Today, the concept of the circular economy has become one of the most popular ideas within our modern economic and environmental systems. Circularity is finding its way through all levels whether it be in policy, decision-making, embedded into business models or through education in schools and universities.
As the world becomes increasingly aware of the impact of climate change and thus the importance of sustainability and the circular economy, it is essential to recognise that the circular economy has been going on for millennia within Indigenous communities; it isn’t something new.
Our current concept of the circular economy is predominantly Western-influenced, often overpowering Indigenous peoples’ views, who were in fact the original stewards and custodians of the land. They have been playing a critical role in the protection of our natural world and resources.
While the goals of a circular economy are largely economics-driven coupled with environmental management, it is imperative to consider the cultural and social impacts too, for a truly inclusive economy.
Tapping into thousands of years of knowledge
Even though they comprise just five percent of the world’s population, Indigenous peoples today are involved in conservation projects on land that contains about 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Their role in conservation is not just about environmental management, but rather about seeing the land and seas as their kin. Indigenous cultures are inherently taught to take only what they need, to use only so much such that the remaining resources can regenerate themselves and to think seven generations ahead.
For most Indigenous communities, reusing, repurposing and recycling materials is not a newly discovered concept but rather a way of life. By keeping nature and equity at the heart of development, these communities were always aware that our resources are limited and must be taken care of.
Examples of circular principles include:
sustainably managing mangrove environments to protect them as a source of food and medicine.
reusing neglected silk cocoons to make yarn.
conscious consumption methods like in Southern India, where traditional methods of harvesting non-timber forest products like honey, soap nuts and berries, are ensuring their preservation while also sustaining the communities.
the Government of Chile turning towards Indigenous knowledge to reduce their organic waste.
These show that Indigenous communities have been circular long before the Western world discovered the concept.
What can be done moving forward
Indigenous knowledge has been undervalued and understudied against modern scientific approaches. Real change will occur only when they sit alongside each other. Enhanced participation by Indigenous communities in politics and decision-making roles at the local, national and international levels can enable such a change.
Traditional knowledge integrated into our current-day environmental laws right from the development phase offers promise of improved adaptation and transition to a more circular approach. Opportunities for Indigenous peoples in employment and careers where traditional knowledge can improve multiple system-wide outcomes should be a priority. Increased support for Indigenous-owned businesses that support a circular economy can only provide to benefit people, profit and the planet.
Indigenous and local knowledge of place, climate, and people can enhance and improve STEM-based research that intersects with circular business models that address product design, engineering and more. Knowledge of the impacts of climate, although challenged by impacts of modern climate change, can guide approaches to natural resource management and regeneration, critical to the circular economy transition. Indigenous and local knowledge can help identify opportunities to align our systems to be in balance with nature.
Getting to our net-zero targets will inevitably still require some form of extraction – of precious materials such as lithium, copper, nickel and cobalt – to fulfil our growing renewable energy needs. However, this comes at a cost, often to the most marginalised and threatened communities, including Indigenous communities. Mining and other extractive activities can threaten Indigenous communities, their livelihoods, land and territories. The balance to deliver an electrified future while maintaining environmental, cultural and social heritage is challenging. Increasingly, mining companies globally are asked to obtain, ‘free, prior and informed consent’ under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but this does not always occur. Accountability of extractive companies must be upheld to set the standards for the protection of biodiversity and of culture.
It is not too late to fix our broken economic and environmental systems. Indigenous peoples have the answers to some of nature’s most complex challenges. It is critical to work together to ensure Indigenous and local knowledge can provide valuable answers to the transition towards circularity to the benefit all.