North America is a rich tapestry of biocultural landscapes woven through with relationships among diverse lifeforms. Indigenous communities have been a part of this tapestry since time immemorial, tending, managing, cultivating, and co-creating these landscapes. The well-being of Indigenous communities and the well-being of lands and waters are fundamentally interlinked—North American environments benefit from the stewardship of Indigenous peoples and the careful application of traditional knowledge. In turn, the land nourishes the people.
However, in North America this balance has been upset. Historical and ongoing processes of colonisation have created conditions in which many Indigenous communities are under-resourced and marginalised. Extractive practices take from the earth and communities in non-reciprocal ways, based on ownership rather than relationship. Since conquest, Indigenous peoples are often excluded from meaningful participation in processes that impact their territories, or their participation is defined in limited ways. This creates significant barriers to effectively protecting the vibrant biocultural landscapes that Indigenous communities have tended for millennia. Without knowledgeable stewardship and with irresponsible consumption, environmental degradation of lands and waters continues. Indigenous communities, communities of colour and low-income communities are continuously forced to cope with the legacy of damage, toxicity and erasure that these activities leave behind.
Healthy biocultural landscapes greatly benefit all North Americans, through the provision of clean water and air; nutritious food; and safe places to live and experience reverence. Everyone has a role to play in restoring the balance.
In the last few decades, various authors have addressed the concept of biocultural diversity in a theoretical body that describes the ways in which biological diversity and cultural diversity are intertwined and interdependent. From this theoretical development, we begin by affirming that throughout history, indigenous peoples have adapted to their environment and at the same time modified it to meet the basic needs of food, health, home, clothing, among others. Indigenous peoples have also promoted environmental diversification by tolerating, caring for, managing, cultivating and enjoying plant and animal species, as well as other elements such as water, land and air. The territory of each indigenous or native people is precisely this environment which generations have been adapting to, and making their own. Each territory is a place where local Indigenous peoples know what to eat in each season of the year, where to find water, where the types of soil exist, variations of the climate, and the location of other living beings with whom the habitat is shared. Indigenous peoples’ territories are sets of biocultural landscapes resulting from the combination of the environment with indigenous practices and knowledge. The creation and coexistence with these landscapes over time has also generated symbolic and religious content that is an integral part of the life of each people.
The pressures that have threatened indigenous peoples throughout their history have often thrown relationships with the environment out of balance, yet these relationships are integral for ensuring the well-being of Indigenous peoples and their territories. Threats to the well-being of indigenous peoples have existed since before the conquest, although it was during this period that the attack on Indigenous cultures and lives became more present, explicit and bitter. Colonisation has not ended and Indigenous peoples and mestizo peasants continue to face pressure and threats from governments, businesses and other groups of people who are interested in the natural assets of their territory. Mega projects or industries related to the change of land use, the use or channeling of water, the industrial extraction of minerals, among others, constantly threaten to expel these people from the site that has been their home for generations. And as mentioned above, this place is not simply a piece of land that can be replaced by another elsewhere, but it is where the communities, their cultures and even their individual bodies are adapted, and whose care also depends on the knowledge which these peoples have developed.
Therefore, the defense and protection of Indigenous territories takes on biological, ecological, socio-cultural, symbolic, and religious meaning, as well as political meaning as peoples exercise their rights to decide in any situation that affects the satisfaction of their needs or the expression of their preferences or values.
We see our role as facilitators and convenors, creating spaces for Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders, professionals and practitioners to learn together and imagine solutions. Using a peer-to-peer methodology, we invite participants to share the gifts of their knowledge. Together we grow a common pool of resources, strategies, connections, and skills that participants carry with them to protect their territories or the place they call home.
As we create these spaces, we seed a growing network of mutual support among environmental changemakers who are deeply invested in protecting and revitalising biocultural landscapes. Participants in our North American events—such as Community Environmental Leadership Exchanges (NACELEs) and Regional Academies—become members of the Global Environments Network. This connects them to a global action network of other individuals dedicated to finding integrative solutions to the world’s greatest environmental and social problems.
In North America, restoring the balance will take time. We understand our role to be long-term and collaborative.
