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Rights and Resources: Indigenous Communities and Environmental Conservation

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Kaleem Hawa, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Rights and Resources: Indigenous Communities and Environmental Conservation”.

The session began innocuously enough: a cold, hard April morning in Oxford; the delegates filtering in quietly; an introduction and then a prayer, delivered by Mandy Gull, Deputy Chief of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi.

The intention of the panel was to discuss environmental conservation and the preservation of biodiversity in the context of Indigenous lands, communities, and ways of life. The talk would quickly blossom though, into a more fulsome articulation of what Indigeneity looks like in the wake of modern industrialisation and the challenges posed by corporations and governments on its actualisation.

Most noticeable at the outset was the optimism – an excitement that time and space had been dedicated on the agenda to talk about Indigenous rights and conservation, that this would elevate the kinds of voices that tended to go underrepresented in international fora. The panelists did not dwell on this type of laudatory self-congratulation for long though; they were incisive, critical, and energised.

For instance, we heard from Flaviano Bianchini, the Founder and Director of Source International, about mining conglomerates in the Peruvian Andes, whose systematised border readjustments forced Indigenous communities onto less fertile lands and whose waste water pollution poisoned rivers and the people who relied on them. We heard from Mandy about the Québec logging companies, whose concerted deforestation threatened essential traplines and strategically deconstructed Indigenous self-autonomy to favour economic ends. Nicole Rycroft, the panel’s lively and eloquent moderator spoke of an unsparing system that – left unchecked – would lead inexorably towards “a simplification or even eradication of the natural biodiversity of that ecosystem and, with that, a degradation of Indigenous cultures that are so inextricably linked to that land.”

This was a panel that displayed in stark relief how Indigenous communities co-exist with the land. If the relationship between man and land in Western culture is largely predicated on a dominion narrative, Indigenous peoples see their traditional territories as sources of strength and life, and their communities come to occupy a role that is simultaneously that of steward and dependent.

As one would expect, this normative difference manifests itself in vastly divergent approaches to conservation and biodiversity. Victor López Illescas, the Executive Director of Ut’z Che’, the Guatemalan Community Forestry Association, works with more than 50 communities across Central and Latin America. He spoke of the essential work being done by Indigenous peoples in the region; according to the statistics, they inhabit more than 95% of all key ecosystems for biodiversity in Central America and are actively engaged in protecting these essential lands and estuaries. He goes on, “from Mexico to Panama, Indigenous peoples and local communities hold legally recognized rights on 65% of the forests remaining in the region, more than any other part of the world” – something that informs why rates of resource exploitation are so much lower in these spots than in others.

This optimism is tempered by the realities of implementation; these protections provide little solace, according to Flaviano. “There is a double standard. On one side, natural protected areas are imposed by governments as a barrier on aggressive expansion by industrial urban-led development models. But these natural protected areas are being decided without consultation with Indigenous peoples, overriding their local governance systems, local knowledge, and demonstrated tradition of protecting those areas.”

This is why groups like Source try to play translator roles. Their hope is to rigorously identify and corroborate abuses and use them as the basis for legal challenges to exploitative business practices. This type of evidence-based approach must, it is emphasised, be done in concert with – not in the place of – the existing advocacy being done by Indigenous communities.

As a Canadian, the most resonant part of the event was the discussion of the Waswanipi Cree First Nation and their efforts to protect the Broadback Valley – a dense old-growth forest home to incredible biodiversity and history. It was fascinating to learn from Mandy about the emphasis on hunting, fishing, and trapping on the land; individuals inherit a family trapline, and become stewards of that land, monitoring the resources and hunting sustainably. Their livelihoods are cyclical: in the spring they go to the bush camps to goose hunt, in the summer they fish and pick berries, in the fall they hunt moose. In a world in which one “cannot be Cree without Eeyou Istchee [The People’s Land],” the push to force communities to stratify traplines for logging leaves indelible effects on lives and cultures.

“I feel like I live on a faultline,” Mandy says in a stinging reference to this year’s Skoll World Forum theme. She continues, “When I flew over the Broadback and saw those clear-cut areas, in that moment I really mourned for what I knew my family had lost. Some of the paths in the Broadback have been here for a thousand years. My father asked me to protect our trapline, my father told me to make sure the trees were never cut. So yes, you can cut down a tree. And yes, then you can plant a new tree. But you have not recreated the forest. There is no way for man to recreate what nature has achieved.”

This poignant portrayal of loss defies easy categorisation. A host of structural challenges are working against these communities: exploitative industry abetted by apathetic or complicit governments, a quickly degrading international commons, and a lack of public attention or momentum.

This panel and others like it should serve as a rousing call to action. So much more needs to be done.

