Editor’s note: Hydroelectric dams are not green energy, despite many claims that they are. Hydropower kills rivers, displaces millions of human beings, drives anadromous fish and other life dependent on free-flowing rivers extinct, and actually releases substantial greenhouse gasses. This post includes a short excerpt from Bright Green Lies as well as an article detailing a destructive dam proposal in Bolivia.
Dams are Not Green Energy
Excerpted from Chapter 11: The Hydropower Lie of Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert
Once upon a time, dams were recognized for the environmental atrocities they are. Human beings understood that dams kill rivers, from source to sea. They understood that dams kill forests, marsh- lands, grasslands.
In the 12th century, Richard the Lionhearted (King Richard I of England) put in place a law forbidding dams from preventing salmon passage. In the 14th century, Robert the Bruce did some- thing similar for Scotland. His descendant Robert the III went even further, declaring that three convictions for killing salmon out of season would be a capital offense.
Fast-forward to today, when dams are claimed to provide “clean” and “green” energy.
Where’s Robert the III when you need him?
As recently as three decades ago, at least environmentalists still consistently opposed dams. But the coup that turned so much environmentalism away from protecting the real world and into a lobbying arm of favored sectors of the industrial economy has rhetorically turned dams into environmental saviors. And climate change activists are among the most relentless missionaries for the gospel of the green dam.
This issue is urgent. While here in the United States, no new large dams have been built in many years (although many shovel-ready proposals are waiting for public funding), large hydropower dams are being built around the world as quickly as (in)humanly possible.
Once again, environmental engineer Mark Jacobson is an exam- ple, as he always seems to be, of someone working hard to kill the planet in order to save it. His 100 percent “renewable” transition plans—and remember, bright greens and many mainstream environmentalists love this guy—call for building about 270 new large hydroelectric dams globally, each at least the size of the Hoover or Glen Canyon dams.6 He also calls for major expansions to existing dams by adding new turbines. His models rely heavily on hydro because solar and wind facilities are by their nature intermittent and unreliable.
In Bolivia, Indigenous groups fear the worst from dam project on Beni River
More than 5,000 Indigenous people would be impacted by flooding from the construction of two dams in Bolivia, according to Indigenous organizations and environmentalists.
Successive governments have mulled the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project for more than half a century, and the current administration of President Luis Acre has now revived it as a national priority.
While Indigenous groups have successfully rejected the plan in the past, this time a group of 10 Indigenous organizations have signed an agreement with the state energy company approving feasibility studies.
If completed, the reservoirs for the project would cover a combined area larger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, and inundate an area that’s home to thousands of plant and animal species.
The Bolivian government has revived a long-held plan to build a hydroelectric plant in a corner of the country’s western La Paz department, sparking concerns about the potential displacement of more than 5,000 Indigenous people from the area.
The affected communities live in two protected areas, Madidi National Park and Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Communal Lands, parts of which would be flooded for the twin dams of the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project.
President Luis Arce, who served as minister of the economy in the earlier administration of Evo Morales, is following the same road map as his predecessor, who in July 2007 announced the original plans for the hydroelectric dams as a national priority.
The idea to generate hydropower in the Beni River Basin, specifically in El Bala Gorge, has been around for more than 50 years and given up on numerous times due to its economic unfeasibility and high environmental cost. The last time it was rejected by Indigenous communities was during the Hugo Banzer government in the late 1990s, before being nearly resurrected under Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president.
Since then, the issue had largely faded for the six Indigenous communities that live in the area: the Mosetén, Tsiman, Esse Ejja, Leco, Tacana and Uchupiamona. The groups are now speaking out against the hydropower project, saying it would “cut off” the three rivers vital to their existence: the Beni and two of its tributaries, the Tuichi and Quiquibey.
“This would mean forced displacement and that means taking away our territory. We would be forced to leave our space, our ancestral domain,” said Alex Villca, a member of the National Coordinator for the Defense of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (Contiocap) of Bolivia. “We would be giving up what is most important: without territory there are no Indigenous peoples. This would be accepting a silent death. Wherever they take us, it would never be the same.”
The Indigenous leader said the problem goes even further. He said that in the Chepete mountains, some Indigenous peoples live in voluntary isolation — believed to be Mosetén, although there aren’t many studies to confirm this — and that they would be “totally” affected if the dams were constructed in the area. “We know from our brothers that there exists, in the peaks of the Chepete, a community in voluntary isolation that must be unaware of all these plans. Imagine how that would affect them if this project comes to fruition,” Villca said.
In 2021, Bolivia’s National Electric Energy Company (Ende) resumed the commissioning of the Chepete-El Bala project, announcing tenders for geological and geotechnical studies. The state-owned company said that in the case of the Chepete plant, the planned reservoir area would flood 46 square kilometers (18 square miles) of the total area of 3,859 square kilometers (1,490 square miles) of the Pilón Lajas reserve. The reservoir at El Bala, meanwhile, would cover 94 km2 (36 mi2) of the 18,895-km2 (7,295-mi2) Madidi park.
In August, the Office of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz (Cpilap) signed an agreement with Ende authorizing the final design studies for the Chepete-El Bala project.
The agreement establishes that Cpilap must “allow the entry of Ende Corporation and its contracted companies to the areas of direct and indirect influence in order to carry out research, information gathering, socialization and data collection that allows studies, the creation of projects, to finalize the design to implement electric power generation, transmission and distribution.”
Villca spoke out against the signing of the agreement. “What worries us is that the tenor of the agreement is that it not only allows for complementary studies but also, in the future, allows Ende to start construction of the Chepete and El Bala hydroelectric plants. This is much more serious.”
Cpilap is a regional organization that brings together 10 Indigenous organizations in La Paz department: the Indigenous Council of the Tacana Peoples, the Office of the Indigenous Leco de Apolo, the Leco Indigenous People and Larecaja Native Communities, the Mosetén Indigenous Peoples Organization, the Indigenous Peoples of de San José de Uchupiamonas, the Esse Ejja of Eiyoquibo Indigenous Community, the Regional Council of T-simane Mosetén of Pilón Lajas, the Native Agroecological Community of Palos Blancos, the Tacana II Indigenous Communities of Rio Madre de Dios, and the Captaincy of the Araona Indigenous People. All of these organizations, according to Villca, are connected to Arce and Morales’s ruling party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS).
Gonzalo Oliver Terrazas, president of Cpilap, said five of the six affected Indigenous communities agreed with the hydropower project. The sixth community are the Mosetén, who didn’t sign the agreement. “This agreement doesn’t mean that the dam will be built,” he said. “The goal is to determine the feasibility or infeasibility of the project. Another important aspect that the agreement has is the social component, which we have included so that there can be electricity and housing projects.”
The Association of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi and Quiquibey Rivers, an organization started in 2001 to defend the ancestral territories of the six Indigenous communities impacted by the project, has demanded that a prior consultation be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the project. The communities met over one weekend and decided to reject the government initiative, demonstrating that there are leaders for and against conducting feasibility studies for the project.
“We remind [the government] that in 2016 there was a 12-day vigil and the expulsion of the Geodata and Servicons companies that had started work and studies in the territory without fulfilling a free, prior and informed consent [FPIC] consultation in good faith so as to receive the consent of the communities,” said a document published by the association.
Terrazas said the signing of the agreement with Ende doesn’t mean there won’t be consultation with Indigenous communities. He said that if the feasibility of the project is approved, a consultation will be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the construction of the hydropower plants.
In January 2018, Ende returned the prefeasibility study to the Italian company Geodata Engineering for correction. Geodata recommended “to postpone the development of the El Bala 220 hydroelectric plant until the conditions in the Bolivian energy market and abroad indicate that it is convenient to start its implementation.”
