We give thanks: Learning with Indigenous communities navigating environmental change, fragility, and peace

11/2022 | Diana Campos, Ruth Rhoads Allen, and Megan Renoir

This week, American families are on the move. More people in the US travel to be with loved ones for Thanksgiving than at any other time of year. The beloved holiday is steeped in a sense of place, history, and connection to the land. In the 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, just a few miles from CDA’s office, much of that history has, however, been mythologized. Celebrations belie the experience of Indigenous Peoples during the European colonization of North America. And rapid environmental change means that history of violence and displacement of native communities is also very much part of the current American reality. 

This reality has CDA’s attention. 

For over 25 years, our collaborative learning projects have taken up burning questions of humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding practitioners the world over. Today, in contexts facing the threats of climate hazards, fragility, and conflict, an urgent concern of community leaders and global policy experts alike is: how can aid actors and peacebuilders address environmental change, fragility, and conflict together

Learning with Indigenous communities across many contexts will be essential. And, as a US-based international organization, it’s only right that we start the journey in the US. 

The nexus of environment, fragility, and peace

Last week, the major accomplishment of the UN climate conference COP27 was getting ‘loss and damage’ on the formal agenda. Indigenous groups and local organizations were central to making visible the inequities of climate change, in which less developed countries and regions are already experiencing the most severe losses from floods and other major weather events, water scarcity and desertification, biodiversity loss and food insecurity. They are also projected to incur the harshest damage to physical and social infrastructure for years to come. Climate-related economic and social shocks could push an additional 132 million people into poverty by 2030 and result in the displacement of 143 million by 2050, with detrimental effects on personal security and global peace

Chaco Culture (Jean-Marc Duchesne © OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection)

The climate science is indisputable. And the new loss and damage fund promises financial and political attention. So the time is ripe to equip practitioners and their funders with practical, evidence-based frameworks and guidance to tackle environmental change, fragility, and conflict in unison. Doing so requires learning from broad experience. It demands profound focus on both effectiveness and accountability that centers the knowledge, perspectives, and capacities of people and communities affected by conflict. From Iraq to Nigeria, Fiji to Guatemala, it’s a long list of potential places to look for such experiences navigating the environment-fragility-peace nexus. With Indigenous communities increasingly recognized as at the front line of the climate crisis, CDA is prioritizing several global case studies and analysis partnerships with native groups to listen to them and learn with them. 

In focus: The Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe and Tahoe National Forest, California, USA

In December, CDA is turning our learning lens to the US state of California, and the ancestral lands of the Nisenan people, where wildfires are one of the most visible displays of climate change in recent years. From 2016 to 2022, California experienced its “largest fires on record, 13 of the top 20 most destructive blazes, and three of the top five deadliest fires.” To try and tackle the increasing risks, recent discussions around wildfire management have centered on the role of revitalizing Indigenous fire practices

However, the history of California’s fire policies are fraught with political, economic, cultural, and physical forms of violence against Indigenous groups that have yet to be addressed. The State’s fire suppression policies have also led to worsened conditions for wildfires, made more severe by climate change. As the idea of reviving Indigenous burning practices gains popularity, calls for formal reconciliation have reinforced tensions between State actors and Tribes and are hindering their opportunities to engage, together and with Federal officials, in ways that contribute towards peace. 

CDA’s upcoming research with the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe will examine their ongoing wildfire management projects and partnership with Tahoe National Forest. Tribal, State, Federal, and private actors will gain insights into how Indigenous wildfire management practices can be employed as a tool for environmental protection and building peace by enabling reconciliation for past and present violence, and reconstruction of Indigenous livelihoods and cultures. For CDA’s wider research initiative, we will listen broadly for concepts and themes, as well as for the relationships among factors in this specific context. As more US and global case studies are conducted, we will work with learning partners to look across many contexts, types of environmental change, and experiences of conflict. This collaborative analysis will seek to understand effective frameworks to address social, governance, economic, and environmental challenges systemically, and glean lessons to inform policies that will need to work simultaneously across various scales, from local to global.  

Giving thanks

This Thanksgiving holiday, CDA acknowledges the Nisenan people in the West,  the Massachusett tribe in the East, and the hundreds of other nations, bands, pueblos, communities, and native villages of North America. We mourn the violence inflicted on Indigenous people over generations. And we are grateful for the opportunity to learn with native communities around the world. This includes how to understand Indigenous prevention, mitigation, and adaptation strategies in the context of disaster risk and climate change policies and programming, and how to support communities’ capacities for peace and resilience within a rapidly changing environment. 

And from the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address Greetings to the Natural World, “we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.”

To learn more or engage with the Environment-Fragility-Peace Nexus collaborative learning project, please reach out to Diana Campos, Program Coordinator, at [email protected]


Land Acknowledgement 

CDA recognizes our office is located on the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett people. We acknowledge and are grateful to the Massachusett people as the original caretakers of this land. We pay our respects to their community, their elders both past and present, as well as future generations. In our presence in Cambridge, MA, USA and our work globally, we will continue to expand visibility about Indigenous Peoples, their stewardship and care for the natural world, and their knowledge, perspectives, and capacities for peace.

About this article

This blog was written for the ‘CDA Perspectives blog’. It is a series intended to share reflections, present information and provoke debate and conversation. Our authors share personal experiences of working towards improving impacts of interventions in contexts of conflict and fragility, and findings from collaborative learning projects. In most cases, we discuss issues related to CDA’s practice areas: accountability and feedback loops, Do No Harm, peacebuilding effectiveness, and responsible business operations. In addition to our staff contributors, we invite colleagues and partners to share their experiences, and host blog post series.

For recent blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Hasangani Edema at [email protected] We would love to hear from you and include your perspective. We hope to hear and learn from your reactions to our posts. 

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About the authors

Diana Campos is CDA Program Coordinator. She is a biologist and peacebuilder specializing in environmental peace, biodiversity conservation, community participation, conflict prevention, conflict transformation, and policy reform.

To learn more or engage with the Environment-Fragility-Peace Nexus collaborative learning project, please reach out at [email protected]

Ruth Rhoads Allen, President and Chief Collaboration Officer for CDA, is leading the organization into its next chapter as a collaborative platform. She is responsible for strategy design and ongoing co-creation of CDA’s vision, technical focus, and means for engaging its global network to address critical issues and common challenges across humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding fields. Ruth also works directly on several of CDA’s collaborative learning and advisory services partnerships, including the Stopping As Success program.

Megan Renoir is a consultant to the Environment-Fragility-Peace collaborative learning project and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge (UK).