On the frontlines of reforestation: a conversation on funding Indigenous action

In the fight against the climate crisis, philanthropy must fund more projects led by frontline communities and Indigenous land stewards. Currently, Native American communities receive just 0.4 per cent of philanthropic funds from large U.S. foundations, and supporting Indigenous ecosystem restoration remains only a subsection of philanthropic climate funding.

A major step forward in this area was taken in 2021 when a record $1.7 billion was pledged at COP26 to Indigenous and local communities working to protect tropical forests – and research published in November 2022 found that one-fifth of that funding has already been disbursed.

But despite this growing recognition, the fight for Indigenous rights has also been more public in recent years, and Indigenous communities have faced increasing persecution. In 2020, a record number of people were killed for protecting their land – more than a third coming from Indigenous communities.

To better understand what it looks like at the frontlines of this work, Alliance invited Erin Axelrod, programme director for Jonas Philanthropies Trees for Climate Health and Marcus Briggs-Cloud, an Indigenous Maskoke land steward, culture-keeper, and language-carrier, to have a conversation about what meaningful climate action to reforest land and restore endangered longleaf pine ecosystems native to Maskoke land (only 4 per cent remains as a result of clearcutting and fire suppression), as well as strengthen Indigenous culture so that future generations can continue learning from the Maskoke ways that prioritize ecological sustainability.

Erin Axelrod: Your people – the Maskoke People –carry an inherent ethical responsibility to be caretakers of Mother Earth. Since returning to your people’s ancestral homelands, the Ekvn-Yefolecv (ee-gun yee-full-lee-juh) community has been working to reforest the land and restore local species and ecosystems. Can you start by talking about the harms caused in this region since the displacement and forced relocation of your people?

Marcus Briggs-Cloud: Ekvn-Yefolecvlket owēyat yv ekvnv likat, pum vculvke tate omvlkvt tak-vpokvtet ontowisen wacenv yvmvn yihcet estecatvlke vpokvten hvsaklatkv-fvccvn vpeyecicakvtes. Montowisen, etvlwv akvwvpkvhanat ohfvccvn resyicepēyvtet os.

Maskoke People, since time immemorial, lived in what is colonially known as Alabama and Georgia, until being forcibly removed 700 miles away, west and south, during government Indian removal policies in the early 1800s. Between 1813-1858, at least thirty percent of our People were murdered. We are the descendants of survivors of that genocide. Here at Ekvn-Yefolecv, we reside in a fire-adapted montane longleaf pine ecosystem. Albeit a critically endangered ecosystem now due to clearcutting and fire suppression, its very existence is largely in part because our Maskoke ancestors regularly applied fire to the landscape. We reside in an incredibly biodiverse ecosystem, yet we are surrounded by industrial timber lands controlled by investment entities who desire financial rates of return over actual biological rates of return. For Maskoke People, our traditional cosmological worldview necessitates an inherent ethical responsibility to be caretakers of Mother Earth in the bioregional ecology in which our ancestors have always resided. Since the displacement of our people, 54 million acres of our land has been degraded and exploited. It is time to reverse that and return to balance.

We have supported your work to restore longleaf pine ecosystems endangered by clearcutting and fire suppression. Can you talk about the Maskoke practices and traditions you are implementing in this work?

After 180 years of having been displaced, Ekvn-Yefolecv has reclaimed 2,000 acres of our ancestral homelands and returned here to live in the ecological stewardship values left to us by our ancestors. For the past five years, we have been manifesting an off-grid, income-sharing ecovillage that prioritizes Maskoke language and cultural revitalization, ecological restoration, natural building, and regenerative agriculture, while maintaining a collective commitment to a Just Transition from extractive economies. Last year, we were able to acquire the adjacent property which suffered a clearcut at the hands of non-Indigenous people. We will begin reforesting this land with culturally significant species next year. To continue the sacred tradition of applying fire for the proliferation of this critically endangered montane longleaf pine ecosystem, in which we reside, we partnered with The Nature Conservancy to burn 800 acres two years ago and anticipate burning approximately 1,400 acres this winter.

