Why Giving Voice to Indigenous Communities Matters for Sustainability

For Adrianna Muir, A02, director of conservation collaboration at The Nature Conservancy, lasting solutions depend on building trust and partnerships

As director of conservation collaboration at The Nature Conservancy, Adrianna Muir, A02, helps find common ground between local communities, governments, and the private sector to protect nature’s abundance and respond to encroaching threats from climate change. That often means translating what others see as differences into inclusive and sustainable policies. It also means treating Indigenous peoples’ knowledge as a source for solutions.

“We have to find a way to manage our resources, for the sake of climate change and for the sake of preventing further biodiversity loss,” Muir says. “How can we do that without understanding the people who have stewarded their own land and water for millennia? We have to take into account their deep knowledge and observations. We have to slow down and take the time to build partnerships and trust.”

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

For The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental nonprofit, reaching a sustainable outcome sometimes requires balancing land protection with land management. As an example, Muir cites an old-growth forest in southeast Alaska, the ancestral territory of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. The trees there are prized for their ability to store carbon when left standing, but they’re also valued by Indigenous communities for canoe building, among other cultural uses. Some might see that difference as a standoff. Muir sees it as an opportunity.

“For the sustainability and health of the forest, we need a certain amount of logging,” she says. “So the big question is: How do we manage this for the future? How do we take into account many complicated factors, some uniquely Alaskan?” she asks, including the fact that the forest borders both Canada and Washington state, each with its own set of laws governing conservation and management.

For Muir, the answer is cooperation. Last year The Nature Conservancy was among those who partnered with a for-profit Indigenous organization called Sealaska to establish the Seacoast Trust, a fund subsidized by all parties. With $20 million in funding, the trust supports sustainable development, community healing, healthy forestry practices, and local economies. It also opens up opportunities for collective decision making on how portions of this forest should be managed.

“This entire process relied on us trusting our Indigenous partners, their knowledge, and truly understanding that what they are striving for is sustainable,” Muir says. “That example I sit with all the time.”

Respecting Differences 

Muir, who is distantly related to naturalist John Muir, understands that trust takes time to build and can represent a major shift in approach. She learned to draw on holistic systems thinking as a biology major at Tufts and went on to earn a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of California, Davis. She credits a Tufts conservation biology class with Professor Michael Reed as an early influence and Colin Orians, now a professor of biology and director of Environmental Studies, as an “inspirational mentor.”

She also has plenty of experience in conflict resolution and consensus building. After launching her career as a foreign affairs officer, Muir served various roles in the U.S. State Department and the Department of the Interior before joining The Nature Conservancy in 2018. She was named the director of conservation collaboration for North America last year and works out of the organization’s office in Anchorage, Alaska. As a biracial woman, she says, “I continue to learn a lot about Indigenous history and culture. We need to be open to that learning, particularly given the climate crisis, and try to find our shared values.”

The benefits extend beyond sharing information and knowledge, she adds. “If you hope your outcome will stand the test of time, then engaging local and Indigenous peoples throughout the decision-making process makes it far more likely you will arrive at that sustainable solution. With community buy-in, you will have the broad support you need to ensure that the decision and its impacts are long-lasting.”

It doesn’t always work, Muir acknowledges. At its weakest, seeking buy-in can be merely “recognitional”: good intentions aside, either failing to achieve real participation or prioritizing ecological protection at the expense of cultural and community health.

“You can find Arctic researchers who try for a long time to understand, scientifically, a certain pattern of behavior in animals,” Muir says. “And then they come to actually engage an Indigenous community who will say, ‘We’ve known this for generations.’”

At its best, true engagement requires long-term investment in innovative approaches that balance environmental sustainability with local communities’ needs. Muir cites an annual salmon harvest that’s both a pragmatic means to gather food and a tradition that dates back thousands of years.

“That is what I argue is the ideal of true equity,” she says. “True equity means there is an equitable consideration of Indigenous peoples, not just for engagement now, but for their future. How are Indigenous peoples going to benefit and in what proportion to other people? Are they bearing more risk? Do they have more to lose?”

Earth Advocates is a Tufts Now series featuring Tufts graduates and students working on climate change issues around the world. If you know others who are leaders in sustainability, let us know at now@tufts.edu

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