The project, which would start after a public tender is launched, would flood at least 662 km2 (256 mi2) of land for the two dams, according to Indigenous groups. Combined, the two reservoirs would cover an area five times bigger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. And if the dried-out salt lake of Poopó, in the department of Oruro, doesn’t recover, Chepete-El Bala would be the second-biggest lake in Bolivia after Titicaca.
The project calls for building the first dam in the Beni River’s Chepete Gorge, 70 km (43 mi) upstream from the town of Rurrenabaque, in the department of Beni, and the second near El Bala Gorge, 13.5 km (8.3 mi) upstream of the same town.
The Chepete dam would raise the water level to 158 meters (518 feet), forming a lake that would be 400 m (1,312 ft) above sea level. The dam at El Bala would raise the water level by 20 m (65 ft) and its reservoir would be 220 m (721 ft) above sea level. Unlike the Chepete dam, which would be a concrete wall, the dam at El Bala would consist of gates and generators in the middle of the river.
Extinction and displacement
According to the Solón Foundation, an environmental NGO, a total of 5,164 people would be relocated for the project, the majority of them Indigenous. The area is also home to 424 plant species of plants, 201 land mammals, 652 birds, 483 amphibians and reptiles, and 515 fish species. It’s not clear which species are most likely to go locally extinct as a result of the flooding, or how many would be affected.
The main fear of the Indigenous communities in the area is that the construction of both dams would mean forcibly displacing more than 5,000 residents. The construction of the second reservoir at El Bala, according to the Solón Foundation and Indigenous organizations opposed to the project, would flood the entire community of San Miguel del Bala. There’s no official information on a displacement plan for the communities more than 1,000 residents.
And with the construction of the Chepete reservoir, a little more than 4,000 Indigenous people would be displaced. All the populated areas affected by the reservoir, according to Geodata, have collective titles belonging to the Tacanas, Lecos and Mosetén peoples. Additionally, development on the river could interfere with the livelihoods of many residents, who fish and farm and, in more recent years, oversee communal tourism activities.
Valentín Luna is an Indigenous Tacana leader and head of the San Miguel del Bala community. Currently, there are at least 20 eco-lodges that have been built in the Madidi and Pilón Lajas protected areas. Most of these initiatives are managed by the local communities. Four of these eco-lodges would be flooded by the dams, according to Luna: one in Chalalán overseen by the Uchupiamonas, one run by San Miguel del Bala residents, one in Villa Alcira, and one run by the Chimanes and Mosetén of Asunción del Quiquibey.
For the Indigenous people who don’t want the dams in their area, the main worry isn’t the end of tourism. They fear that the six Indigenous groups will disappear along with it.
The Fitzroy River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, one of the country’s most ecologically and culturally significant waterways, is facing proposals of further agriculture and mining development, including irrigation and fracking.
In response, First Nations communities in the region have developed different methods to promote the conservation of the river, including curating cultural festivals, funding awareness campaigns, and working with digital technologies.
First Nations land rights are held along the length of the Fitzroy River, the first time this has occurred across an entire catchment area in Australia.
The catchment is the last stronghold of the world’s most “evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered” species, the freshwater sawfish (Pristis pristis) and is home to the threatened northern river shark (Glyphis garricki).
WEST KIMBERLEY, Australia — November marks the end of the dry season in the Kimberley, the northernmost region of Western Australia, the country’s largest state. As the monsoonal rains start to fall, the country comes alive with the cries of red winged parrots (Aprosmictus erythropterus) and the Fitzroy River begins to run.
Stretching more than 700 kilometers (435 miles), the Fitzroy River is one of Australia’s most powerful waterways, a free-flowing system that passes through range, savanna and desert country to empty into the Indian Ocean each year.
Anne Poelina, a Nyikina Warrwa traditional Indigenous custodian of the river, said it’s her duty to care for the Martuwarra, the river’s original and enduring name.
“Martuwarra is a living, ancestral being,” she said. “It has a right to life, to live and to flow. We live by an obligatory law to protect the River of Life. It is the essence of our spirituality, identity, culture and law.”
The river was granted National Heritage Listing in 2011 due to its spiritual, cultural and environmental values. Native title, a federally recognized titling to traditional Indigenous lands and waters, is now held along the entire length of the river, the first time land rights have been held across an entire catchment area in Australia.
The Fitzroy is also the last stronghold of the world’s most “evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered” species, the freshwater sawfish (Pristis pristis). According to a 2019 study, its continued existence in the waters is due to the low level of human disturbance — namely mining and agriculture — compared to other rivers around the world. The authors recommended that any “further anthropogenic disturbance [to the Fitzroy River] should be minimized to maintain what is still a relatively pristine habitat.”
However, on the world’s driest inhabited continent, these life-giving waters are now a source of contention. Currently, agricultural and mining development proposals are being assessed to develop the Fitzroy catchment and the greater Kimberley region.
Such is the cultural significance of the river, that proposals have been met with scrutiny by traditional owners, and have led some to implement methods to preserve the river’s cultural and ecological significance.
Agriculture debate continues as fracking proposals arise
Chief among the industrial proposals earmarked for the Fitzroy are those linked to agriculture. Pastoral opportunities have long been debated in the Fitzroy catchment, with dams unsuccessfully planned along the river since the 1990s. In 2018, however, the incumbent state government pledged that there would be no future dams along the Fitzroy or its tributaries.
Despite this, the future of the Fitzroy remains uncertain. First announced in November 2020, the WA state government is currently assessing the feasibility of allowing up to 300 billion liters (79 billion gallons) of surface water to be taken out of the river each year through irrigation development to grow fodder for livestock. Conservationists say this will affect the flow of the river and, consequently, the diverse and unique ecosystem it supports, with threatened species including the northern river shark (Glyphis garricki), one of the world’s rarest fish.
While the debate rages on over pastoral activities in the catchment, there are other questions being raised about opening up the catchment to hydrofracturing stimulation.
Commonly known as fracking, hydrofracturing stimulation is an extractive process that involves injecting a high-pressure fluid made of sand, water and chemical additives into a drilled well to crack the rock and free natural gas from deep underground.
As much of the Fitzroy catchment sits on the Canning Basin, the largest shale gas reserve in Australia, the region has become a central focus of the federal government to boost the country’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery and strengthen the local energy market.
As Mongabay previously reported, a 2016 moratorium on fracking in WA state was lifted three years ago, allowing fracking in just 2% of the state. Much of that area falls in the western Kimberley, including parts of the Fitzroy catchment. In October 2021, the state government further backtracked on this minor concession and granted an exemption to the policy for an oil and gas company, Bennett Resources.
A subsidiary of Texas mining company Black Mountain Metals, the company has proposed drilling 20 exploratory wells, one of which lies just a kilometer (0.6 miles) from a tributary of the Fitzroy.
Bennett Resources did not respond to requests for comment from Mongabay. However, the company announced that it is seeking to extract up to 900 terajoules (953 million cubic feet) of gas a day once the gas fields peak.
In Australia, companies are able to secure mining leases that incorporate land recognized as native title. Rather than grant First Nations complete autonomy over their land, native title legislation mandates that communities enter into negotiations with mining companies regardless of whether they welcome industry on their land or not. Consequently, mining leases can incorporate the lands of multiple groups divided over development. As such, while the wells proposed by Bennett Resources are located in the territory of one community that has entered into fracking agreements, other groups on the lease either remain opposed to the process or are still undecided.
Roger Cook, the WA minister for state development and deputy premier, did not respond to requests by Mongabay for comment on industrial development in the Fitzroy catchment. However, in October, Cook told national broadcaster ABC that the exemption for Bennett Resources was granted because the project would help build gas pipelines to connect the area to the broader WA energy network.
