Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary

Indigenous Dialogue on Sustainable Development


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The Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary was developed by Mick Kelly and Sarah Granich on behalf of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development, with sponsorship from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

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Bill Van Lopik

Bill Van Lopik outlines the results of a recent international dialogue that focused on the models of sustainable development and positive practices of indigenous peoples.

The author is Academic Program Director for the Sustainable Development Institute at the College of Menominee Nation in Keshena, Wisconsin, in the United States.

An opportunity to give voice to realities and studies of sustainability practices and concepts within indigenous communities was realized in June 2004 with the conference, "Sharing Indigenous Wisdom: An International Dialogue On Sustainable Development".

The conference was hosted by the College of Menominee Nation's Sustainable Development Institute. The College of Menominee Nation is a tribally controlled community college located in northeast Wisconsin in the United States. The college and institute were organized in 1993 by Menominee community leaders representing a broad spectrum of institutional interests including governance, commerce, education and natural resource management.

College of the Menominee Nation


© Lisa Marchel

The mission of the Sustainable Development Institute is two-fold: to reflect upon and disseminate the expertise of the Menominee people in sustainable development, and to advance the tenets of sustainability to other economic and social sectors.

Menominee expertise in forest management has gained wide-spread attention, receiving commendation by the United Nations in 1995, and designation as the first recipient of the United States Presidential Award for Sustainable Development in 1996. The conference was the fulfilment of a long-time dream of the Institute staff of hosting an international conference with a focus on the foundational elements of the Menominee model of sustainable development.

The Menominee model of sustainable development is a theoretical model that conceptualizes sustainable development as the process of maintaining the balance and reconciling the inherent tensions between the various dimensions of sustainability.

Sustainable development logo

The six dimensions are:

  • land and sovereignty;
  • natural environment;
  • institutions;
  • technology;
  • economics; and,
  • human perception, activity and behaviour.

Each dimension is understood to be dynamic, both in respect to its internal organization, and in relationship to each of the other five dimensions of the sustainable development process.

The model takes as its point of departure that change within one dimension will impact other dimensions in an ever-unfolding diffusion of responses to change, whether externally driven or inherent to the dynamism of a specific dimension. Topics which reflect the interface of any two or more dimensions of sustainability are central to the Institute's interests, and are engaged through independent, collaborative and sponsored research and dissemination of information.

The Sharing Indigenous Wisdom conference brought representatives across political, social, economic, institutional and cultural boundaries from around the globe to Green Bay, Wisconsin. The ideals, values, customs and traditions of diverse indigenous cultures focused upon developing sustainable models of technology, economics, land and sovereignty, natural environment, institutions and human perception and behaviours in contemporary societies.

Twenty three practitioners and scholars delivered papers and made presentations outlining sustainable practices and models. These presentations were grouped into four topical areas at the conference. They included: Sustaining the Wisdom, Sustaining the Nation, Sustaining the Spirit and Sustaining the Earth.

Seventy registered participants participated in a salon discussion model following each of the four topical sessions. The salon model facilitated dialogue among participants allowing conference attendees the opportunity to discuss areas of interest and concern derived from the information presented in the sessions.

The context of the conference was framed by Verna Fowler, President and Founder of the College of Menominee Nation. She opened the conference by recognizing that the Menominee Nation has been internationally acknowledged for its leadership in sustainable development and takes pride in its legacy of stewardship of its forested ancestral lands, and honours those similar efforts of other indigenous communities globally.

She clearly framed the goal of the conference by saying that "collectively those efforts will not only assure a high quality of life for the future generations of our communities, but also make a positive contribution to the global body of knowledge on how best to achieve sustainable development among the community of nations".

The first theme centred upon "Sustaining the Wisdom". Papers were presented within this theme on how indigenous knowledge and philosophy is embraced in a variety of ways. For example, Ojibwa philosophy has been instrumental in the planning of the academic and building facilities at the Turtle Mountain Community College located in the northernmost section of the state of North Dakota in the United States. All academic and facilities growth of this college is designed in recognition that we are stewards of Mother Earth.

Joke Waller-Hunter, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has congratulated the world's indigenous peoples on the substantial progress they have made in "creating a policy space" in the environmental treaty processes.

Parties to the Climate Convention have "acknowledged the importance of the on-going participation by indigenous peoples organization..., especially though discussions on relevant agenda items, participation in workshops and informal contacts", she said in a statement to mark the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on August 9th 2004.

An example from Africa gave evidence of how indigenous tenure and knowledge systems offers hope for gender equity and best ecosystem management in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Tribal representatives from the Pikangikum First Nation in Ontario, Canada, spoke of how a tribal enterprise approach to forestry can effectively contribute to best ecological practices and aboriginal economic self-sufficiency. They expressed their desire to learn from the same sustainable forestry practices that the Menominees have historically followed.

Indigenous Maori people from New Zealand shared a unique learning journey called "The Tipu Ake Lifecycle - A Leadership Model for Innovative Organizations". It is a cyclic behavioural model that is used to create effective community sustainability programmes. It is a model of organizational development that is based on the Maori's deep understanding of nature with all its complexity and interconnectedness.

