Our Opinion: Happy International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples!

By Jettie Word, Borneo Project Director


I am so lucky. I am lucky that my anthropologist mother brought me to Indonesian Borneo when I was nine years old. I am lucky that I got to live there while much of the forest was still intact and the rivers ran clean. I am lucky I got to go Indonesian schools, and raise sunbears. I am also lucky that I got to come home to America, that I speak fluent English, have an incredible education, and have the strength and the community to enable me to take action on issues I care about.  

Throughout my life, I have struggled to figure out how best to use my privilege to support the people I grew up with in Borneo. Despite its incredible biological and cultural wealth, Borneo is often ignored or underserved by the international activist community. While US corporations rip down Borneo’s rainforest for palm oil, or pulp and paper, only a handful of US groups are taking action to protect it. Many of the international NGOs who do put resources towards conservation do so at the expense of communities, choosing to focus on saving charismatic species like the orangutan instead of working for justice for the interwoven ecosystem of people and nature.

Over the last ten years, I’ve triedold photo from borneo 5 a lot of different things, including academic research, on-the-ground organizing to help communities in Sumatra get (or, more accurately, not get) legal rights to their land, and corporate campaigns against the US companies who are insatiably destroying the rainforest.  Now, with the Borneo project, I work directly to support indigenous-led struggles – doing whatever possible to get resources from committed activists in the US to the frontlines of fights against mega dams and palm oil plantations. 

Over the years, I have developed some guiding principles that have helped me find the path I think will be the most effective. As part of my personal celebration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, here they are:

Just conservation needs to both incorporate, and empower, traditional forest users. Indigenous and other place-based peoples often have an understanding of their ecosystems, based on generations of experience. This knowledge is vital for both conservation and activist organizing. Just as place-based people may understand the best way to protect the environment, they also will know how to motivate and mobilize their communities more effectively than outsiders.

A rights-based approach is vital. In the international context, especially when you are talking about forests, the nexus of environmental and climate justice struggles is land rights. When communities are displaced, they lose their culture, their history, and their traditional sources of wealth.  It also means they have no incentive for long-term conservation, with catastrophic consequences. (Don’t take my word for it – this has been born out in Nobel Prize willing research by (my hero) Dr. Eleanor Ostrum. In order for communities to be empowered to use their knowledge to protect the forest, activists need to first focus on ensuring that communities will have legal rights to live, and profit, off the forests.

Everyone has a role to play.Folks on the frontlines need support. They are battling companies with US budgets and international legal teams, as well as powerful connections to local government. At the very least, it is the role of solidarity activists to provide funding, expertise, training, and other resources to support communities in their organizing efforts.430110_276243162444044_1909161063_n

Solidarity activists can have a disproportional impact. While it is always important to act locally, activists can have an incredibly powerful – and often disproportional – impact by supporting frontline struggles in other parts of the world. This is challenging – it requires long term, trusting partnerships – but the impact of training and funds from the West can be powerful. Part of “acting locally” to support communities is being sure that we take on companies causing destruction where they are based — often here in the United States

It’s never hopeless. When you are focusing on building power at the grassroots level, even a failed campaign means that the people are going to leave with new skills, a stronger network of allies, and an evolved vision for how to create change next time.

These are the beliefs that I bring to my work as the Director of the Borneo Project. As a small organization, we don’t do everything I wish we could to create change. What we do, though, is powerful: we provide financial support and training for on-the-ground indigenous-led campaigns. Some day, I hope we will be able to run campaigns here in the United States, and take on the very actors that our partners are fighting. There are also incredible campaigns being run by so many organizations – many of which I have worked for, or that the Borneo Project has partnered with.

I believe that the work of all of these campaigns must be rooted in respect, in empowering grassroots leaders, and focusing on Indigenous rights as a first step to environmental conservation. I hope – and am working towards – a future where this is the accepted norm among US-based non-profits working to save the rainforest. And with this hope – Happy World Indigenous People’s Day!

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