Just how significant the resulting pipeline will be or whether it will cross native title land or the river itself remains to be seen.
Bennett Resources’ proposal says potential impacts could include contamination of surface aquifers due to well integrity failure. WA’s Environmental Protection Authority is currently assessing the proposal to ascertain whether the catchment will be compromised and the effects on species.
A festival to protect the river
For Joe Ross, director of the Bunuba Dawangirri Aboriginal Corporation, his connections to the river are ancient. An Indigenous Bunuba man whose ancestors come from the area, Ross is a seasoned advocate for the protection of the Fitzroy River catchment. In the late 1990s, he was influential in stopping the damming of the river for irrigation proposals.
In July this year, Ross organized a festival on his ancestral territory of Danggu, also known by its colonial name, Geikie Gorge. Named Yajilarra, meaning “let us dream” in the Bunuba language, the three-day festival included traditional stories told through stage performance. According to Ross, this enabled Bunuba children to interact with their elders and explore their identity.
“The aim of the festival was to celebrate our culture and revitalize our language,” Ross told Mongabay. “In doing so, we were promoting local industry, leadership for our younger people and our connection to country and the river itself.”
Following this, the festival featured a night of music and discussion about the river’s cultural and ecological values, bringing together some of the most influential and powerful individuals and corporations in Australia, including Australia’s richest man, mining mogul Andrew Forrest.
Significantly, Forrest’s investments in the Kimberley in recent years relate to the industrial proposals the Fitzroy catchment now faces. In 2019, Forrest’s privately owned energy company, Squadron Energy, bought into fracking interests in the western Kimberley. And in December 2020, he finalized a deal that saw the purchase of two pastoral stations bordering the Fitzroy River, giving livestock access to the water.
“We are passionate about the unique environment of the Kimberley, and the precious waterway and lifeforce that is the Fitzroy River,” Forrest said in a media statement last year.
“We strongly believe in the principle of balancing the need for sustainable agriculture and job creation for local communities, with the need to preserve culture and heritage sites, while restoring the land and its original fauna to its natural habitat.”
However, shortly after the Yajilarra festival, Squadron Energy abandoned its fracking interests in the Kimberley, calling the move a strategic decision given that the process is at odds with the organization’s climate policy.
For Ross, the festival achieved what it set out to.
“The feedback we have received is that the Yajilarra festival was as good as could be,” he said. “What this shows is that we have the capacity to continue these events, to promote our culture and to build ongoing dialogue about the future of the Kimberley.”
A campaign to encourage public engagement
The Kimberley Land Council (KLC), one of Australia’s most prominent First Nations land rights organizations, has also backed proposals to protect the Fitzroy catchment. Though the KLC is tasked chiefly with advocating for its member communities, taking a stand against disputes is rare given the organization is constantly entering into negotiations with government and industry. However, the KLC’s stance became unequivocable in regards to the future of the river.
Declaring that traditional owners “have never consented to the extraction of water and oppose development of the river and its floodplain,” the KLC encouraged the general public to support the protection of the river. This was done by making submissions to the state government’s call for public consultation titled the “Fitzroy River Water Discussion Paper.”
The KLC followed this through with an awareness campaign that involved running an advertisement in WA’s highest-selling daily newspaper. This resulted in more than 43,000 submissions to the discussion paper, one of the largest results in public feedback for an environmental issue in state history.
According to a media statement by the KLC, the river should be preserved in its current state as a cultural and linguistic landscape.
“The cultural management of the Fitzroy River catchment is a responsibility that traditional owners have had since creation and take very seriously,” said the organization’s CEO. “Traditional owners have not consented to large-scale irrigation extraction processes and want to see the river protected as a healthy and thriving ecosystem.”
New media and digital technologies
When the proposals began, Anne Poelina, an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of Notre Dame, Australia, who focuses on Indigenous environmental policy, was driven to act, given the risks she felt were posed to the river system and beyond.
“The first element that needs to be acknowledged is that we believe these living water systems are already fully allocated,” she said. “Any alteration to the river, the taking of water or the compromising of the catchment, will impact our lifeways, our culture, our conservation and our values.”
Concerned at the potential for industry to hinder the flow of the river and its consequential effects on culture and ecology, Poelina, as executive chair, helped unite six native title nations along the river together to form the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (MFRC).
Formed in 2018, the MFRC brought nations from across the river’s reaches into a united body through which to engage with government and industry. Under Poelina, the council used digital technologies to promote the cultural and ecological values of the river, producing multiple films to encourage traditional owners throughout the catchment to promote the multiple values of the river.
“Digital storytelling has had a remarkable impact,” Poelina said. “We have a global platform from which to discuss our relationship with the river and the response to our work has been overwhelming. We have been asked to address global forums and be a part of multiple film festivals around the world.”
These resources have also helped in the preservation of Indigenous and scientific knowledge. By engaging with scientists and geographers, Poelina has been able to orchestrate studies that have confirmed the ecological, cultural and legal significance of the river country, one of which has included Martuwarra itself as a co-author. This has advanced the argument for legal recognition of the river as a living ancestral being and granting it certain rights.
“We have also used technology to create a whole database of maps, like the water and vegetation types of the river,” Poelina said. “This has helped map and conserve our cultural heritage, our songs and our ongoing, ancestral connection to the Martuwarra.”
Questions for the future
Anthony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum professor of engineering emeritus at Cornell University, told Mongabay there’s no straightforward way to answer how many fracking wells would be needed to produce Bennett Resources’ goal of extracting up to 900 terajoules of gas a day.
Drawing on examples from the United States, Ingraffea said that at a certain rate and with advanced technology, “it would take a few hundred wells to produce 850 million cubic feet a day over a sustained period of time.”
However, he said that in any case, three factors are at play: the length of time for a certain production rate, how quickly the operator can put wells into production, and the quality of the shale gas produced.
“All shale gas wells experience what is called a decline curve of production, that is, the rate of production rapidly decreases over time,” he said.
Ingraffea highlighted a case in Texas in which approximately 2,000 wells were drilled over a cumulative period of six years to produce 850 million cubic feet a day, the same output that Bennet Resources is aiming for.
Given the significance of the Fitzroy River’s aquatic and mineral resources, the future of the catchment will be discussed at all levels of government as the feedback from the Fitzroy River Water Discussion Paper is released and future fracking development is proposed.
Ross and Poelina say they would like to ensure that the ecological and cultural significance of the river to First Nations communities is taken into account in that conversation.
“The Kimberley is one of the last places in the world that has not been taken over by mass industrialization,” Poelina said. “Our people have walked this country since the dawn of time, we know it better than anyone. We want to continue to care for the land as she looks after us.”
Lear, K. O., Gleiss, A. C., Whitty, J. M., Fazeldean, T., Albert, J. R., Green, N., … Morgan, D. L. (2019). Recruitment of a critically endangered sawfish into a riverine nursery depends on natural flow regimes. Scientific Reports, 9(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-019-53511-9
RiverOfLife, M., Poelina, A., Bagnall, D., & Lim, M. (2020). Recognizing the Martuwarra’s First Law right to life as a living ancestral being. Transnational Environmental Law,9(3), 541-568. doi:10.1017/S2047102520000163
Banner image: The Freshwater Sawfish (Pristis pristis) is the most Evolutionary Distinct and Greatly Endangered (EDGE) animal in the world. Its last stronghold is the Fitzroy River catchment. Image courtesy of Peter Kyne/Wikimedia Commons.
