When the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, hundreds of thousands of acres of water were threatened.
The 1989 spill, considered one of the most devastating environmental disasters in U.S. history, destroyed the livelihoods of local indigenous fishers, local food sources, as well as the natural habitats of local species of fish, whales and birds.
“The thing about the oil spill that a lot of people don’t realize is that it was like climate change was happening to us overnight,” said Dune Lankard, the founder of Native Conservancy. The organization grew out of the devastation the spill caused to the local economy and ecosystem.
The group was created by Lankard to protect the region from further devastation by corporate development. He is just one of many environmentalists who argue that Indigenous traditions and tools can turn the tide of climate injustice through the Land Back movement.
Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the world’s population, however, they have protected 80% of Earth’s biodiversity for centuries, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
However, climate change and environmental injustices continue to threaten vulnerable populations, including indigenous tribes. To combat this looming threat, Lankard and his team have cultivated rich kelp mariculture farms, which Lankard calls the “water keepers” of the ocean.
He says kelp farming not only provides a valuable food source and trade opportunity for tribes, but has the ability to attract and remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. year.
According to a panel from the scientific research nonprofit Energy Futures Initiative, kelp farms can sequester up to nine billion metric tons of carbon per year, essentially reversing the effects of climate change.
It has become an exciting tool for climate activists and scientists to take back the fight against environmental destruction.
The more land and water indigenous peoples can conserve and repair, the more they can implement climate preservation strategies such as kelp cultivation.
“What people have to do is: they have to organize themselves, we have to direct their energy, their time, their money or their love in the direction they need, in order to save the last wild places that are not not just dear to them, but needed to survive,” Lankard said.
What is the Land Back Movement?
The Land Back Movement is a widespread Indigenous-led effort to return land to Indigenous tribes in order to conserve, restore and revitalize important landscapes and biodiversity.
“We are calling for land to be returned and put into Indigenous land management or governance, so that we can truly have Indigenous-led conservation,” said Jade Begay, Climate Justice Campaign Director within the indigenous activist group NDN Collective.
99% of Indigenous lands were taken from tribes during the development of modern America, according to 2021 results from the Science Journal.
The research also found that lands where indigenous peoples have been forcibly relocated are more likely to be at high risk from the continued effects of climate change.
The decentralized movement demands that tribes be able to manage environmental efforts on ancestral lands, efforts that can halt or reverse negative climate impacts.
Land Back has already started to have success. The government began to return and repatriate native and native lands to the tribes.
The Rappahannock Tribe recently repurchased approximately 465 acres in Fones Cliffs, Virginia.
The Fones Cliffs are not only the ancestral land of the tribe, but also an important region for bald eagles and other resident and migratory birds. It is home to one of the largest breeding populations of bald eagles on the Atlantic coast.
Now that the land has been redeemed, they hope to create trails and a replica of the 16th-century village to educate visitors about Rappahannock’s history and conservation efforts, as well as train tribal youth in traditional knowledge of the river. .
“We regard Mother Earth as our mother, and what would you do to harm your mother?” said Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe.
“The work I’ve done to reclaim land on the Rappahannock River is to teach the public how to think like we think, how to use the incredible value systems that have allowed our people to live on this land for 11,000 years. .”
The work of the Eyak people, the Rappahannock tribe and other indigenous groups seeks to align with the goals of climate scientists as they continue the relentless fight against climate change.
Climate fears are growing
The most recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that global emissions will need to peak by 2025 at the latest, and decline sharply thereafter, to avoid worsening impacts on the climate.
Currently, countries are not on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the conservative figure established by the Paris Agreement.
The report named a wide range of solutions to reduce global emissions, including reducing the use of fossil fuels; large-scale renewable energy supply; improve energy efficiency; and drastically reduce methane and carbon emissions.
“If we really wanted to accelerate and be effective on decarbonization, honoring indigenous rights, honoring, the calls to action for Land Back will really push us to achieve these climate goals to achieve this goal of stopping temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees,” Begay said. .
Some of the Land Back movement’s efforts, which include water filtration, carbon sequestration and wildfire management, can build on IPCC guidance.
“I love it when tribal values and traditions validate what professional scientists have found,” Richardson said. “It’s important that the tribes are cared for and can train and teach the public how to really care for the land and all of our natural resources.”
Much like the Eyak and Rappahannock tribes, indigenous groups across the country have already begun working on the ground to save the planet – one river, cliff or forest at a time.
Land Back as a climate justice solution
The impacts of the oil spill in the Copper River have yet to be fully resolved more than 30 years later.
Lankard called Exxon’s $2 billion cleanup effort after the oil spill a “show of dogs and ponies.”
“Once the oil spill – any oil spill – hits the water, the war is over. You’ve lost. There’s no way to clean it up,” Lankard said.
“The best thing you can do is put in place environmental laws and preventative measures that will actually protect the environment,” he said.
He says efforts like the Land Back movement can prevent such disasters. As a result of the spill, Alaska Natives were able to take control and preserve over a million acres of wild salmon habitat along the Gulf Coast of Alaska.
In the meantime, kelp farming has helped bolster the local economy stymied by the oil spill, as well as providing an environmental element.
Kelp farming is just one of many traditional practices used in environmental justice efforts, joining methods such as oyster farming for natural water filtration or fire management methods of burning land to reduce grass fuel and limit forest fires.
“We want to figure out how we can be part of this new emerging regenerative industry and we don’t become corporate property in the next 150 years,” Lankard said.
“They’re going to use all the fun words like conservation, restoration and mitigation and say they’re the ones helping save the ocean when they’re the ones who got us into this mess in the first place,” Lankard said. mentioned.