The Indigenous Land Back movement and the planet

If you’ve been on social media or have been attuned to socio-political and environmental movements, you would have heard of the term “Land Back.” It may seem like a simple term, but it carries a tonne of weight for Indigenous peoples and has a history that stretches as far back as 1492, the year of Christopher Columbus’ arrival. 

Indigenous peoples have long amassed critical knowledge about living harmoniously with nature and caring for natural systems in the most sustainable manner. The Land Back movement is important to understand because Indigenous rights and climate action are inherently intertwined. 

What is Land Back?

In the words of Isaac Murdoch, “Land Back is people returning back and finding their place in those systems of life.” The movement’s main motive is to bring Indigenous lands back into Indigenous hands. The premise is not ownership, but stewardship. Just as love does not equal ownership, although it is often confused for that, so too does respect for the environment not equal the license to abuse it. The movement’s cornerstone battle in the United States is to reclaim the sacred Black Hills, which is where Mount Rushmore— an “international symbol of white supremacy and colonization”—currently sits. 

At the heart of the movement is co-creation: of a more just future freed from the trappings of colonialism. It also involves a fundamental shift in how one thinks about land, from just as a commodity that you can buy and sell to a powerful unifying force that has agency and deserves respect.

Naturally, that means that the movement isn’t restricted to physical land alone. It serves as a framework for the liberation of Indigenous peoples in all aspects: culture, language, food, education, governance, healthcare, and more. 

The Land Back manifesto has a set of principles based on which all spin-off movements occur. Here are some excerpts:

  1. Don’t burn bridges: even when there is conflict between groups or organizers, remember that we are fighting for all of our people, and we will continue to be in community even after this battle. 
  2. We cannot let our oppressors’ inhumanity take away from ours.
  3. Room for grace—be able to be human.

What does the Land Back movement mean for the planet?

As traditional governance structures and ancient knowledge are swept aside to make way for chemicals and aggressive land abuse, we only stand to lose. The holistic perspective of Indigenous peoples has the potential to build resilience and mitigate climate change by a significant amount — but they have to fight for a seat at the table. The loss is also much more personal because climate change, deforestation, and the loss of diversity are critical threats to the culture and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples.

The Land Back movement emphasizes rebuilding a relationship with the planet that is just, symbiotic, and sustainable. Indigenous Peoples account for fewer than 5% of the world’s population. However, they safeguard a whopping 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. In fact, Latin American forests have flourished under their protection, storing more carbon than Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo combined. Indigenous knowledge of lands and rivers has evolved over thousands of years. Many of their land-based practices are inherently solutions for the climate crisis. As a result, their inputs and methods of action can be invaluable to the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. 

The Land Back movement also ties in with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 15: Life on Land. The goal calls for “the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests,” which is well within the purview of Indigenous peoples and their stewardship of the Land. 

Governments have begun recognizing the potential of Indigenous stewardship and have started returning Land to Indigenous peoples. Earlier last year, Australia returned a whopping 395,000 acres—including the Daintree National Park—back into the stewardship of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. This was the outcome of the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act, which called for all national parks within Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula to come under Aboriginal management.

How to support the Land Back movement

Allies of Indigenous peoples must first begin by understanding the colonial systems that made this—and the climate crisis as a whole—this critical. The first step to that is education.

Read up on the Land Back movement 

The book “Required Reading: Climate Justice, Adaptation + Investing in Indigenous Power” serves as a primer on the Land Back movement as well as the role of Native people in climate justice and action. It amplifies various Native solutions to the climate crisis and highlights how well-positioned Indigenous peoples are to see these solutions through. Land Back: A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper is also a valuable resource for those looking into this movement for the first time. 

It’s also worthwhile to prime yourself on the history and rights of Indigenous peoples. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a comprehensive universal framework that established minimum standards for rights and dignity and elaborates on existing human rights in the context of Indigenous peoples. 

Find out which traditional territories you’re on

In many of our cases, the land we live on was taken from Indigenous peoples when colonialism was rampant. To understand the Land Back movement, it helps to understand whose traditional territories you’re on using the Native-Land map. If there are any movements or organized groups involved in the Land Back movement, specifically in your territory, attending their meetings can help one understand the issue better.

Support reforestation movements

While Indigenous peoples are fighting for a seat at the negotiation table, many parts of the world are struggling to replenish forest cover and re-balance their ecosystems. If you live on non-Native Land or are outside the Americas, consider supporting reforestation drives where you live or anywhere else in the world.

Doing this at an individual level is great, but it’s even more powerful if you can mobilize your community or organization to support the cause. EcoMatcher, working with many partners globally supporting indigenous people, can help you achieve this at scale while also turning the process into one that is interesting rather than complicated. 

The final word: High stakes all around

The Land Back movement is inherently entwined with climate justice and action. Much of the damage done to the planet is a result of capitalism, forced ownership, and uncontrolled abuse of the environment. As Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of NDN Collective, puts it:

“We’re going to get back to prioritizing the relationship between the Land and the people, rather than thinking about the land as just something that we should extract from for the purposes of money and power. We’re reclaiming our inherent right to assume control, protection, and stewardship of these lands.”

Land Back involves restoring political and social decision-making powers to those who had been stripped of them by settlers. The movement can help us bring Indigenous voices to the table: not only to partake in their knowledge of sustainable solutions but also to respect and protect their livelihoods.