The points in time at which various ancient human societies began to go the wrong way (whether by force from outsiders, or by bad decisions made from within) are numerous and span thousands of years, but, thankfully for our future, some few remotely-situated Indigenous societies around the world never departed from those basic, ancient ways of seeing and living with the natural world and still have enough of their ancestral homelands not yet confiscated or destroyed by colonialist predators to make that continuance possible. The Kogi people of the northern Andes mountains in Colombia are a prime and now well-known example, as are some of the more remote tribes to the south and east of them in the Amazon rainforest. Other relatively intact traditional indigenous societies exist in remote locations in central Africa, the Pacific islands, northern and southeastern Asia, and a few other remote locations in the Americas and elsewhere. It is by learning from people such as these, and from all of our relations in the non-human world as well, that we might be able to find our way back to truly green, sustainable and regenerative ways of life. There are also many more Indigenous peoples throughout the world who have just a little or none of their ancestral homelands still accessible to them, retain only pieces of their traditional cultural values and practices, and have just a small number of tribal members who are still fluent in their ancestral languages. Colonialism, capitalism, cultural oppression, and intercultural relations have brought many changes to them, but, even so, for people whose encounter with wrong ways of living is more recent than most of the rest of humanity, the way back to truly green eco-harmony might be a little easier.
Unless a community consciously agrees to put the needs of their entire local ecosystem and all lives within it first, above what they conceive to be human needs, their community will someday fail and collapse.
As clearly as we now see that the concept of utopian societies was never meant to mean “perfect” societies, it should also be clearly understood that traditional Indigenous societies were never perfect either, just as no human society has ever been perfect and none ever will. But, model ideal societies do not have to be perfect to provide inspiration, wisdom, and direction for our paths forward into the difficult future. It is interesting to note that the first contacts that European colonialists and their descendants had with Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere (or, “the Americas” and the first people to be called “Americans”) inspired a small wave of utopian thinking that lasted for centuries, and now, in this time of profound global crises, many people are looking to Indigenous individuals, societies and cultures for guidance and leadership towards resolution of the current crises and for ways to create viable, Earth-sustaining and regenerative future communities. Many utopian community social experiments have come and gone over the last five centuries, and one reason why the vast majority of them failed is that they did not look closely enough at the models to be found in Indigenous societies all over the world. While some communities have mimicked Indigenous, eco-based, reciprocal economic models to some extent, and others have imitated Indigenous representative political models, there are two elements of the original ways of human social organization, which nearly all non-Indigenous-led utopian communal experiments have missed, and which are essential to ideal community success. One element is the understanding that humans are just one of millions of types of people (or, “species”) who all have the potential to make essential, invaluable contributions to the interconnected web of regenerative life on Earth. All species of the living world belong here and need each other. People from anthropocentric, “human needs first,” or “humans-are-most-important,” or “humans are superior to all other species” societies have an extremely difficult time trying to see that, unless they somehow acquire a special ability to break free from that very powerful mass delusion. Unless a community consciously agrees to put the needs of their entire local ecosystem and all lives within it first, above what they conceive to be human needs, their community will someday fail and collapse. A big step on the way to getting there is to realize that the greatest human need is to be in tune with the needs of the entire living organism to which we are all connected.
The second element is the need to learn how to have deep communion or interactive communication (listening, hearing, and being heard) with all of our non-human relations in the natural world (animals, plants, earth, water, fire and air). That idea sounds very unreal, or even impossible, to most modern humans today, but there are many stories and indications that most of our species once had and commonly engaged in such abilities, throughout most of our history as homo sapiens sapiens. Although I probably will not be able to recover much of our former fluency in such communion, after 70 years of living in this corrupt, lost, degenerated modern industrial world, I will remain committed to working on that quest for all of the remaining time that I have to live in this body, with all of the species by which I am surrounded. Why? Because I expect that we can learn more about what Mother Earth wants from us and how we can be healed and corrected, from our innocent, already-connected, harmonious, right-living, non-human relatives than we can from just listening to and following other humans. Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi, Muskogee), professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell University, helped to clarify this Indigenous perspective in his ground-breaking 2009 book, Red Alert: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge:
Current scientific research on animal communication overwhelmingly verifies the existence of complex communication systems. Honesty and humility require us to acknowledge that indigenous knowledge, in its diverse substance and structure, is the result of collaboration, a respectful partnership, between us and our many other-than-human relatives. Several tribal elders I have known have been almost matter-of-fact about their ability to exercise interspecies communication with animals.
The old ability to also commune with and hear the languages of the plant beings is eloquently described by Potawatomi scholar and award-winning nature writer, Robin Wall Kimmerer in a recent essay that was re-published in Yes! magazine:
The Indigenous story tradition speaks of a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species. But we have forgotten—or been made to forget—how to listen so that all we hear is sound, emptied of its meaning. The soft sibilance of pine needles in the wind is an acoustic signature of pines. But this well-known “whispering of pines” is just a sound, it is not their voice….Traditional cultures who sit beneath the white pines recognize that human people are only one manifestation of intelligence in the living world. Other beings, from Otters to Ash trees, are understood as persons, possessed of their own gifts, responsibilities, and intentions. This is not some kind of mistaken anthropomorphism….Trees are not misconstrued as leaf-wearing humans but respected as unique, sovereign beings equal to or exceeding the power of humans.
We definitely won’t get to successful, regenerative, natural Life-connected communities just from reading books written by other humans. This is not a simple philosophical exercise or an intellectual parlor game. We have to actually live the interconnected life, under natural laws and the wise limits of Mother Earth, on a finite but abundantly sufficient planet. That was the old normal way of living for the vast majority of our species, for the overwhelming majority of the time of our existence in Earth.
Some other essential elements for successful utopian societies at this particular moment in global history, besides the two most important elements mentioned above, include:
A group of people with a common enough vision or sense of direction, not excessive in population for the particular place in which they live so that they do not overshoot the carrying capacity of their local ecosystem or need to trade with the world outside their community for material goods, and can help to maintain regenerative processes and relationships between all species of life in that local ecosystem/community. Eventually, the community would need to determine their own membership or citizenship requirements and limits.
Access to sufficient land and clean water. This might require that people pool their financial resources and purchase land together. A more remote rural location would be safer, but for people who feel that they must remain living in urban locations, at least for the short-term future, city or town governments sometimes lease vacant lots relatively cheap for use as community gardens.
Sufficient collective knowledge and experience within the community membership about how to care for and nurture a wide variety of edible plants, either native to the place where the community lives or compatible with that ecosystem, to organically grow or gather for food and medicine. Knowledge in sustainable, respectful hunting and fishing might also be useful or necessary.
A commitment by all community members to expanding the community’s collective knowledge of the lifeways and connections between all species in the community’s ecosystem and learning how humans best fit into the interconnected purposes of life in that place. Knowledge of the lifeways of the people who were, or still are, indigenous to that place is an essential part of this process. As much as it may be possible, that knowledge should come directly from the people who are indigenous to the community’s place, whenever and how much they may be willing to share that knowledge, and such people should be invited into those communities and have leadership roles there, if they choose to do so. Generally, though, most Indigenous peoples would prefer to form their own ideal communities on their own ancestral lands or reservations.
Although ideal or utopian communities may need to use some money to get the community started, ideal communal economies should eventually become moneyless, direct-from-and-back-to-nature (ecologically reciprocal), mutually reciprocal, life-giving and sharing societies. In the formerly normal pre-monetary world, a society’s wealth was received directly from relationship with the natural world and was preserved or enhanced by maintaining a good, respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world. If our economic dependency is on the well-being of local natural systems, that is what we take care of and if our dependency is upon money, then that is what we care about most. In old Indigenous societies, the honorable attitude was to look out for the well-being of all people (human and non-human) in the community, give generously without worrying about what you will receive in return, and NOT measure out individual material possessions mathematically, to assure exactly equal portions of everything to each individual. In a culturally generous gifting economy, sometimes individuals or families would be honored in a ceremony and receive many gifts from the community, making them temporarily rich in material possessions. On another occasion a family or individual might sponsor a feast for the whole community and give gifts to all who attended until they had no more possessions left to give. When such activities were frequent and commonplace and people knew that they were connected to a generous, caring, cooperative, reciprocating community, of both human and non-human beings, there was no anxiety or sense of loss about giving one’s possessions away. Generosity was such a highly-esteemed, honorable character trait, that people sometimes actually competed with each other to become the most generous. There was also social shaming attached to being stingy or greedy, which is seen in some of the old stories, along with the stories about generosity and other positive traits.
