Integrating Indigenous norms for future generations

The concepts of resilience and planetary health are crucial for humankind as they address the pressing environmental and societal challenges that we face today and in the future. “Resilience is broadly understood as the ability of individuals, households, communities, and institutions to anticipate, withstand, recover, and transform from shocks and crises” (Omar et al 2016, p. 8). It refers to the ability to withstand and recover from disruptions, such as natural disasters or economic crises. Building resilience is essential for protecting people and communities from the impacts of environmental changes, such as climate change, and for ensuring that they are able to adapt and thrive despite the occurrence of disruptions.

Similarly, planetary health is a holistic and interdisciplinary approach that recognizes the linkages between human health and the health of the planet as a whole. It recognizes that our well-being and survival is intimately connected to the well-being of the earth’s ecosystems and that the current environmental degradation is a threat to human survival. Therefore, planetary health also entails a commitment to preserving the planet’s biodiversity and resources for future generations.

Restoring healthy human-nature relations

Both resilience and planetary health are crucial for ensuring the survival and well-being of humankind. Climate change, systematical destruction of natural habitats, pollution and the global loss of biodiversity are all phenomena with direct impacts on human health and survival. The economic, social and political systems that we rely on are also under threat by these drivers, so a resilient and adaptive approach is crucial for societies’ and economies’ survival in the future.

In contrast to industrialized nations, indigenous peoples have long held deep connections and understanding of their relationship with the natural world, and their traditional knowledge and practices can provide valuable insights for achieving what we call planetary health. Such understanding and traditional knowledge can also assist us in translating it to professional health practice. Therefore, recognizing and integrating indigenous values and principles is therefore an overdue step towards a healthy and resilient future for humanity.

For the Māori for instance, values govern duties and relationships towards nature as well as decision making processes. “Important Māori values include: tikanga (customary practice, values, protocols); whakapapa (ancestral lineage, genealogical connections, relationships, links to ecosystems); tino rangatiratanga (self-determination); mana whenua (authority over land and resources); whānaungatanga (family connections); kaitiakitanga (environmental guardianship); manaakitanga (acts of giving and caring for); whakakotahitanga (consensus, respect for individual differences and participatory inclusion for decision-making); arohatanga (the notion of care, respect, love, compassion); wairuatanga (a spiritual dimension)” (Harmsworth et al. 2013, p. 275).

One key aspect of many indigenous principles is the concept of intergenerational responsibility, where the well-being of future generations is considered in decision making. This aligns with the idea of a circular economy, where resources are reused and recycled, and is a crucial aspect of achieving planetary health by reducing the use of natural resources and reducing waste.

Indigenous people also have a deep understanding of the importance of biodiversity, and the role that different species and ecosystems play in maintaining the balance of the natural world. This is reflected in their traditional practices of managing resources, such as fire management, hunting practices, and conservation of key species, which can provide valuable lessons for promoting sustainable resource management and conservation.

For the Maori, for instance, “Te Ao Turoa and taonga tuku iho articulate a desired intergenerational equity for natural, treasured resources, passed from one generation to the next in as good a condition or state as has been determined in the previous generation. These terms convey knowledge about existence itself and reiterate the interconnection between human beings and the environment as fundamental for food, shelter, recreation, cultural practice, arts, and human wellbeing, providing the basis for human survival” (Harmsworth et al. 2013, p. 275).

Furthermore, traditional governance systems and decision-making practices of many indigenous peoples have been often based on collective and participatory approaches, that take into account the views and opinions of all members of the community. These practices can be an example of a more democratic, inclusive and equitable decision-making process and can help to foster more resilient and cohesive societies.

Incorporating indigenous principles into our approach to achieving planetary health can provide valuable insights and solutions for creating more sustainable, resilient, and equitable societies. By valuing the traditional knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples, we can create more holistic and sustainable solutions for achieving planetary health, ensuring the well-being of future generations and preserving the health of the planet – therefore meeting the global agenda of conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

Integrating indigenous norms into national laws

However, industrial nations yet fail to achieve this despite the dawn of their recognition of nature as source of our lives: “The responsibilities of the present generations towards future generations have already been referred to in various instruments such as the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16 November 1972, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted in Rio de Janeiro on 5 June 1992, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development on 14 June 1992, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights on 25 June 1993, and the United Nations General Assembly resolutions relating to the protection of the global climate for present and future generations adopted since 1990” (UNESCO 1997). 