Indigenous resistance in North America has existed for over 500 years and is going strong. Indigenous nations and communities are actively opposing corporate, settler- and state-driven forces of extraction and destruction through creative forms of resistance, resurgence, and life-affirming action. These include the revitalisation of traditional management practices, holistic strategies to foster wellbeing, the restoration of traditional foodways, and intergenerational learning and action.
Within this landscape there is further potential for strengthening Indigenous-led biocultural revitalisation and building relationships. Actions and projects could have greater impact with stronger networks of support. This is where we focus.
As we grow and collaborate on more initiatives and events, we see the interconnectedness of these projects and their significance for the decolonisation of North America more broadly. In this light, we understand that it is our responsibility to our collaborators to provide them with robust networks that are diverse in their membership. We continue to actively network with other individuals engaged in resistance and resurgence projects throughout North America and explore possibilities for collaboration and connection.
If you have any questions about the GDF North America programme, please contact:
Covering Canada, the United States, Mesoamerica and the Caribbean Islands, the extended region of North America spans a great diversity of ecoregions – from the Arctic to the tropical forests of Central America, through different types of deciduous, evergreen and temperate rain forests; deserts; plains and variegated coastlines and marine ecosystems. Many of these ecosystems have evolved in close connection with the region’s diverse indigenous cultures. There are currently approximately 450 indigenous languages spoken throughout the region (some of which are critically endangered, however); Mexico in particular is a language ‘hotspot’, with over 200 languages spoken. In addition to this linguistic and cultural diversity, the region experiences rich biological diversity: four of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots are in North America, one of which constitutes the entire region of Mesoamerica.
This unique biocultural diversity suffered an initial massive impact following the arrival of European colonists in the 15th and 16th centuries, which continued as the colonists settled vast portions of the continent and exploited natural resources on an unprecedented scale. The rapid expansion of free-market capitalism in the 20th and 21st centuries has constituted another, although perhaps more subtle, major threat to biocultural diversity in this region. Indeed, the colonisation of North America is ongoing, as governments and settler populations continue to systematically dispossess indigenous peoples from their land and livelihoods. That many indigenous cultures, including languages and ethnobiological knowledge systems, have been maintained and continue to evolve in the face of continued oppression is a testament to their resilience and the power of their communities.
To date, Global Diversity Foundation’s work in the region has principally focused on the Chinantla region of Oaxaca state in Southern Mexico. In Oaxaca alone, there are 15 ethnolinguistic groups, each with their own multiple sub-groupings, rich history and distinct ethnobiological knowledge systems. This cultural diversity is inextricably linked to Oaxaca’s incredible biological diversity. The state is home to large remaining tracts of primary cloud forest, where one can find remarkable rates of plant and animal endemism. The forested cultural landscapes of the Chinantla are traditionally managed and maintained by the indigenous Chinantec inhabitants, who have lived in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz for thousands of years. There are 70,000 Chinantec speakers in Mexico who speak 14 mutually unintelligible variants of the language. The Chinantla mountains are an important source of fresh water for the region. Watersheds and rivers, such as Río Perfume and Río Santiago drain into the Usila River, providing 50% of the water flowing into the Cerro de Oro reservoir, one of the main water reservoirs of southern Mexico.
In response to a local request for assistance, GDF collaborated with Anima Mundi – Investigación y Acción Biocultural, a local NGO that works with Chinantec communities. We have supported community endeavours to secure their rights to their territories and resources, to protect their food sovereignty and to enhance the management of their biocultural diversity and extensive community conserved territories. Currently, GDF has no field projects in Mexico, although Anima Mundi continues to work with Chinantec communities through the implementation of projects related to participatory biodiversity monitoring and livelihoods improvement through the production and marketing of organic and fairtrade coffee, cocoa, honey, and other local products. GDF continues to collaborate with Anima Mundi, including through the organisation of Global Environments Network events.
Since 2013, GDF has worked with indigenous collaborators in North America to foster networking, mutual learning and exchange between emerging community leaders through North American Community Environmental Leadership Exchanges (NACELE). These peer-to-peer learning opportunities convene dynamic indigenous leaders from all over North America to discuss ongoing and share strategies to protect and restore lands, waters and traditional foodways, and through these, culture and sovereignty.