The community would need to mutually agree upon a governing structure and decision-making processes for issues that involve or impact the entire community (including the ecosystem and non-human members of the community). Community rules and laws should conform to and not violate nature’s laws. Effective government depends on mutual respect and/or love, listening and communication skills, common core vision and goals, honesty, transparency, and a commitment by all community members to working on and continually improving their self-governing skills.
Democratic or consensus decision-making about what technologies and tools will be allowed in the community, again giving highest regard to what would be best for the entire ecological community and for the connected biosphere of our whole planet.
Here again are the first two necessary elements of ideal community creation (explained above, before this list), reduced to nutshell, outline form:
Relinquish all anthropocentrism and any concepts of human superiority over all of the other species that we share interconnected life with in our ecosystems and in the entire biosphere of Mother Earth. Recognize the interconnected value of all species of life and keep that recognition at the forefront of all community decision making. (How can the species that is the most destructive to Life on Earth be rightfully considered “superior” to any other species, much less to all of them?)
All individuals in the community should commit themselves to actively developing our formerly common human abilities to commune deeply with and communicate (listening, hearing, and being heard) with other species in our inter-connected natural world. Since, for many of us, our ancestors lost those abilities hundreds or even thousands of years ago, a community should make no requirements about the speed at which those abilities should be developed. It should not be a contest, but, instead, a mutually-encouraging, enjoyable, natural process. With each successful step that any individual makes in this endeavor, the entire community gains greater ability to more closely follow nature’s laws and gains a better sense of how humans were meant to participate in and contribute to Earth’s living systems.
There are probably many more essential elements of community formation, structure, and actual operation which people may feel they need to consider and discuss. The reason that I titled this essay “Paths (plural) Forward….) was to acknowledge that there will be innumerable forms that ideal communities will take, throughout the world, depending upon the needs of local ecosystems and all of their inhabitants, the will of the particular communities, their sense of the common good, and whatever creative ideas that they come up with.
Some Obstacles and Possible Scenarios on the Near Future Paths Forward, both Good and Bad:
The idea of giving up and abandoning modern technologies is unthinkable and even abhorrent to most present-day humans. Besides those humans who have an abundance or excess of such things, many people around the world who own very few modern technology products are also repulsed by the idea that they might have to give up even the dream or desire to have such things. To abruptly switch to pre-20th century, or earlier, technologies would be excruciatingly painful to most modern, western industrialized people, and even a slow transition would be quite hard. It is possible that, to somewhat ease the transition to truly green and bio-sustainable living, we could just end the production of toxic modern technological products, while still using those things that already exist until they’re spent or broken (but cease immediately from using items that burn fossil fuels or emit other toxic wastes, in their production or consumption), and then not replace them. Some items could possibly be re-constructed from discarded parts, until such things are no longer available. During the time span in which the old manufactured goods are being used up, people would simultaneously need to be very actively engaged with learning to bio-sustainably produce the things that they actually need and that are actually green or Earth system friendly. That might be, at least in part, what a viable transition could look like. Obviously, most people today would absolutely reject and resist such a change, due partly to not knowing any other way to live, alienation from nature, fear of the unknown, and belief in, addiction to, or imprisonment by their normal material culture. Just wrapping their minds around the realization that so many things that they had always considered to be normal and innocent should probably never have been made, will be nearly inconceivable to most, at least initially. I remember how hard it hit me when I first realized that we just cannot continue to go forward with the status quo social systems and most of their by-products and still have a living world for very long. But how many will give it a second thought or change their minds after personally experiencing the increasingly common excruciating pain of global warming natural disasters? At some very near future point, relief agencies, all of which have finite resources, will not be able to keep up with the increasingly frequent catastrophic events, including more pandemics (connected to thawing permafrost, increased trade and travel, and increasing displacements and migrations of humans and other species). Is the creation of ideal or “utopian” local eco-communities, immediately and proactively—like building the lifeboats before the ship actually sinks—the best possible and most viable path forward, both for humanity and the rest of Life on Earth?
Because of the likelihood that modern industrial humans will not respond quickly or adequately enough to sufficiently (or even significantly) alter our present global destruction trajectory, the creation of utopian eco-communities might become more of a post-collapse source for places of refuge or survival and healing for those relative few who do manage to survive, than a means for actually providing an appealing alternative to continuing with the status quo, or just limiting the harm caused by our predicament. It may be likely that even those of us who would like to create utopian eco-communities would have a hard time doing so as long as the option of continuing with the status quo still exists, because we are so conditioned to depend on or desire many of the things that society offers us. Either way, though—whether prior to the collapse of the status quo or after—the creation of such communities would be a good thing and probably the least futile use of our time, attention and energy.
I offer here a brief assortment of some possible near-future scenarios, both positive and negative:
1. Sometime within the next five years, about 60% of humans around the world decide to create local eco-utopian communities, following the old Indigenous principles described above, and begin the process of abandoning modern industrial technological social systems and structures. Soon after that, we also begin the difficult process of safely de-commissioning all of the existing nuclear power and nuclear weapons facilities in the world and sealing away the radioactive materials therein. The bio-system collapse already set in motion to that point continues, but at a rapidly diminishing rate, as Earth’s regenerating systems are allowed to take over and bring gradual healing and an opportunity for a new direction for humanity, rather than repeating our former disastrous mistakes. As the human people begin to experience the joy of re-discovering our real purpose as part of Earth’s interconnected life-regenerating systems, while simultaneously grieving about all of the increased suffering of the humans who are still stuck in the collapsing, chaotic old industrial societies, and offering refuge to any persons that their communities can take in, many ask each other the question, “why didn’t we start doing this much sooner?”
2. In the initial first few years of the international, local utopian eco-community movement, very few people take it seriously and the vast majority of humanity knows nothing about it. Government security agencies in the wealthiest nations of the world know about it, but only because they spy on everybody, and not because they see the movement as a serious threat, as they assume it would never catch on due to the common unquestioning submission to the system and consumer addictions to modern technology and over-consumption. During those same first few years, the corporate-controlled wealthiest governments are much more concerned with the growing far right wing revolutionary movements in the U.S. and much of Europe than they are with the mild-mannered, willing to work through the system, so-called “left.” The fringe right, or the tail that wags the Republican Party dog, successfully breaks Donald Trump out of prison, and re-elects him as President in 2024, then designates him to be “President-for-life.” Though at one time useful tools for the ruling class’s divide and conquer strategy, at this point the rulers determine that they have become somewhat unmanageable, since an obvious one party state is not as useful or dependable as two parties masquerading as opposites, when they actually serve the same corporate economic masters. So, the corporate rulers decide to make the far right wingers of the U.S. an example to the far right in Europe and to any on the far left in the U.S. who might be encouraged to try something similar with the harder to wag Democratic Party dog. The U.S. military is called in, they stage a coup against Trump and his cohorts, and begin mass imprisonments, and some executions, of many of the remaining right wing revolutionaries (except for the ones who cooperate with the government, making deals and submissions in order to save their “me first” lives). It is only after that that the governments of the wealthy nations of the world and their corporate handlers begin to notice that the utopian community movement had grown exponentially during the years that they were pre-occupied with the far right. Of course they had noticed that consumer spending had diminished considerably throughout the “developed world,” but had attributed that to other usual economic factors and to the extensive hardships caused by the increasing natural disasters, including the most recent pandemics. Once they realize that the eco-utopian movement has the potential to completely bring down the prevailing economic system, they get right on it. One useful tactic they find for dealing with the situation is to employ the now scattered, frustrated, scorned, unemployable, and even more fearful far righters as mercenary soldiers against the eco-utopians, whom they easily scapegoat for the deteriation of the economy, with very little need for indoctrination. Most of the righters agree to serve just because of the promise made to them that they would get their guns back after they complete their service to the country. Simultaneously, the EU, Russia, China and other governments use their more conventional militaries and other methods of persuasion and suppression to deal with the situation.