In addition to this, such measures are reflected in two specific international instruments, i.e., Convention on Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol. These two pieces of legislation propel the indigenous communities to further conserve the environment in which they live and to protect the traditional knowledge and to impart such knowledge to their future generations. Along the same lines, the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous people require, “free, prior and informed consent” to be on priority for when it comes to sharing of appropriate planetary co-benefits. Thus, to achieve a concrete balance, integration of indigenous traditional knowledge with technological and scientific developments would cater to global climate issues. 

Although the protection of future generations has already been addressed, declared and agreed upon in numerous declarations and international agreements of the United Nations, including the ones mentioned above,  throughout the past decades, there is still a lack of any sufficient enforcement measures. Much of it can be attributed to the persistent and unfortunate reality of land grabbing, commercialisation and other social factors.

Nevertheless, the pressure to act for preventing the most devastating climate scenarios leaves little time for people, corporations and governments to adjust their modus operandi. Yet, “by transforming how we view nature, we can recognize its true value. By reflecting this value in policies, plans and economic systems, we can channel investments into activities that restore nature and are rewarded for it. And by recognizing nature as an indispensable ally, we can unleash human ingenuity in the service of sustainability and secure our own health and well-being alongside that of the planet ” (Guterres 2021, ENEP Report p. 4) .

Therefore, a multidisciplinary and integrated approach is needed to address the interrelated social, economic and environmental challenges we face. These include transitioning to a more sustainable and resilient economy, promoting indigenous norms, sustainable and healthy lifestyles, creating an equitable and inclusive society, and fostering participatory and science-based decision-making. In particular, this requires close collaboration with indigenous peoples and local organizations, as they play an important role in conserving biodiversity and cultural heritage and hold traditional knowledge that is of high value for sustainable development. Despite “comprising less than 5% of the world’s population, indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity” (Raygorodetsky 2018).

Therefore, it is critical to prioritize resilience, particularly with respect to indigenous and marginalized communities, as well as the overall health of the planet, in order to achieve a viable future. In addition, it is essential to invest in research and innovation to continuously monitor and adjust policies and practices to changing realities. Ultimately, it is about investing in the future that benefits both society and the environment to achieve and sustain healthy lives for our and future generations.

Law as a legal guard rail into sustainable futures

Law, as a tool, is used by those in power to enforce certain values and interests. However, these values and interests should reflect the values of society as a whole. We have the choice to become the ones our grandchildren will be grateful for, or to continue the intergenerational conflict of blame and short-sighted actions. It is crucial that we ask ourselves what values we wish to uphold, such as health, engagement with ourselves, each other, different species, and nature, and the lives of future generations.

Science has provided us with knowledge that can guide us in updating the fictions we believe in. The fiction of endless growth, for example, was useful in a certain context at a certain time, but now we know that it is not sustainable in the long term. By embracing the concept of planetary health, we can replace the capitalist fiction and guide our actions towards shaping a future not only for humanity, but for all life on Earth. This includes recognizing the interconnectedness of human health with the health of nature, as indigenous peoples have long understood and practiced.

The Institute for Legal Transformation is at the forefront of rethinking human-centered law and promoting the integration of planetary health on a global scale. We must work towards encoding planetary health into national laws and policymaking to safeguard the lives of future generations. This is a call to action for regulators, policy advisors, and governments to join the discussion and exchange ideas on how to bring this focus to the forefront. We must shift our perspective from solely protecting human interests to implementing planetary health on a global scale, which will ultimately protect our own species as well.

In conclusion, resilience and planetary health are crucial for humankind as they address the pressing environmental and societal challenges that we face today and in the future. By taking multi-disciplinary approaches and working closely with indigenous communities, we can yet shape more resilient and sustainable societies that prioritize the well-being of all humanity and the planet.