Orfalea Center Thematic Research Cluster

Environmental Justice/Climate Justice

A Wakeup Call for Climate Justice? Indigenous Knowledges Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic

A group of engaged scholars affiliated with the Orfalea Center’s Environmental Justice/Climate Justice Research Hub (EJ/CJ) is carrying out the research project “A Wakeup Call for Climate Justice? Indigenous Knowledges Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic” (ann-elise Lewallen, Sylvia Cifuentes, Erica Goto, Julia Fine and Alexander Karvelas). Working closely with Indigenous organizations in India, Ecuador, and California, we propose this series of dialogues to not only broaden existing knowledge about the interconnections between climate and pandemic justice, but also to bring to the fore the perspectives of those who are confronting the threats of toxic development, extractive industries and COVID-19 first hand and whose voices are often excluded from academic environments. In doing so, we also hope to extend dialogues between Indigenous peoples in different areas of the world who are facing similar challenges, who may learn from each other’s practices and responses to environmental change and pandemics.

In addition to the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, several Departments and initiatives are sponsoring this project: the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center (Graduate Collaborative Award); the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life; and the Departments of Global Studies, Asian American Studies and Religious Studies. Learn more here and in the project’s dedicated website.

About the project

COVID-19 represents a serious threat for Indigenous peoples around the world. The pandemic has hit Amazonia very hard, with particularly challenging conditions due to vulnerable health care systems and the long distances that communities need to travel to reach emergency services. Additionally, preexisting health inequities have combined with an exacerbated exploitation of Indigenous territories during the pandemic. Meanwhile, in India’s Meghalaya, many Indigenous Khasi communities are already confronting weakened public health due to the impacts of toxic development projects that have polluted drinking water and land and left them without adequate health infrastructure. Yet, Indigenous communities and organizations in both regions have generated distinct responses to the pandemic. Drawing lessons from the 1918 Global Flu Pandemic, in Northeast India, Khasi communities have been employing traditional medicines to boost their immune systems and prevent COVID-19 from spreading rapidly. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, Indigenous organizations are implementing self-determined practices, and communities are sharing knowledges about plants and treatments to address the symptoms of the disease. Around the world, practices of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) to sustain the land emphasize not only Indigenous autonomy and self-determination, but also epitomize the continuation and strengthening of Indigenous cultures.

While scholars have increasingly begun to understand that Indigenous’ peoples ethic of care for the landscape fosters some of the most robust and biodiverse ecosystems on the planet (Rundle 2019), analysis has missed how this same IEK and the symbiotic relations it requires with the land depends entirely on a healthy ecosystem to ensure that traditional medicines, and in turn, Indigenous libraries of knowledge carried by living elders, may thrive. That is, already fragile landscapes subjected to ecosystem destruction through oil, coal, or mineral extraction, or monocrop production, enter a negative feedback loop wherein products extracted from them exacerbate greenhouse emissions and feed climate catastrophe, thus rendering the Indigenous communities who serve as their custodians more precarious, and at the same time unleashing new viruses and destroying the forest pharmacies that Indigenous peoples depend upon to heal their bodies. Communities who have the most intimate relationship with the landscape are likewise extremely vulnerable to the impacts of ecosystem destruction. When forest buffer zones tended by Indigenous communities are deforested or destroyed, mammals formerly inhabiting these regions become homeless, encroaching on more densely populated regions and triggering viral spillover events. In this way, zoonotic spillover events trigger the spread of new diseases (Daszak 2020). Pandemic emergence, then, does not simply pose the problem of habitat drift, rather, loss of landscapes can trigger cultural ecocide when entire cultures no longer have access to their resource base and are unable to meet their basic needs (Whyte 2020 and Gilio-Whitaker 2017). While the hollowing out of ecosystems has been foundational to settler colonial erasures, COVID-19 exacerbates all of this by an order of magnitude, channeling it into a series of feedback loops that feed the very crisis that fostered the initial loss of habitat.

Project Objectives

We propose to explore these complex biofeedback loops through global dialogues with Indigenous leaders, traditional healers, scholars, and allied scholars in India, Ecuador, and California. Through a series of webinars we will explore and analyze two feedback loops, namely, 1) between climate (in)justice, fossil fuel extraction, ecosystem vitality, and their impacts on Indigenous communities, on the one hand; and 2) between Indigenous Ecological Knowledge, health (in)equity, pandemic responses grounded in Indigenous knowledges including traditional medicines, on the other. Further, through these webinars we seek to highlight and explore the range of creative Indigenous responses to COVID-19 to better understand how Indigenous communities have centered ethics of communal care, landscape relations, and Indigenous Knowledges in charting pathways toward preventing COVID-19 and making communities strong. A third goal is to critically examine the framework of “resilience” which is ubiquitous in scholarly literature and media descriptions of Indigenous COVID-19 coping mechanisms but often applied with a colonialist lens that further denies Indigenous agency in asserting local responses. What does “resilience” mean for Indigenous peoples, and what is the language they would prefer to effectively express their responses to COVID-19? What language do Indigenous people choose to articulate resilience, climate justice, and COVID-19? How do these distinct Indigenous communities understand these complex feedback loops and the interaction between them? What types of socio-linguistic interactions guide their relationships with the landscape?

While the scholarly literature has created frameworks and critiques about socio-ecological resilience to environmental change, it has largely missed how those relate to questions of justice and resource extraction, and to what lived experiences on the ground show us about responses to environmental changes. Initial findings from the projects that some of the team members have been engaged in demonstrate that cultivating biodiversity and striving for balance with the forest ecosystem may prove to be the key to surviving this pandemic. For Indigenous communities in India and Amazonia, human survival and treatment of COVID-19 hinge entirely on a flourishing forest. If the forest withers or is cut down, the medicines, food sources, cultural plants, and animal species likewise perish. Extractive industries—which contribute to climate change through deforestation and fossil fuel development—pose an enormous challenge, as they threaten human and ecosystem health while also weakening Indigenous communities’ cultural practices.

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Sylvia Cifuentes
Sylvia Cifuentes
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