3. Instead of rejecting modern industrial technological society altogether, the majority decides to try technological “fixes” to our predicament instead. They generally agree that saving the capitalist system, their precious, hard-fought-for careers, and their even more precious levels of material consumption are more important than saving biological life on Earth itself. But, in order to save capitalism and the status quo civilization, and avoid an international socialist revolution, they realize that some more significant and more convincing gestures need to be made toward CO2 reduction. In 2023, production and installation of solar electricity panels and wind farms begins to increase rapidly throughout the world, along with all of the toxic, CO2-producing mining, manufacturing, construction, deforesting and defoliating of natural habitats for new power lines as well as for the new power installations themselves, road-building, hauling of equipment, workers, and the products themselves to retailers and installation sites, and more—all of which involve a huge increase in the burning of fossil fuels. Even though the alleged purpose for all of that increased industrial activity would be to replace fossil fuels with “green energy technologies” at the scale needed to keep the precious system going and growing and create more jobs, the unexpected or oft-denied negative consequences soon become nearly undeniable (but humans have the ability to deny just about anything—or, actually, just anything). The oil, lithium, and “green energy” companies then use their greatly increased profits for advertising and indoctrinating people to trust the new “green” uses for fossil fuels. They also use some of the new profits to purchase the cooperation of additional politicians and entire governments in protecting their enterprises. The bio-system collapse, natural disaster and mass extinction trajectory then continues, at a more rapid rate.
4. By 2033, it becomes widely obvious to the majority of humans that the “green” energy techno-fix for the continuation and growth of modern industrial capitalism is not really that green and is actually exacerbating global warming and the continually increasing environmental catastrophes, while pulling attention and resources away from both the urgently-needed disaster relief and the struggle against the seemingly endless parade of new pandemic diseases. Because they still have not developed any proven technologies or machinery for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere at anywhere near the rate needed to get back to the 2° C “point of no return,” which we had already passed back in 2028, the ruling class then decides to proceed with the next great, unproven, theoretical techno-fix: injecting sulfides and/or other chemicals into Earth’s only, increasingly fragile, atmosphere in an attempt to block or reduce much of Father Sun’s gift of radiant light and warmth—a technology called “geoengineering,” or artificially forced Earth cooling. Very soon after the first widespread use of that techno-fix, we then get a “Snowpiercer” scenario, but without the horrific, impossible, perpetual-motion prison train “lifeboat.” We just get the entire planet frozen to death.
5. The complete collapse of the modern industrial economy occurs in the year 2029, due to multiple factors (too many to list here, but they include some of those listed in the scenarios above and many things that are actually happening RIGHT NOW). The radical left finally realizes then that a real opportunity for a successful socialist revolution is now upon them, effectively dropped right into their laps. They can actually just vote it right in, throughout the so-called “developed world.” Seeing the writing on the wall, the trillionaires and billionaires decide that the whole planet has become unmanageable and too out of control, so they make one last plundering of the planet’s gifts (a.k.a., “resources”) to build up their private spaceship fleets and build more space stations, in preparation for their last grand exit. Many of the millionaires and wannabe trillionaires do whatever they can to join them and those who fail to make the escape then also fail at a last ditch attempt to save capitalism. Many eco-utopians and eco-socialists advise the more conventional Marxist socialists that socialism will fail without putting the needs of the natural world first (instead of just the humans) and doing away with money. After much productive discussion around the world, in-person and by the internet (whenever the intermittent grid is up and running) it is generally agreed that nation states and empires have run their course, done much more net harm to life in Earth and the common good of humans than their assumed “benefits” can make up for, so the human people decide to abolish all such political entities. They also decide that, instead of nations, human societies should be small, local, eco-centered, non-monetary and truly democratic, while staying in touch with each other through communication networks, with or without the electric grid. For several decades after that glorious beginning, as the Earth begins to heal through natural regenerative processes and the humans begin to discover who they really are and how they fit within the Whole of Life, they also discuss whether or not they should continue to use electricity, and, if so, what limits upon such use does Mother Earth and all our non-human relations recommend to us?
6. OK, just one more possible near-future scenario to give here, although I am sure that we all could think of many more. Nuclear war breaks out between the U.S. and China in 2022, with additional participation from Russia, the EU, and North Korea. China targets both the Yellowstone caldera and the San Andreas fault. We get combined nuclear and volcanic winter, and the Earth freezes to death. A couple of the trillionaires, with their entourages, manage last minute, rushed, and not completely prepared, spaceship exits, and end up starving to death in outer space within a couple of years (having extended the time of their survival with cannibalism, of course).
Which of the above scenarios seems most likely to occur, in your opinion? Do you think that something else would be more likely and, if so, what? What would you like to see happen? Do you feel free to think with utopian creativity? If not, do you understand why that is? Would you like to have that freedom and engage in such creativity for the common good?
I realize that, for many of you, this may be the first time that you have heard of many of these dismal realities regarding the present condition and future prospects of life on Earth. As I began to say earlier, I have not forgotten the dismay, anger and other emotions that I felt when I first became aware of some of these facts (and other facts that I did not go into here), several years ago. There are many other people, around the world, who are going through the same thing and there are support groups and other resources that have been formed over the years to help people get through this together and peacefully adapt to it. For me, the way I deal with it best is to try to create alternative, natural living paths forward. Just because the status quo way of societal life is doomed does not necessarily mean that all life or all potential human societies are doomed.
I also realize that for many of you this may be the first time that anybody ever told you that utopian does not really mean “perfect” or impossible, and that exercising our utopian creativity might be not only a good thing, but an absolutely essential thing to do at this particular time. It might also be the case that you have never heard that traditional Indigenous societies and lifeways might provide us with models for viable, Life-saving, Earth-protecting, regenerative paths forward at this time, instead of being the “miserable,” “brutal,” “struggles for existence” that you might have heard about in some anthropology class. The future might indeed look like it is going to be a painful struggle for life, for both humans and non-humans, but engaging in survival efforts as communities with united visions, a common sense of purpose, seeking the common good for each other and for all species of life in our local community worlds, will be much easier and more enjoyable than trying to pursue mere survival as “rugged individuals” or rugged little nuclear family units. Embarking upon these paths forward to “utopian,” ideal, or best possible and ever-improving human eco-communities might be what our Mother Earth and all of our relations of all inter-connected Life have been yearning for us to do for thousands of years! I am excited to find out what we will learn in the actual doings.
Banner image: The Kogi village and tribal community of Tairona, in northern Colombia.
George Price (descendant of the Assonet band of the Wampanoag tribal nation of Massachusetts) has been living with his family on their five-acre organic, polyculture farm on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana since the summer of 1985. He retired from a 33-year teaching career in 2018, which included teaching Native American Studies, American History, and African American Studies at the University of Montana for 20 years. Since he is no longer working “through the system,” he is devoting the remainder of his life to Earth/Water protecting, organic farming, food sovereignty, constructive communicating, and replacing industrial technophile capitalism with local, eco-harmonious, EarthLife-centric, cooperative, alternative communities.
