Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich
Indigenous leaders from across our planet united in O’ahu this September. Foreheads together, they shared a breath during an opening ceremony for the E Alu Pu Gathering. E Alu Pu translates in Hawaiian to Move Forward together and this gathering was hosted by Kua Hawaii prior to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress to do just that. This intimate traditional Hawaiian greeting called ‘Honi’, helped introduce over 150 people from around the world together at this pre-gathering.
I traveled south to participate in both the E Alu Pu Gathering and IUCN World Conservation Congress as a representative of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and Sitka Conservation Society. The World Conservation Congress is an IUCN event held every four years to bring together leaders from around the globe to map a course forward for our peoples and planet. I joined a delegation of indigenous leaders and environmental advocates from Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. This cross-boundary collaboration was funded by the Nature Conservancy’s Emerald Edge program.
The north shore of O’ahu shares many similarities with the rural island communities where we work across Southeast Alaska. The cultures, the languages, the faces and customs differ of course, but the thick ties to land and ocean are common. We fill our bellies with food pulled from the sea and gather nutrition from the forest. We live vibrant lives connected to the health of our coastline in everyday ways. Sadly, this lifestyle and way of being in intimate balance with the seasons of a local landscape is disappearing across the globe. It has not been completely eradicated though and this gathering brought together people from Papua New Guinea and Malawi to Alaska and Molokai, who share environmentally grounded lifestyles and rich cultural histories.
For days, the group talked climate and how changing seasons are shaking century-old traditions off kilter. We shared fears. The first US school to be swallowed by the impacts of climate change happened last month in Northern Alaska. Uncle Leimana from Molokai expressed his concerns for poached mollusks on his coastline. Deli from Vanuatu explained the exhaustion of her work and the apathy of her country’s youth. We share successes. A woman from Rappeneau (Easter Island) announced that soon, her people will have full management of their traditional lands returned to them. Obama designated the largest marine protected area on earth during the week leading up to the conference: the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Many participants share chants and songs passed on from ancestors, parents, and tribes. We learn the process of traditional Hawaiian home building using knots, rope and branches and are taught about local resource management. We help in the restoration of fish ponds, a customary Hawaiian fishing practice, by heaving stones and building fish rearing structures.
During the E Alu Pu gathering and over the course of four days, the group built a multinational community founded on living in balance with island earth. We left feeling humbled, motivated, and inspired by our international neighbors and were prepared to attend the IUCN World Conservation Congress with restored strength and momentum.
The IUCN World Conservation Congress
The Conservation Congress in Honolulu brought together more than 9,000 people from 190 different nations. Politicians, entrepreneurs, environmental advocates, scientists, and indigenous leaders shared inspiration and grounded examples of success and challenges alongside E.O. Wilson, Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall. The 2 week event culminated in the ‘Hawaiian Commitments’, a series of international agreements that help guide the way we as individuals, communities, private institutions, public institutions and nations prioritize sustainability efforts moving forward.
The Congress’s theme this year was ‘Planet at the Crossroads’ in recognition of the harsh decisions that need to be made if we hope to prosper as a civilization on a finite planet in the long term. The commitments stressed seven key areas. Many of which have direct relevancy to our work in Southeast Alaska. To read the commitments please check out the link here.
Key Take Homes for the Southeast
Overall, a key take-home from the conference and gathering was the power of local grassroots community organizations and indigenous leadership in charting a sustainable path forward for our planet. Rooted to local rural communities, our SSP partners are on the frontline of environmental challenges and can therefore adapt and respond in ways that national and international institutions cannot. Localized resource management, community visioning, land-use planning, energy efficiency measures and sustainable subsistence practices are all examples of community actions that can positively impact our world and climate.
Thanks to the work of so many dedicated partners, there are plenty of success stories to call upon in these areas. Southeast Alaska is a region rich with opportunity in ways not present in many other places across the globe. We boast large expanses of intact ecosystems, natural resources, renewable energy options, a vibrant and hardy culture and resourceful residents. In Hoonah, the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is integrating traditional knowledge and employing a local work crew to study, monitor and direct the management of the local landscape. Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the tribe in the largest Haida community in Alaska, monitors and records important anadromous stream habitat to direct local development in a way that protects and prioritizes salmon. The Sitka Tribe is integrating subsistence practices and western science to manage shellfish harvesting, understand PSP and encourage healthy safe gathering. The Sitka Conservation Society and Nature Conservancy are working to help transition regional timber management to a sustainable industry that maximizes benefits to our communities and ecosystems in the long-term.
Of course, there is plenty of untapped opportunity too. In our neighbor across the border, British Columbia, all First Nation communities boast Marine Plans that outline local resource management activities. The Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards Program (SEAS) in British Columbia, exposes youth to traditional resource stewardship at an early age by integrating stewardship activities directly into classroom curricula. The IUCN Congress also examined looming threats to natural resources. The United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work group expressed concerns about mineral mines in Canada threatening Southeast Alaska’s salmon stocks. To be sustainable in the long-term, our communities need to become more self-sufficient. We need to localize our energy and food systems and support diverse and robust economies. There is still work to be done.
The IUCN World Conservation Congress and the E Alu Pu Gathering helped chart a path forward for our planet. Of course, there are many uncertainties with that path but it’s a solid start. When thinking about that path I keep thinking back to the Hawaiian greeting that began my trip. Foreheads together, we must approach one another as partners with eyes open, acknowledging the work to be done. We must face our challenges together, step outside our comfort zone and acknowledge the work head-on. We share this planet, and by building lasting relationships and by pausing to take a breath together, we can move forward in solidarity toward a more prosperous and sustainable way of life.