By Priscila Vazquez
Oceans underpin human livelihoods by supporting 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, supplying almost half the oxygen we breathe, and absorbing a third of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Of more than 7 billion people worldwide, 3 billion depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, and 200 million are directly or indirectly employed by the fishing sector. Many of them are Indigenous small-scale fishers who depend on a range of marine resources as their primary protein source.
The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recognises that Indigenous Peoples have a unique relationship to the environment, with historical links to stewarding land and ocean territories that span millennia. This stewardship ethos is embedded in placed-based knowledge and language systems derived from centuries-old observation and close interaction with nature, and a philosophy that considers the natural world as sacred, and humanity as part of it. In practice, the philosophy ensures Indigenous Peoples live in balance with the environment and has played a crucial role in the collective management of ecosystems.
A recent study of global land use history over the last 12,000 years confirms that empowering the environmental stewardship of Indigenous Peoples and local communities will be critical to conserving biodiversity across the planet. Such contributions have been recognized by the United Nations, especially in Aichi Biodiversity Target 18, which considers the respect of traditional knowledge and practices of Indigenous and local communities relevant to the sustainable use of natural resources. But achieving global conservation targets, such as protecting 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030, can only be successful if such goals are carried out with the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous Peoples as they are the primary rights holders to whom governance must be held accountable.
Yet Indigenous Peoples’ ways of life, their knowledge systems and their right to access traditional lands and waters throughout history have been routinely violated by the appropriation, colonization and intensification of resources use across the globe. Today, oceans are threatened by a range of human-driven pressures, from industrial fishing, coastal infrastructure development, oil and gas extraction, and seabed mining, putting marine life under a strain that is unprecedented in modern history. At the same time, Indigenous Peoples have largely been excluded from the policy discourse on transforming ocean governance.
At Oak Foundation we recognize Indigenous Peoples as powerful agents of change that bring a unique perspective to sustaining the world’s oceans. Our strategy puts people at the center of our work and seeks to help ensure transformative change lies in focusing not on marine life per se, but on those who depend on it for their community development, cultural identities, and livelihoods. Our hope is that our efforts to support small scale fisheries (SSF) will contribute to the transformation of SSF governance by helping to build a diverse global network that includes Indigenous Peoples. This support also aims to assist our partners to equitably empower and strengthen Indigenous and community led organizations to better manage and govern coastal resources.
As the world starts to build back bluer, there is an unprecedented opportunity at the global level for systemic transformation. This can be achieved through reforming fisheries legislation; increasing the adoption of rights-based management; designating coastal and territorial waters for exclusive local or collaborative management; and bringing the local stewardship of coastal areas into the mainstream. Over the last decade, our partners have been supporting such activities in the Arctic and in the Global South, bearing significant fruits.
For example, in January 2021, a small passage in an executive order issued by the current US president was cause for big celebration among the Indigenous People of the northern Bering Sea. President Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day executive order reinstated the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area (NBSCRA), which mandates new environmental protections and enhanced Alaska Native authority over policies for 112,300 square miles of marine territory. That executive order had been originally enacted by President Obama in December of 2016 and abolished by President Trump about five months later. Now the designation is back thanks to the efforts of Oak’s partners including the Bering Sea Elders Group, Kawerak Inc., the Association of Village Council Presidents, and the Native American Rights Fund.
“The NBSCRA has been the only recent policy which recognises the extreme ecological and cultural importance of the northern Bering Sea to Indigenous People”, says Austin Ahmasuk from Kawerak Inc. regarding this victory. “The executive order established policy in the US is enhancing the resilience of the northern Bering Sea region by conserving the region’s ecosystem, including those natural resources that provide important cultural and subsistence value and services to the people of the region”.
Across Arctic Canada, the work of our partners – MakeWay and Oceans North, are also supporting similar efforts to establish Indigenous-led protected areas and related Indigenous guardian programmes.
The Indigenous Community Conserved Areas (ICCA) Consortium has been supporting governance efforts in Chile, Malaysia, and Zanzibar, where locally managed marine areas and conserved areas are at different stages of implementation. These areas are collectively governed and managed through Indigenous local knowledge, skills, and rules developed and enforced through local institutions. However, many such areas are not yet officially identified or supported. We support the ICCA to find willing partnering communities to engage in self-strengthening processes to secure or re-gain a substantial role in their territories.
According to ICCA and their Chilean Partner Costa Humboldt, “coastal Indigenous communities in Chile face a number of threats related to lack of implementation of their rights, habitat destruction, pollution, centralized decision-making, and climate change. These threats endanger complex traditional structures, disrupting their livelihoods and cultural identity”. Its work in Chile focuses on supporting coastal indigenous communities in their application process, implementation of governance, and fishery management strategies of ‘Marine and Coastal Areas of Indigenous People’, a policy that recognizes and safeguards customary uses of their marine tenure. Beyond Chile, ICCA is working to create emblematic networks in South America, Africa, and Asia.
Altogether, the work being done by our partners is promoting a real blue economy in which seafood is allowed to recover and be harvested sustainably while ensuring the livelihoods and rights of coastal and Indigenous communities. The positive transformations being achieved by our partners is igniting hope and catalyzing change that restores our connection to nature and heals our planet’s health.
More information about Oak’s Environment Programme strategy can be found here.
 PNAS April 27, 2021, 118 (17) e2023483118; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2023483118