Why we need to exit from colonisation for better sustainability

Photo: Liette Vasseur; 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference

Contributor: Simone Bignall

Indigenous peoples have long governed lands and waters sustainably, historically using resources wisely for thousands of years and now continuing to do so in the present period following colonial invasion and settlement.

Indigenous peoples do not merely strive to live in harmony with the natural world (like many non-Indigenous people do). More profoundly, being Indigenous means living rightfully and lawfully as part of the natural world; existing as Country.i Indigenous peoples therefore consider that they have an ages-old natural authority and responsibility to care for the Country that defines what it is to be an Indigenous human. In this sense, ‘Country’ is the interconnected web of land, water, sky, human and nonhuman life, ancestral agencies, and environmental forces that, together, make up the distinctive character of a place. From this perspective, healthy Country means healthy people and humanity is thus obliged to uphold the health of the Country that sustains all life within an interconnected ecology.

Environmental damage depletes human wellbeing, since it weakens the reciprocal connections needed for all to flourish in harmony. Additionally, human damage depletes environments that rely upon symbiotic processes balancing complex systems of relationship.  The cultural identity and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples is connected with the health of the environment, because belonging to a place defines the cultural and political identities of First Nations. Likewise, environmental destruction affects the capacity of Indigenous peoples to enjoy and exercise their collective cultural rights. In the current global context of climate crisis, mass species extinction, and the collapse of fragile ecologies because of unsustainable extractive industry, the cultural need to protect Country is ever more urgent to Indigenous leaders and communities.

In many settler-colonial places, environmental policy planning has recently shifted to recognise First Nations leaders as “stewards” and “custodians” of their traditional lands and waters. Yet, such acts of recognition rarely extend to the acknowledgement of Indigenous leaders as environmental “governors,” exercising rights flowing from aboriginal sovereignty. Properly recognised in political terms, Indigenous governors would then be vested with the authority to manage environmental resources wisely according to scientific evidence that has been developed through ages of innovation, experimentation, and observation.ii It makes perfect sense then that Indigenous authorities should lead the way as humanity struggles to find more sustainable pathways, because Indigenous peoples already know how to govern life, lands and waters sustainably.  This obvious solution, however, appears hard to realise when Indigenous authority has been so severely impacted by settler-colonisation. In fact, settler-colonisation works specifically to erode or deny Indigenous sovereignty and settler-colonial governments rarely even imagine turning to Indigenous governments for advice and assistance in public planning or environmental policy. Indigenous political structures and processes have also, in many cases, been weakened by settler-colonisation. This has resulted in a loss of jurisdiction and less capacity for self-determination or self-government in many communities, which consequently are unable to demonstrate effective leadership for social development and environmental stewardship.

Around the world, many Indigenous communities have begun strategic programmes of Indigenous Nation (re)building as a way of responding to these legacies of settler-colonisation in Canada, Australia, Sápmi, the United States of America, Aoearoa-New Zealand, and other occupied territories. Nation (re)building refers to: “the processes by which a Native nation enhances its own foundational capacity for effective self-governance and for self-determined community and economic development.”[iii] Nation (re)building revives the political life of an Indigenous collective in a way that matches cultural traditions while catering to contemporary political needs and aspirations. It involves an Indigenous polity raising cultural awareness and resilience amongst its citizenry, honing political structures and processes for maximum effectiveness in relevant contexts of political and economic engagement. Moving through stages of identifying, organising, and acting as a political collective, the process of nation (re)building supports a community’s leaders to act strategically and make decisions that can bring about the long-term vision of their nation. By reviving the capacity for Indigenous governments to exercise meaningful authority and expand their powers over traditional jurisdictions that have been lost through colonisation, Indigenous nation (re)building opens up pathways of exit from colonialism.

Settlers, too, must responsibly learn how to walk these pathways collaboratively for a more general release from the colonial structures that continue to shape every aspect of post-colonial society.[iv] Ultimately, Indigenous peoples’ renewed enjoyment of political authority and expanded jurisdiction over Country allows for the firm expression of Indigenous voice in federal and international policy developments for decolonisation and sustainable environmental governance. And this offers all of humanity hope for securing the future of life on Earth.

i See, for example: Steve Hemming, Daryle Rigney, Simone Bignall, Shaun Berg & Grant Rigney. 2019. ‘Indigenous nation building for environmental futures: Murrundi flows through Ngarrindjeri country’, Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 26:3, 216-235.

ii. Gregory Cajete. 2000. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe: Clear Light Books

iii. Miriam Jorgensen (editor). 2007. Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development. University of Arizona Press, page xii.

iv. Simone Bignall. 2014. ‘The Collaborative Struggle for Ex-Colonialism’, Journal of Settler-Colonial Studies, 4:4, 340-356.


Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog