Growing Indigenous Empowerment and Our Climate Future

David Bengston
The Futurian
Published in
5 min readMar 25, 2022



Dakota Access Pipeline Protest by Stephen Melkisethian

Indigenous communities around the world have long fought for recognition of rights to their land, resources, and sovereignty. In recent years, the Indigenous empowerment movement has gained traction. Indigenous peoples have increasingly demanded and received greater influence or authority over a wide range of issues, especially those linked to the environment and natural resources. This includes policies and practices related to energy infrastructure, land use, forest management, water management, and integrating traditional ecological knowledge with environmental science.

Mike Dockry, assistant professor of Tribal and Indigenous natural resource management at the University of Minnesota, has defined growing Indigenous empowerment as: “… the increasing political, economic, social, legal, environmental, and cultural standing of Indigenous communities across the globe. Indigenous empowerment is fostered by an increased recognition of tribal sovereignty and Indigenous cultures by national governments, court systems, and broader society. The roots of Indigenous empowerment are the Indigenous people, communities, and tribes reclaiming their sovereignty and exercising self-determination for their own goals and values.

Growing indigenous empowerment and recognition of rights relating to natural resources was identified as an important emerging issue in an ongoing “horizon scanning” project I’m part of. Horizon scanning is a process for spotting signals of change that could help shape the future. The goal is to serve as an early detection system for significant emerging issues and trends, allowing decision makers to plan and take timely action.

Our horizon scanning team has found many indicators of growing Indigenous empowerment. For example, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by 144 nations in 2007. Eleven countries abstained and four voted against this global resolution, but the four that opposed (the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) later reversed their opposition and supported it. The Declaration confirms the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination and recognizes subsistence rights and rights to lands, territories, and resources.

A law passed on March 15, 2017, makes the Whanganui River in New Zealand a legal person, in the sense that it can own property, incur debts, and petition the courts. The law stems from negotiated settlements for breaches of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, which was supposed to protect Maori rights and property. For New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori, the idea of the river as a person is nothing new and stems from their deep spiritual connection to the Whanganui. In practice, two guardians will act for the “health and well-being” of the river, one appointed by the government and one by the Whanganui iwi or tribe.

The Red Deal is a growing movement that puts Native liberation and empowerment at the center of the fight for climate justice and many interrelated social, economic, and environmental problems. Supporters of the Red Deal emphasize the critical role Indigenous caretakers play in practicing sustainability and the importance of Indigenous science, technology, and diplomacy in developing cultures of environmental caretaking.

These three examples are a small fraction of the signals of change related to growing Indigenous empowerment we’ve found in our horizon scanning project. We’ve also uncovered signals of a countertrend: Anti-Indigenous organizations and supporters working to undermine the rights and empowerment of Indigenous peoples. A backlash and declining empowerment are possible if entrenched non-Indigenous groups that are threatened with an erosion of power gain the upper hand.

A growing body of scientific evidence shows the importance of Indigenous peoples and formal recognition of their rights to their lands in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fighting climate change. For example, a 2018 study by the Rights and Resources Initiative found that, at minimum, Indigenous peoples and local communities manage almost one-fifth of the total carbon stored in the forestlands of tropical and subtropical countries. That conservative estimate is equivalent to 33 times global energy emissions of 2017.

Unfortunately, many Indigenous and local communities do not have formal recognition of their tenure rights to land. This puts these communities, their land, and the carbon stored on their land at risk. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 Special Report on “Climate Change and Land” called for securing Indigenous and community land rights to mitigate climate change. A World Resources Institute article on the IPCC report stated, “The science is clear: Indigenous groups and communities are critical for fighting climate change.”

In addition to sustainably managing the carbon sequestered by a significant share of the world’s forests, Indigenous communities have also led on action to stop fossil fuel projects. This action has produced remarkable results. A 2021 study titled “Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon” found that the work of Indigenous peoples in North America has resulted in the avoidance of large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. Over the past decade, Indigenous resistance has resulted in delaying or blocking large fossil fuel projects. At least eight major projects have been stopped by Indigenous resistance, including the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the Teck Frontier tar sands mine in Alberta, and the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Oregon. Cumulatively, the delayed and blocked projects would have been responsible for about twelve percent of annual US and Canadian greenhouse gas emissions. Additional fossil fuel projects that are currently contested by Indigenous peoples add up to another twelve percent of annual US and Canadian emissions.

An important emerging issue for Indigenous empowerment is the recognition and exercise of Indigenous rights in the Arctic as this region continues to warm much more rapidly than the rest of the planet. In her memoir “The Right to be Cold,” Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Arctic activist and former International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, wrote, “The future of Inuit is the future of the rest of the world — our home is a barometer for what is happening to our entire planet”. As sea ice melts, Arctic trade routes open, and valuable hydrocarbons and minerals become more accessible, Inuit culture could be endangered. Six organizations representing Arctic Indigenous peoples are included as “permanent participants” on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic. But much uncertainty exists about how much influence they will have in a rapidly changing world.

Indigenous empowerment could be a major driver of change in the future. Mounting evidence suggests that Indigenous empowerment — especially maintaining or regaining tenure and management of their land — is an essential component of successfully tackling the climate crisis. Growing Indigenous empowerment is a trend that could shift the debate about a wide range of urgent environmental issues, from climate policy to changes in the way society approaches natural resource management, land-use, and environmental decision making.

© David Bengston 2022

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David Bengston
The Futurian

David Bengston is an environmental futurist with the Strategic Foresight Group, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service.