Kaleem Hawa is a PhD candidate in health policy at Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, studying on a Rhodes Scholarship. Follow Kaleem on Twitter @kaleemhawa

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Winners Announced: The Global Challenge 2016

The Global Challenge offers participants a chance to learn more about an issue they care about, by researching what is fuelling the challenge and holding the status quo in place, what is already being done to try to solve the issue, as well as the gaps in the landscape of solutions. Entrants are then asked to compile the findings into an ecosystem map as well as a report and bibliography outlining their research. Winners are awarded cash prizes and tickets to the Skoll World Forum, with top teams also given the opportunity to apply for Apprenticing with a Problem funding. This funding provides students with the opportunity to go out into the world and ‘apprentice’ with issues the care about, through research projects, internships, or secondments, giving them opportunities to learn more about how they might use their careers to create positive change.

Saïd Business School offered the first Global Challenge this year, with leadership from the Skoll Centre and a partnership with Malaysia’s Sunway University, inviting students from two ends of the globe to partake in the inaugural challenge. After an initial problem assessment round with nearly 50 applicants, The Global Challenge received 23 final applications from individuals and teams across both Universities, and then nine teams were selected as semi-finalists to present to an esteemed panel of global judges.

The judging panel included Dr François Bonnici, Director at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Jane Leu, CEO and Founder of Smarter Good,  Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director at the Peery Foundation, Alexander Goodenough, Investment Director at Big Society Capital and Daniela Papi-Thornton of the Skoll Centre. The judges narrowed the cohort down to three finalists who presented to a public audience on 13th June.

The winners were announced that evening, and included an additional prize for Best Presentation decided by live audience vote. Papi-Thornton commented after the event: ‘We designed the Global Challenge and the Apprenticing with a Problem funding to support students to learn about and get involved in the global issues they care about. At the Skoll Centre we don’t think the only path to impact is by starting new ventures. We will feel successful in our work at the Centre if the students we work with go on to effect change as intrapreneurs, policy makers, thought leaders, or by plugging into any gap in the landscape of solutions for the issues they care about’.

[The Global Challenge] is such an important piece of preparation for students to become the change-makers the world needs!’ Shams-Lau also commented.

One purpose of this contest is to change the discourse around traditional business plan competitions. The Global Challenge team plans to open this contest up to partner universities around the world next year in the hope of influencing other universities to create funding and support for students to ‘apprentice with problems’. Papi-Thornton added, ‘By creating an award that encourages and celebrates an understanding of the existing landscape of solutions to a given challenge and helps students build upon the work of others before asking them to ‘solve’ problems they don’t yet understand, we hope to help more students build successful social impact careers.’

The Winners

First Prize
Maternal Depression
Anisha Gururaj, MSc in Global Governance, University of Oxford, 2016 and MSc in Evidence-based Social Intervention, University of Oxford, 2017; Ashley Pople, MSc in Economics for Development, University of Oxford, 2017

Second Prize
Fresh Produce Value Chain in Sierra Leone
Songqiao Yao, Kaspar Baumann, Ryan Chen-Wing – all MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16; Julian Cottee, Researcher at Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Third Prize (and the Best Presentation Award)
An Analysis of Gaps and Opportunities in Germany’s Refugee Integration System
Noura Ismail, Avinash Nanda, Karen Ng, Amrinder Singh – all MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16

Culture Prize
Cultural Trauma and Resilience in the Pacific: Ho’owaiwai
Laura Taylor, MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16

Honourary Mention
Urban Air Pollution in Kuala Lumpur
Seng Zhen Lee, BSc in Accounting and Finance, Sunway University Business School

All semi-finalist ecosystem maps and reports can now be found on The Global Challenge website.

Apprenticing with a Problem


Funding was awarded to six individuals and teams

Kaspar Baumann, Ryan Chen-Wing, Julian Cottee, Songqiao Yao
This team will travel to Sierra Leon and learn more about the barriers to success and opportunities for scale in fresh and canned produce distribution.

Noura Ismail, Avinash Nanda , Karen Ng, Amrinder Singh
The team will volunteer/research in Germany and learn more about the solutions landscape and gaps in the work addressing the refugee crisis.

Laura Taylor
Taylor will travel to New Zealand and intern with successful organisations working with Maori cultural preservation and economic empowerment, and then take that learning back to Hawaii to share with local organisations there.

Zweli Gwebityala, Melissa McCoy,  Allan-Roy Sekeitto
The funding will enable the team to spend the next 3+ months in South Africa testing assumptions about technical solutions to doctor scarcity, to learn more about the public healthcare system, and to map and understand the reasons other global telemedicine initiatives have succeeded or failed.

Alexandra Littaye
The funding will support Littaye’s follow up trip to Mexico to do further research on the state of milpa farmers and the potential for commercializing blue corn products and to spend a few months working with a successful agricultural product export company, likely in Ghana, to understand how their business works, the difficulties and barriers they have faced, and what lessons can be applied to a potential business model in Mexico.

Adrienne Yandell
Yandell will return to Jordan and spend 3+ months volunteering with a skills-training organization in the region, to understand their model, and see if/how it can be expanded.

Further reports will be created by the teams and individuals, so be sure to watch this space!

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