealth of traditional knowledge and understanding of nature could be invaluable in finding the right path.

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger is an Indigenous rights advocate and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of Alberta, Canada. She does not want to be just a face and story: “Indigenous people are not just people who need to be saved. We’re doing real work that stands to benefit everyone, yet is sorely underfunded.”

In her language, Athabaskan Dene, Eriel’s name means Thunder Woman. She is the director of Indigenous Climate Action, and argues that these groups must be included in developing climate change solutions: “Indigenous communities have faced centuries of systemic oppression that has robbed us of our capacity to easily enter local, national and international forums where policies and decisions are being made that ultimately affect our rights and our cultural survival.”

She said that rather than focusing solely on individual issues that reinforce divisions, working together will help address issues of oppression: “It's become imperative that we work together to address colonialism, racism, sexism, ableism and the continued marginalization of those that have been deemed less worthy.”

Connection to the land

Indigenous identities are linked to the land. For Eriel, this is the Athabasca Delta, a vital fresh water source and carbon sink. Her community lives in an area downstream of the Alberta tar sands - a 50,000 square mile crude oil reservoir. Her work is driven by a desire to protect her land, protect her people’s identity, and protect her children.

She said: “Indigenous ideology is rooted in the idea that we are all interconnected. I grew up privileged to know that I was related to the birds, and the fish, and the caribou. We are all made of the same matter.”

When these sacred lands are destroyed, so too are the identities of the people connected to them: “We have a vested interest in protecting those areas, because they are intrinsically a part of our identity.”

Fossil fuel extraction has an impact that reaches even further than Indigenous communities. Eriel believes that the world’s climate crisis stems from a loss of connection to place on a mass scale. She believes that there is an opportunity to learn lessons from Indigenous people when it comes to valuing the importance of being caretakers of the Earth.

Without Indigenous people fighting for the protection of the land, she said the world could be in a much worse place than it is now: “In many regions of the world, particularly in North America, Indigenous peoples have been struggling to safeguard these spaces to not only protect their livelihoods and culture, but to safeguard the eco-systems that are critical for human survival the world over.”

The lasting impact of fossil fuels

There are estimated to be 5,000 Indigenous groups across 90 countries, making up 5% of the world’s population. Transitioning from fossil fuel dependency is vital for protecting the land, environment, and cultures.

With a demand for oil and gas at the centre of the problem, the Indigenous rights advocate said that these are not the only options for fuel: “We can not be creating more situations that hold us hostage to a fossil fuel dependency.”

Where fossil fuel projects are found, so too are water contamination, deforestation, air pollution and the destruction of habitats. Aside from environmental damage, the health, culture and identity of Indigenous groups is at stake, when their sacred land is destroyed.

The world’s attention was turned to this very issue as the Standing Rock protest hit global headlines in 2016. Thousands of Indigenous people and environmentalists challenged the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline amid concerns that it could cause devastation to the environment, nature and people. Some demonstrators claimed that they felt excessive force at the hands of the police.

The pipeline is planned to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, snaking its way under the Missouri river, where the Standing Rock Sioux tribe collect their drinking water. Oil leaks contaminating the river are a real concern, and have already taken place, according to government regulators. Culture and history are also at risk, with the pipeline planned to trespass across a sacred burial ground. President Trump has supported the project. Although this is a high profile incident, it is by no means isolated, with Indigenous groups all over the world being left out of important decisions that directly impact their rights and wellbeing.

The UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous people was adopted in 2007. It says that Indigenous people are entitled to full participation in all matters that concern them, and it should protect their human rights. Indigenous Climate Action not only said that this should be the bare minimum standard achieved, they also said it is not being put into action. At the time of voting, four countries - Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States - voted against the declaration. These four colonial settler states have since reversed their position.

As climate change solutions are discussed, the group wants Indigenous rights to be taken into account: “Indigenous communities have remained resilient, despite being downstream or adjacent to some of the world’s dirtiest energy projects created without their consent, something that is now in direct contravention with the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

“Future decisions to address climate change stand to benefit from learning from the experiences of Indigenous people and not recreate the same problems of the past. ”

In search of energy sovereignty

Eriel Deranger said that Indigenous communities are working to develop energy and food programmes that also respect their unique worldview: “We must also not forget that Indigenous peoples are also modern people with many of the same needs and desires as all people.”

In the Australian outback, the Kanupa community has used solar energy to breathe new life into the community. Now that an alternative to expensive diesel has been found, people are returning to the once almost deserted land, creating an impact that extends beyond the environment.

However, many energy initiatives around the world are underfunded, as are the communities themselves. Eriel Deranger said she has visited groups with no clean or running water, poor sanitation and a lack of food security.

Fighting against funding issues and striving for inclusion in solutions, the Thunder Woman will continue to drive change: “We are the agents to addressing climate change, because we hold the knowledge that so many have lost.”

Indigenous Climate Action is working to support energy solutions led by Indigenous knowledge keepers, and put these communities at the forefront of the fight against climate change.

Energy and climate change is an issue felt the world over, and the group hopes to make a major impact. In Britain, a small victory is now being celebrated. On 21st April 2017, the nation had its first completely coal-free day since the industrial revolution, due to other energy sources being used. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany set new standards in renewable energy on 30 April 2017. For several hours, non-coal and nuclear sources made up 85% of the nation’s energy.

These may be small steps towards making fossil fuels history, but global sustainable energy is still a giant leap away.

Watch Eriel Deranger speak to the Lush Summit 2017 about Indigenous rights in the face of climate change

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