Wildlife & Biodiversity

Environmental stewards: White House asks federal agencies to include indigenous knowledge in governance

The government directive will apply to Native American, Pacific Islander and Alaskan Native communities

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 08 December 2022
White House asks federal agencies to recognise, include indigenous knowledge in governance
The White House’s announcement coincided with the Biden-Harris Administration’s 2022 Tribal Nations Summit The White House’s announcement coincided with the Biden-Harris Administration’s 2022 Tribal Nations Summit

The White House has directed agencies of the United States government to recognise and include indigenous knowledge in their research, policy and decision making, according to an official statement.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) jointly released new government-wide guidance December 1, 2022 to this effect.

They also released an implementation memorandum. The government directive will apply to Native American, Pacific Islander and Alaskan Native communities.

Read Nature better off with indigenous people, indicates global report

These groups have been recognised as ‘sovereign’ by the US Constitution. But in reality, most tribal nations in the contiguous US, Alaska and Hawaii have been at the losing end ever since coming under (white) American rule.

“The White House’s announcement coincided with the Biden-Harris Administration’s 2022 Tribal Nations Summit and responds to a 2021 OSTP-CEQ memorandum that called for development of the guidance with tribal consultation and indigenous community engagement, as well as agency, expert and public input,” according to the statement.

What is it?

Indigenous knowledge is defined as “a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs developed by tribes and indigenous peoples through interaction and experience with the environment”.

The United Nations took note of ‘indigenous knowledge’ in April this year, when it recognised burning practices and techniques of indigenous peoples globally as a method to control wildfire incidents.

A report titled Spreading like wildfire: The rising threat of extraordinary landscape fires brought out by the UN Environment Programme said:

Indigenous and traditional knowledge of land management in many regions — particularly the use of fire to manage fuel, including for wildfire mitigation — can be an effective way of reducing hazard.

It added that such knowledge could also ensure that biodiversity; cultural (including understanding traditional gender roles that can govern burning activities) and ecological values are respected, as well as create livelihood opportunities.

Besides fire and burning practices, indigenous knowledge has uses in many other things.

Read UN takes note of global indigenous fire practices to control wildfires

“As the original stewards of the natural environment, tribes and indigenous communities have expertise critical to finding solutions to the climate crisis and protecting our nation’s ecosystems,” Brenda Mallory, the chair of the US government’s CEQ was quoted as saying.

The White House guidance on indigenous knowledge will assist agencies in understanding it, developing mutually beneficial relationships with tribal nations and applying it in governance.

The government developed the guidance with inputs from several stakeholders. It engaged more than a thousand individuals, organisations and tribal nations.

Consultation, meetings and input from more than 100 federally recognised tribes, public listening sessions, roundtables, conference outreach and dozens of individual meetings with other experts on the subject were carried out.

In summer 2022, a draft of the guidance was released to tribal nations for consultation. Inputs were then incorporated into the final version.

The White House also released an implementation memorandum that tasks agencies with reporting on progress within 180 days. It also announced the formation of a new interagency group under the National Science and Technology Council which will assist in coordination and implementation of the new guidance across agencies.

Read ‘Indigenous people have been effective stewards of biodiversity globally’

Ganesh Devy, a well-known linguist and tribal rights expert, said the move by the White House was admirable. Meanwhile, India still lags behind in this area. Devy explained the reason for this.

“We have recognised rights of indigenous people in community-handling by creating tribal councils under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. But we have not gone beyond that,” he told Down To Earth.

There was a serious gap between India’s constitutional policy and the actual situation on the ground. “Rarely do universities in India have a department of indigenous knowledge,” he said.

Devy also noted that the term ‘indigenous’ was not accepted by India when the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was signed in 2008.

“The term makes the Indian government restless because then questions of claims of who came into south Asia first will erupt,” he said.

Even if such a treaty was signed in the future, it will remain to be seen whether India will implement it or it will remain just a piece of paper, Devy added.

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