The second theme covered at the conference dealt with how indigenous cultures contribute to "Sustaining the Earth". This theme focused primarily on environmental issues. The first presentation focused on the climatic similarities between South Tunisia and South Texas and the options for developing alternative resources of water and energy in remote hot zones.

Another paper examined efforts in Kenya to inventory and conserve the Mpingo tree located throughout East Africa. It is a tree that contains a myriad of uses and functions for the Wamwera people of Kenya.

The Menominee model of sustainable forestry was also addressed during this session by the head forester for Menominee Tribal Enterprises. The 140 year history of the resource use and management of the Menominee forest stands as a practical example of sustainable forestry - forestry that is ecologically viable, economically feasible and socially desirable.

The session on "Sustaining the Nation" offered examples of how geospatial technologies can be utilized as an extension to ancestral philosophies of land stewardship and cultural preservation on the Rosebud Lakota reservation in South Dakota of the United States.

Also highlighted was work in the Kakamega Forest of Kenya. Here local development organizations have linked with the Kakamega community to implement a number of integrated rural development strategies that are effectively addressing problems of human poverty and environmental degradation.

Evidence was also presented on how the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador is working with small farmers to halt the destruction of their environment and way of life. The Institute builds upon the pre-Colombian practices of natural agriculture that the indigenous Mayan and Pipil practised. The strategy is to build leadership within poor rural communities, introducing subsistence farmers to permaculture as a tool for sustainable development.

Another presentation highlighted how potato farmers in the Venezuelan Andes have drawn upon long-standing social and cultural resources to reduce the risk of farming due to market liberalization policies and the wide dispersion of their field plots.

The presentations within the "Sustaining the Spirit" theme offered examples of how indigenous cultures are being preserved and restored. The need for preservation of cultural heritage in Palestine was one of the important topics of discussion raised in this session. Palestine crucially needs public policies that promote the sustainability of the cultural heritage of Palestinians amidst the unsettled economic and political situation. Efforts at designing community development projects in Palestine that are based on principles of sustainable development where effectiveness depends, in part, on solutions that resonate with the associated community were addressed.

The Woodlands Wisdom Nutrition Project was cited as community-based action research designed to benefit the nutritional needs of native people. It is a programme initiated by the Native American Tribal Colleges in the Upper Midwest of the United States to address chronic health issues in Native American communities through culturally-based food and nutrition programmes of teaching, research and community connections.

Continuing within the "Sustaining the Spirit" theme, another presentation highlighted development fieldwork from Cambodia and the Philippines. The work showed how development practitioners are working subversively to convert development to a tool of rejuvenation of indigenous cultures for a sustainable future rather than one of global homogenization.

The fourth presentation focused on how the Canadian government has effectively negotiated legal agreements between aboriginal communities and mining companies through the principle of impact benefit agreements.

Menominee forest

Menominee forest

© Lisa Marchel

A highlight of the week for many participants was the all day tour of the Menominee forest. They had the opportunity to see close-up the ecological health of the forest and receive an explanation of sustainable forestry practices. They could physically sense the micro-climatic change between driving through miles of open field crops and then entering the 236,000 acre forest. The air turned noticeably cooler and more humid.

It is a forest that is continuously harvested for its high quality saw-timber, but remains a healthy ecosystem in terms of increased flora and fauna. One would never surmise that the forest has been cut over two times in the last 140 years, yet currently has more board feet of timber standing now than ever before. It is a testament to how economic development, cultural preservation and environmental sustainability can not only co-exist, but actually complement each other.

The field trip into the forest and the culminating feast comprising of traditional Menominee food sources from the forest was indeed memorable for all participants. It placed the entire conference into its appropriate context.

The conference was not only a learning experience for those who attended, but also a celebration of cultural diversity and indigenous unity.

One evening was completely devoted to a grand pow-wow celebration. Drum groups and dancers from five Wisconsin Native American tribes were invited to take part in the conference festivities. Conference participants all had a chance to dance, share gifts and share stories about their respective cultures.

The week-long event fostered a sense of unity and cohesion that many expressed as being unique from other conferences they have attended. There was a strong sense that this initiative must continue on in subsequent years and that the indigenous perspective towards sustainable development must be disseminated to a larger scale.

The Sustainable Development Institute is currently in the process of publishing the proceedings of the conference, the keynote addresses offered by David Korten, Ricardo Navarro and Daniel Durett, as well as making available compact discs of the pow-wow celebration.

Conference evaluations indicated that it was a memorable event for all participants and that it should serve as a springboard for further dialogue on sustainable development among indigenous peoples.

Further information
William Van Lopik, Sustainable Development Institute, College of the Menominee Nation, PO Box 1179, Keshena, WI 54135, USA. Fax: +1-715-7995951. Email: wvanlopik@menominee.edu. Web: www.sustainabledevelopmentinstitute.org.

On the Web
The UNESCO project, Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS), promotes demonstration projects, action research, use of information and communication technologies to record, manage and transmit indigenous knowledge, training to build local capacities in relevant multimedia techniques and international workshops and seminars to promote reflection and dialogue.

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Updated: May 15th 2015