By Simon Lambert and John Scott
Recently, the authors were invited to take part in the review of diverse knowledge systems for disaster risk reduction (DRR), one of several thematic studies included in the Sendai Framework Midterm Review (SF MTR). The review will inform the 2023 General Assembly meeting in New York and several other conferences this year.
It is fair to say we are nonplussed with the progress of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction supporting Indigenous Knowledge (IK).
Yes, it is true that IKs (the plural matters as these knowledges are diverse and specific to location and community) are explicitly noted in two sections of Sendai: to “complement” existing disaster science and policies (section 24, i), and “contribute” to the development and implementation of plans and mechanisms (36, a, v). In addition, Indigenous speakers and sessions are now a regular feature of United Nations and other conference proceedings, but it is difficult to ignore the condescension. Having organized and participated in multiple Indigenous sessions for Global and Regional platforms, we have seen first-hand the value of holding space for Indigenous voices to narrate the experiences of their communities.
And yet, are Indigenous communities any safer for their nominal inclusion in these processes? Has the (hard fought) acceptance of IKs in multilateral agreements like the Sendai Framework, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development led to stronger, more inclusive, and more effective DRR strategies? Can our precious knowledge – threatened and undermined for 500 years – somehow “complement” science and “contribute” to DRR plans and mechanisms as Sendai intends?
Understanding Indigenous disaster risks
Indigenous Peoples have found themselves more vulnerable to environmental hazards and recurring disasters due to the violence and dispossession of colonization. Essentially, our communities are undermined through ongoing political and economic marginalization, the routine dismissal of our cultural values and practices, the ongoing loss and degradation of lands and resources, and the threat of violence, abuse, and murder by state and private forces (United Nations, 2021). These ‘displacements’ undermine our resilience to disasters, which historically was maintained by comprehensive environmental knowledge, socio-cultural connections, empowered mobilities, and sovereignty.
Indigenous representatives expend considerable effort in multiple fora trying to communicate to non-Indigenous people the unique perspectives that Indigenous Knowledges bring to disaster studies, among other areas. Yet given the limited and constrained participation of Indigenous voices in DRR, what are the pathways that might lead to a safer world for Indigenous communities?
Strengthening Indigenous disaster risk governance
A constant complaint from Indigenous DRR practitioners is their exclusion from key conversations and decision-making processes that directly impact their communities. We have observed that many communities have people whose skills are transferable to DRR: veterans, tradespeople, emergency managers, and health workers. But Indigenous Elders have experiences and insights from a lifetime of urgent events and importantly, many Indigenous youth are informed and passionately committed to a better world for their communities. They need opportunity, resourcing, training, and networking to participate in decision-making processes.
We fear that Indigenous Knowledge has become a proxy for Indigenous voices. Fundamentally, if DRR is to address the systemic issues leading to disasters, when will Indigenous governance systems be allowed to identify relevant hazards and establish their own strategies to reduce the risks their communities face?
Investing in disaster risk reduction for Indigenous resilience
Disaster risk reduction must be seen as a public health concern, and the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need to pay attention to social determinants of health. Poor quality and overcrowded housing, limited health services, poverty and racism have undermined Indigenous health for generations. A constant refrain from Indigenous leaders has been for the necessary resources to determine their own development. Despite the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, investment in health has been inadequate, if it is available at all. Communities struggle to find the time and support to reduce their growing risks to disasters and often lack sufficient investment into basic infrastructure and especially housing, emergency services and trained personnel.
In many regions, global heating is threatening many ecosystems and increasing floods and rising sea-levels threaten the lands on which many communities reside. This continues the pattern of forced displacement for Indigenous Peoples with “adaptation” to climate change too often defaulting to their relocation, and ironically often on to other Indigenous territories (Indigenous climate migrants forced to re-settle in new, climate-induced reservations). Although many Indigenous leaders are aware of the need to invest in DRR, they remain trapped in the demands of constantly responding to ongoing urgent events while still recovering from previous disasters. The cliché of resilience in this space signals the endurance and bare survival of many Indigenous communities.
Enhancing Indigenous disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction.
While climate change is a planetary concern, assumptions we are all in the same boat ignores the empirical evidence that the effects are not borne equally. One clear example is that disasters fall disproportionately on Indigenous communities, who are then more adversely impacted, and for longer, leaving them more vulnerable to future disasters. However, experience suggests that when the sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples is acknowledged (albeit in a fragmented and inadequate manner), Indigenous communities can better reduce their risks, ready themselves for whatever the event, respond more effectively, and recover quicker than possible without agency (Lambert, 2022). We agree with Guterres (2021b) when he called for a renewal of the “social contract” to build hope, trust and social cohesion, and would add that Indigenous Peoples need to be at the forefront of this debate.
Colonization continues to manifest through ongoing ‘disaster risk creation’ for Indigenous communities who have been deprived of the means to maintain and improve their resilience to environmental and other hazards. While the Sendai Framework notes the potential for Indigenous Knowledges to ‘complement and contribute’ to DRR plans, the Mid Term Review finds minimal progress to concrete application at the local scale. A key obstacle remains the colonial structures which the relationship between states and Indigenous communities. Indigenous-led sessions need to be a constant feature in Global and Regional Platforms, with Indigenous voices across all topic areas, and at the highest levels of decision-making. Without these initial and basic steps, Indigenous empowerment will continue to haunt the full and proper implementation of the Sendai framework.
Simon Lambert is from Aotearoa New Zealand and is a member of the Tuhoe and Ngati Ruapani tribes. He is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
John Scott is the retired President of the Center for Public Service Communications. He is an enrolled member of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska (Tlingit).
Guterres, A. 2021a. Our Common Agenda – Report of the Secretary-General. New York (NY): United Nations; [accessed 2021 December 2]. https://www.un.org/en/content/common-agenda-report/assets/pdf/Common_Agenda_Report_English.pdf
Guterres, A. 2021b. Secretary-General’s Address to the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly. New York (NY): United Nations. 21 September; [accessed 2021 December 2]. https://www.un.org/sg/en/node/259283
Lambert, S., 2022. Indigenous societies and disasters, in: Walters, M., Kukutai, T., Gonzales, A., Henry, R. (Eds.), Handbook of Indigenous Sociology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
United Nations, 2021. State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. United Nations, New York.
UNDP, 2022. Uncertain times, unsettled lives: Shaping our future in a transforming world. Human Development Report.
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015. Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015-2030. https://www.undrr.org/publication/sendai-framework-disaster-risk-reduction-2015-2030