{jcomments on}Originally published at SmallChangeFund.org

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This past weekend I attended the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) conference in Tofino on the west coast of British Columbia. The richness of humanity was there in all its glory. An amazing array of people attended from Borneo, Guatemala, Canada, New Zealand, Greenland, Russia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Peru, Australia, Columbia, United States, Kenya, South Africa, not to mention those who welcomed us from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation from in and around Tofino. We were there to discuss “Building and Sustaining Coalitions: Finding Common Ground for Education, Environment, and Human Rights Advocacy.” The depth of experience and expertise shared cannot be captured in a quick blog, but I can share a few lessons.
One: Amplify the voice of indigenous peoples. This might seem obvious coming out of a conference on indigenous peoples but the importance of it is not always obviously recognized or acted upon. Funding for indigenous peoples is on the rise but it’s still a drop in the charitable bucket. And the stats have a real face. Tara Marsden of the Headwaters Initiative in northern BC highlighted the incredible lack of capacity in indigenous organizations compared to non-indigenous NGOs, particularly environmental NGOS. And yet the imperative to support rights-based approaches, self-determination, and aboriginal responses to social and environmental challenges is evident worldwide. Harry Jonas from Natural Justice talked about the need to assert indigenous voices as rights-holders, not stakeholders, in his work in South Africa. Gloria Ushigua from Kenya argued that the best investment in advancing social and environmental justice efforts is an investment in indigenous communities and, to go one step further, in indigenous women who are often closest to the problems and closest to the solutions. Indigenous rights are an essential and inseparable part of solving the challenges of today. Women’s rights are no different. Together they could change the world.
Two: Go local. This was such a strong theme throughout the conference that I couldn’t get away from it. It followed me from session to session. It started with the first panel whereJulio Cusurichi Palacios from Madre de Dios in Peru argued, “most of the best solutions are local.” Dr. Marjo Vierros of the UN University in Australia echoed this asserting that we need to find more and better ways to get money directly to communities. Linda Different Cloud, a Lakota Ethnobotanist, talked about the power of restorative ecologies and how she’s transforming her community one plant at a time through bringing back indigenous foods, such as mice beans, thereby impacting global food security and biological diversity. The arguments for local – implicit and explicit – flowed through the entire conference and were touched upon by almost every speaker. One of the most powerful examples of this for me was a story told by Jack Woodward, an indigenous rights lawyer in BC and counsel to the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Northern Alberta. He was approached by the Cooperators Bank in the UK that had surveyed its members on how it should direct its charitable dollars. The bank’s membership identified climate change, and then left it up to the executive committee to figure out how to effectively engage on this daunting issue. The Alberta Tar Sands won hands down, as the most polluting mega-project the globe has seen. But who to give the money to? They went local and grassroots. They gave it to the Beaver Lake Cree Nation deeming them the most worthwhile recipients; there is no better investment.
Three: Stand together.I led a session at IFIP with four incredible women from Northern Canada and Russia on indigenous communities response to natural resource extraction in the circumpolar north. Each of them talked about the importance of community unity in responding to oil and gas development, mining, and other extractive activities. Where communities are united, solutions, deals, oppositions, agreements are stronger, more effective, and longer lasting. It was an important theme in my session but I must admit I was surprised to hear this repeated over and over again no matter what the context or continent. I don’t think this is specific to indigenous communities. I believe it relates to all of our communities and any work at the grassroots level. Standing together in our efforts to protect our places, our children, our right to a healthy planet, allows us to “walk tall and powerful.”
Four: Tools are for leverage. Any one who’s used a crowbar knows this. It’s no different in the world of social change. Ginger Gibson, a Small Change Advisor and consultant to communities in North and Latin America, talked about her recent publication of The Community Toolkit for Negotiation of Impact and Benefit Agreements – agreements that have the power to shift the power imbalance and transform negotiations between indigenous communities and big industry. Harry Jonas from Natural Justice in South Africa touched upon bio-cultural community protocols like the ones used in Rajasthan supporting the people dependant on the Kumbalgargh Forest. Chief Lydia Hwitsum of the Cowichan First Nation, and Chief Al Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree, spoke in depth about legal tools for empowerment in the context of human rights and environmental frameworks to protect their aboriginal rights, land, culture and histories.
Five: Remember our humanity. We live in an increasingly disconnected world. I was feeling it as I drove to Toronto’s airport imbedded in my iphone and trying to get a few last emails off before boarding the plane. I arrived in Tofino and was pleasantly overwhelmed with the authenticity of the dialogue, the connection between cultures and peoples, the reverence and gratitude for one another. I must admit it tripped me up since I’ve been to too many stuffy conferences. One morning the amazing Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, Inuit healer and author of the quote above about walking tall and powerful, brought in the day with his drum, his feathers, his wisdom. He said his purpose on this earth is to melt the ice in the hearts of men. I think he succeeded a little with each of us at IFIP. Now if only we could all carry that into our work, we would be so much more effective.
This point is no less important than the ones above. To some it may sound a little “soft” but it carries with it deep resonance. As one of my favourite thinkers, the late Donella Meadows of the Sustainability Institute, wrote (no blog is complete without a reference to her wisdom and insight): “Living successfully in a world of complex systems means … expanding the horizons of caring. There are moral reasons for doing that, of course. And if moral arguments are not sufficient, then systems thinking provides the practical reasons to back up the moral ones. The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for the rich in Los Angeles to succeed if the poor in Los Angeles fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails. As with everything else about systems, most people already know about the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn out to be the same rules. They just have to bring themselves to believe that which they know.”
These lessons are not new, and perhaps not surprising. We know them. Now we just need to work on bringing ourselves to believe them, and live them. Three indigenous projects that need your support on www.smallchangefund.org: Protecting our Ancestral Lands in the Peel Watershed, YukonTusaqtuut: Inuit Knowledge and Climate ChangeYouth Aboriginal Skill Training Program.
By Ruth Richardson, originally published at SmallChangeFund.org

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