Community Environmental Leadership Exchanges convene environmental professionals and practitioners. These community-led exchanges foster peer-to-peer exchange of innovative methodologies, examples, strategies and tactics to address specific issues, strengthen sovereignty and share knowledge. They aim to enhance wellbeing at community and landscape scales, seeding durable networks for mutual support. In October 2013, the first North American Community Environmental Leadership Exchange launched these exchanges with a two-part event on the theme From Conflict to Collaboration in Indigenous Territories: Tribal Strategies for Resistance and Restoration.
In North America, Global Diversity Foundation is directing our attention to the long-term collaborative task of building networks of support for indigenous nations and peoples as they continue to face challenges defending their land and waters. These networks of support are, and will be crucial in a context of ongoing extractive activity and pressure from extractive industries. To this end, GDF continues to develop partnerships with North American NACELE and GESA alumni to promote indigenous sovereignty and networking throughout the region. We are currently also expanding our reach to Latin America and the Pacific, building on past collaborations to create platforms that seed durable networks among North American indigenous nations.
This 7-day gathering took place at Glimpse Lake on Syilx territory (Upper Nicola Band), gathering Indigenous youth interested in building their capacity to advocate for and protect the lands and waters of their territories. The camp explored the meaning and importance of environmental leadership through the arts, cultural teachings, activities on the land, group discussions, and mentorship from key resource people, and created a space for young emerging artists and environmental leaders in the Okanagan to connect, deepen relationships, form networks of support, and plan future collaborative activities.
Through multi-disciplinary research carried out in selected fieldsites in Mexico, Brazil and Bolivia, this three-year project, carried out from 2012-2015, sought to assess the effectiveness of community-based strategies for biocultural diversity conservation. Funded by the European Union’s Framework Programme 7, the project concluded in January 2015 having generated significant evidence regarding the challenges and opportunities of community-based conservation in Latin America.
Launched in April 2012, the project focused on arming Chinantec community researchers with skills to boost the management of their cultural landscapes and natural areas through the establishment of a participatory monitoring programme. This 2-year project built on the project carried out from April 2009 to March 2012, entitled Management Programmes for Indigenous Voluntary Conserved Areas in Oaxaca, Mexico, that supported the elaboration of management plans for Voluntary Conserved Areas (VCAs) in the Chinantla region of Oaxaca.
This three year project, from April 2009 to March 2012, was designed to enhance Oaxacan indigenous Voluntary Conserved Areas (VCAs) by strengthening the capacity of indigenous people and collaborating researchers to produce a management programme that incorporates local ecological knowledge and community-based research on the cloud forest ecosystem. Activities concentrated in the communities of Santiago Tlatepusco and San Pedro Tlatepusco, municipality of Usila, in north Oaxaca, Mexico.
Implemented between 2007 and 2009, this project sought to enhance Oaxacan community conserved areas (VCAs) and local livelihoods by strengthening the capacity of Chinantec indigenous peoples and collaborating researchers to document and manage biological resources while promoting traditional ecological knowledge and practice. It also supported Chinantec communities in their understanding of the impacts of the laws and policies related to community conservation initiatives.
Between 2010 and 2012, the international and interdisciplinary consortium, CONSERVCOM, worked to diagnose the opportunities and risks (both social and environmental) of different biodiversity conservation strategies that vary in their degree of local participation. The project analysed the connection between the degree of local participation in decision-making regarding the creation and management of protected areas and land use change in these areas and broader regional landscapes. It also explored the relationship between local participation, local use of natural resources, life strategies and the environmental knowledge, perceptions and values of local people in the study areas.
This project supported the Chinantec communities of Santiago Tlatepusco, San Pedro Tlatepusco and Nopalera del Rosario to improve their sustainable cash crop management practices and help them build strong governing institutions for the marketing and management of production. This was through organising knowledge and practice exchanges with the farmers and cooperative leaders of the town of Cuetzalan, located in Puebla, who have a long and successful history of institution-building and sustainable cash crop management practices.