 Here is a link to the only free access to the amazing old documentary film on the Kogis, “ From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRgTtrQOiR0 The written introduction to the film at the top of the post, contains an excellent explanation on why the Kogi people do not want to receive tourists or other visitors on their lands. What humans who want to return to our original harmonious ways need to start doing is to work on listening to and following the voices of our relations in the non-human portion of this inter-connected life world. That is an ability that all First Peoples had for most of the time of our existence as humans on this Earth, and it is still the best source of true guidance. Stop looking to modern humans and guru types for the light that we all need that is freely available in our natural, inter-connected world (both within and outside of our bodies).
 I am afraid that if I name and give more precise locations for these model Indigenous societies, some eco-tourists, missionaries, or other modern humans might find them and corrupt or destroy them.
 I must acknowledge here that, like all human demographic groups, the multitude of Indigenous peoples, world-wide, have much variation among individuals within their unique individual societies—in personal experiences, adaptation to historical circumstances, retaining of cultural traditions, level of wealth or success within the imposed colonialist economic systems, and several other factors that impact cultural resiliency and recovery.
 Besides Thomas More, other colonial era European writers who imagined “utopian” societies and were inspired, in part, by what they had heard about Indigenous peoples of the Americas include Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract, 1762), Tomasso Campanella (City of the Sun, 1602, English translation, 1623), Thomas Bacon (New Atlantis, 1626), and James Harrington (The Commonwealth of Oceana, 1656). Benjamin Franklin is known to have admired the form of government of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy and to have recommended to his fellow revolutionaries that they copy the Haudenosaunee, to some extent. See, Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen, Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy, UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 1991, pp.96-98, but really, the whole book.
 If not a need or dependency, such trade could remain optional, to preserve good relations with neighbors, and provide things not available in the community location that would do no harm if brought in to the community.
 Some of us old-timers who tried to go in that direction back in the late 1960’s on through the 1980’s and failed will probably have plenty to say about that. Barb and I lived communally (in shared houses and living spaces) from 1970 until 1973 and in intentional community (separate households on shared land) from 1982 to 1985.
 Although I do not agree with them about everything, two people who it has been said are very helpful with that kind of support are Joanna Macy and Michael Dowd (they work separately).
 That is enough about the “whys” of this for now, partly because the essay is getting very long. I’ll be glad to hear from others now, in the comments below and elsewhere, and will turn my attention now and in future blog posts to more about the “hows” of it all. But, I know that the real knowledge, wisdom, and joy, will come through the doing, not just the words.
Editor’s note: This is what environmental justice looks like. Not NGOs dictating what lands will be set aside for 30×30, which is just greenwashing colonialism. It is the people whose land it is making those decisions and the governments enforcing them.
An Indigenous community in southwest Colombia established a protected reserve in the face of illegal logging, mining and coca cultivation being carried out by criminal groups.
The Eperãra Siapidaarã peoples are especially interested in protecting the extremely poisonous golden dart frog, which they historically used in their darts while hunting.
Despite establishing the reserve, the community has more work to do to fend off violent non-state armed groups.
One of the most poisonous animals on earth, the golden dart frog carries enough toxins in its body to kill 10 people. If it enters the blood stream, the toxin paralyzes the nervous system and, in only a few minutes, stops the heart from beating.
The golden dart frog (Phyllobates terribilis) is found only in southwest Colombia, where mountains and rainforest meet the mangroves of the Pacific coast. For centuries, the Indigenous communities there harvested the toxin for their hunting darts. But in recent years, as criminal activity has spread through the area, some communities have begun to worry that the frog might disappear.
“The advancing agricultural frontier, mining and the expansion of illicit coca crops impinge on the life of the frog because it’s endemic to that one area,” said Luis Ortega, director of the environmental group Fundación Ecohabitats. “All the time, there’s less and less habitat for them.”
For some Indigenous peoples in the area, such as the Eperãra Siapidaarã of Timbiqui, the golden dart frog is more than a hunting tool. It’s also a central figure in their culture, and the reason their ancestors were able to survive after being relocated to the coast during Spanish colonization.
During that time, the frog’s poison helped save the community by giving it an easy way to hunt. Now, it was the community’s turn to help save the frog.
The best way to do this, the Eperãra Siapidaarã decided, was to establish a natural reserve that they would protect and maintain themselves.
“We have the working spirit to defend this territory,” community leader Carlos Quiro told Mongabay.
Quiro and the Eperãra Siapidaarã had already worked with the Colombian government on land titling issues in their territory as well as to help preserve mangroves and other local ecosystems. But these measures weren’t stopping the habitat destruction.
Non-state armed groups, including paramilitaries and guerrillas, have been deforesting the Chocó Biogeographical Region for decades. In recent years, they have pushed into Eperãra Siapidaarã territory to plant coca for drug production, sometimes leading to violent land disputes between rival groups.
In 2009, Colombia recognized the Eperãra Siapidaarã as one of the Indigenous peoples at risk of extinction due to the country’s ongoing armed conflict.
There are also three legal gold and silver mining operations upstream from Eperãra Siapidaarã territory, which satellite data suggest have advanced well beyond their concessions, according to Fundación Ecohabitats. Some residents noticed that the fish pulled from local rivers were becoming smaller and scarcer than in previous years, likely as a result of the pollution.
The makings of a reserve
In 2017, community leaders started meeting with Fundación Ecohabitats, the Cauca department government and the Ministry of Interior about developing a protected area for the golden dart frog. It would not require demarcating new land, they proposed, but instead absorb more than half of the community’s existing territory.
With funding from the Rainforest Trust, meetings were held for the next two years to discuss where the community wanted to establish the reserve and what conservation initiatives they should prioritize. In addition to protecting the golden dart frog’s habitat, residents were interested in stewarding the area’s many watersheds and developing a land use plan that would allow them to continue harvesting forest resources for their cultural, medicinal and spiritual practices.
Younger members of the community were trained in geographic information systems to assist with mapping the boundaries of the new reserve and carrying out patrols, while others studied tourism and business in hopes of turning their artisanal forestry practices into a sustainable source of income.
In September 2019, after years of work, the community officially announced the establishment of the 11,641-hectare (28,765-acre) K´õk´õi Eujã Traditional Natural Reserve — Territory of the Golden Dart Frog.
So far, it hasn’t stopped non-state armed groups from engaging in violent confrontations over control of coca production near Eperãra Siapidaarã territory. It also can’t do anything to prevent pollution from the illegal mining operations upstream. But with the newly established reserve, residents say they feel they have more of a fighting chance.
“There are areas abundant with plants for medicinal use,” Quiro said, “and there is also another area, another mountain range, where there are many trees that are useful for families, so we are benefiting from that. They are very important to the Eperãra Siapidaarã.”
The reserve contains 41 plant species and 11 bird species endemic to Colombia, according to the community’s preliminary research. It is also home to dozens of rare and threatened species, including the night scented orchid (Epidendrum nocturnum) and Licania velata.
The community is still training its rangers in data collection that will help it better understand how these different species are faring in the reserve. Right now, there isn’t hard data on the golden dart frog population or whether it has improved since the reserve was founded. Empirical evidence suggests that it has rebounded, community members say, but they want to know for certain.
One of the Eperãra Siapidaarã’s next goals is to collaborate with biologists and the local government on scientific research projects that will strengthen their understanding of the forest ecosystem, and then to use that work to make better decisions as a community.
In October and November, for example, the golden dart frog begins reproducing. Quiro said he wants to learn more about that process and what can be done to ensure it isn’t interrupted.
“It interests me a lot,” he said. “To understand that experience and, equally important, to share it with the younger generations.”
Editor’s note: THE FIRST LARGE SCALE NATURE CONSERVATION AGREEMENT (NCA) IN THE WORLD. You should be afraid, very afraid. (NCA) is a different acronym for (NGO). It is the new colonialism, green , clean and renewable. The market will not solve climate change or loss of biodiversity. The market can only cause those problems. Don’t let them tell you otherwise. Free and Informed Prior Consent and may I add control by keeping corporations out. Abolish all corporations and their money.
To the surprise of Indigenous and local communities, a huge forest carbon conservation agreement was recently signed in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.
Granting rights to foreign entities on more than two million hectares of the state’s tropical forests for the next 100-200 years, civil society groups have called for more transparency.
“Is history repeating itself? Are we not yet free or healed from our colonial and wartime histories?” wonders a Sabahan civil society leader who authored this opinion piece calling for more information, more time, and a say.
This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
“Bornean communities locked into 2-million-hectare carbon deal they don’t know about” – 9 Nov 2021, Mongabay
This was the headline Sabah woke up to on the morning of November 10th. Before the Mongabay story broke, I heard from Australian friends and allies as early as July that something was afoot. Forests, carbon, climate and communities are core to our collaborative work between civil society and government. I asked colleagues in government if they had any information but did not hear a clear response.
Over the weeks, I heard increasingly ominous whisperings. On 28 October, I received an email from international partners who had seen a Sabah deal – claimed to be signed in August – mentioned by external corporate entities in presentation materials. They were curious if I knew anything about it.
The materials were presented by Tierra Australia, Hoch Standard and Global Natural Capital (GNC) – seemingly Australian, Singaporean and Malaysian entities. Here are two slides from the 43 pages I received:
A month later, I’m still struggling to understand why and how this happened – and why we had to learn about it from outside Sabah.
Much has been revealed since then. We’ve now read numerous press articles, social media posts and reposts. We’ve seen online videos of the home offices of our new partners and footage of Hoch Standard’s Corporate Advisor Stan Golokin representing Sabah at COP26 in Glasgow, explaining carbon. We’ve read fact sheets and due diligence reports and realized that we don’t know who Sabah has signed this deal with. And some of us attended a briefing where Datuk Dr. Jeffrey Kitingan and team ‘mansplained‘ the deal to the public and civil society, after the deal was made.
But we have not heard the truth.
Read a November 24, 2021 update on this developing story here.
I identify as a community member of Sabah. I care about what happens to this tanahair (homeland) we belong to, over the next 100 years and then 100 years beyond that and onwards. I worry about whether our future communities can have food and water, and can be safe, self-determined, and sovereign. I aspire to be a good ancestor.
I, like many people in Sabah, yearn for true leadership that I can trust. I have zero tolerance for vague, unintelligible platitudes and half-truths disguised as leadership. It is an insult to our intelligence.
When will we finally stop with messiah/savior politics? With leaders who only have one tune in their repertoire – divide and rule with promises of wealth – and whose approach to fighting Federal Patriarchy, nationalism and ketuanan (patronage) involves using the exact same rhetoric? I urge us to get out of this delusional and dysfunctional trance before we lose everything and ourselves with it.
With the British North Borneo Chartered Company/Hoch Standard/Tierra Australia, is history repeating itself? Are we not yet free or healed from our colonial and wartime histories? Are we still riddled with illusions of inferiority and such self-doubt that we will step away from responsibility and sovereignty again? And hand our power, our rights, to those who have no idea who we are and what tanahair means?
Has patronage politics disempowered us and debilitated our agency? How can we stand back while discourse and democracy are replaced by silence and blind loyalty to the “lord” (Tuan, Datuk, Tan Sri, Bos, etc.)?
The more our doors are closed, the less transparent our processes become, and the wider the division between us. The more divided we are, the more future-altering decisions are made for the majority by a disconnected few. The more this is normalized, the smaller and less human we become, and more corruption breeds.
Two million hectares is more than a quarter of Sabah, two million hectares of forests is more than half our forests, 100 years is about four generations, 200 years is double that.
This is big. So big and so long that Sabahans deserve and need information and time – and a say. We do not want to be presented a gift of a done deal with bags of money (to perpetuate patronage politics); prior and open fact-sharing, communication and consultation is what we want and in fact demand from our leaders.
Many of us in the social and environmental justice and conservation fields have spent decades working on a range of issues with growing intersectionality. We have nurtured real and trusting relationships both on the ground in Sabah and out in the world. We sought and continue to seek political and societal will and ambition for an equitable, climate-resilient future for Sabah.
We collectively, and in collaboration with Sabah’s civil service, have the confidence, capacities, expertise and partnerships necessary to build a home-grown, bottom-up process: a Sabah process. We do not require the unknown services of a Tierra Australia or the benevolence of a Hoch Standard to tell us who we are, what we have and how we need to manage it.
Is it possible to salvage this moment for Sabah?
Clean up, repent, learn. Pick ourselves up and build a self-governing, sovereign carbon future for Sabah.
The Indigenous Environmental Network condemns the actions of Canada as it inflicts settler violence against the Wet’suwet’en peoples, hypocritically breaking both Wet’suwet’en and Canadian law to push TC Energy’s illegal Coastal Gaslink pipeline through unceded territories.
By entering sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory with RCMP, dogs and assault rifles we are witnessing state-sanctioned violence on behalf of an Oil company, and such barbarous acts of violence inflicted upon Indigenous peoples cannot be defended. These attacks by RCMP are nothing less than Human Rights violations as defined by the United Nations, and acts of extreme detriment to the inherent sovereignty of the Wet’suwet’en. The Wet’suwet’en have asserted self-governance over their territories since time immemorial, and it is their inherent right to defend their lands, resources and bodies from foreign aggressors. They have signed no treaties nor have they relinquished title to their lands. They are not part of so-called Canada and have not consented to bearing the burden of the world’s dependence on an extractive industry such as oil.
We will continue to support the Wet’suwet’en in their struggle and call on others to join us in supporting our relatives. From disrupting business as usual to divesting from banks funding the theft of Indigenous lands, there are steps we can all take to stand with our relatives. These barbarous acts of violent aggression must cease and the inherent right to self determination must be upheld.
How You Can Help:
Over the past two days heavily militarized RCMP tactical team have descending on Coyote Camp with snipers, assault rifles, and K9 units,
In total, eleven people were arrested at Coyote Camp, including Gidimt’en Checkpoint spokesperson, Sleydo’, and Dinï’ze Woos’ daughter, Jocey. Four more were arrested at 44km later that day, including Sleydo’s husband, Cody.
Solidarity actions began immediately. Now is the time. Plan, organize or join an action where you are.
Issue a solidarity statement from your organization or group and tag us.
The Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs represent a governance system that predates colonization and the Indian Act which was created in an attempt to outlaw Indigenous peoples from their lands.
The Wet’suwet’en have continued to exercise their unbroken, unextinguished, and unceded right to govern and occupy their lands by continuing and empowering the clan-based governance system to this day. Under Wet’suwet’en law, clans have a responsibility and right to control access to their territories.
The validity of the Wet’suwet’en house and clan system was verified in the Delgamuukw and Red Top Decisions that uphold the authority of the hereditary system on Wet’suwet’en traditional territories.
At this very moment a standoff is unfolding, the outcome of which will determine the future of Northern “BC” for generations to come. Will the entire region be overtaken by the fracking industry, or will Indigenous people asserting their sovereignty be successful in repelling the assault on their homelands?
The future is unwritten. What comes next will be greatly influenced by actions taken in the coming days and weeks. This is a long-term struggle, but it is at a critical moment. That is why we say: The Time is Now. If you are a person of conscience and you understand the magnitude of what is at stake, ask yourself how you might best support the grassroots Wet’suwet’en.