Philanthropic initiatives like Trees for Climate Health and Daughters for Earth are eager to support projects like yours. Could you describe the ways in which your work is supported by philanthropic funding generally? 

It is important to state that when we first started looking for land, there was no landback movement. Foundations and private donors would usually express that they wanted to support our programming but not land acquisition, to which we would reply ‘How are we supposed to do our programming if we don’t have any land?’ So many funders have struggled to understand the holistic nature of our approach. Funders frequently asked us, are you focused on regenerative agriculture or language revitalization or ecological restoration, or regenerative economics? When we answer ‘yes’ to all of these, they became so confused –they interpret it as a lack of focus when in reality it is necessary for our commitment to a holistic paradigmatic shift. We can’t pretend that perpetuating silos in our work, both in praxis on the ground and in developing philanthropic funding scopes, is actually going to yield liberation from and alternatives to the destructive systems we claim we want to dismantle.

Since the displacement of our people, 54 million acres of our land has been degraded and exploited. It is time to reverse that and return to balance.

For example, the impetus for Ekvn-Yefolecv was really language revitalization, but in developing the strategy to efficaciously grow new authentically fluent speakers of Maskoke, not only do you have to speak to children exclusively in the language from their pre-verbal stage onward, you also have to: know how to grow heirloom corn, pumpkins and greens for community physical health and save seed; pursue revenue from regenerative agriculture, aquaculture, silviculture rooted in spiritual and biological reciprocity; clean poop from a composting bucket instead of wasting potable water to send your nutrient dense poop to an unknown place; toast acorns you harvested in the woods with language immersion school children on the net-carbon-negative homemade rocket stoves that required your physical health to harvest fallen wood from the forest floor to burn; mourn the loss of a sturgeon when she dies of unpredicted biological factors, and honor a buffalo with song and dance upon harvest to nourish an elder language bearer to prevent her from leaving this world early due to diabetes; cease mansplaining and invest in women as the key to intergenerational language and cultural knowledge transmission that will perpetuate the ecological knowledge that fosters biodiversity; reject frivolous consumption of short-term-use plastics; turn to the sun each morning and give thanks for the day and for its energy to power your LED lights through solar panels and a nickel-iron battery system that assuredly did not displace or wreak havoc on Indigenous Peoples amid mining of minerals; thank Mother Earth for the clay with which we make non-toxic earthen plaster for our straw bale walls and earthen floors; and most importantly cultivate tons of love and compassion! This is the holistic picture that philanthropic entities are supporting when they fund our work. We really love when funders are able to support us via ‘general operating support.’ This allows us to have full agency and self-determination over putting the money to the highest use for our ecovillage’s needs.

What has your experience been on the ground with the $1.7bn that was pledged in November 2021 for Indigenous communities working on protecting forests? Are these funds reaching your community?

As a whole, Native American communities receive just 0.4 per cent of philanthropic funds from large US Foundations. Similarly, returning Indigenous communities to their homelands (otherwise known as landback), and supporting their efforts in ecosystem restoration remains only a subsection of philanthropic climate funding. The work we do is categorically underfunded by the type of large foundations that pledged support last November. Instead, we rely on the type of funders who are deeply invested in transformational systems change and Indigenous self-determination.

How does Maskoke culture and language support your climate work?

Thriving Indigenous languages are a major factor in achieving sustainable, regenerative practices necessary to navigate the climate crisis. Maskoke language carries in both the knowledge and the mandate to restore ecosystems, abandon extractive economies, live minimalistic lifestyles, seek a resurgence of regenerative lifeways, and decolonize diets and education. Unfortunately, UNESCO estimates that up to 90 per cent of the world’s languages will perish by the end of this century. Traditional ecological knowledge, upon which Maskoke contributions to climate solutions and ecological restoration rely, is embedded deep within our language. It equips our community members with the ethical lens and practical management tools necessary to become more effective stewards of our bioregion. Thus without language, Maskoke culture and the biodiversity that depends on our stewardship are in great peril. In our case, only 22 speakers of our language remain east of the Mississippi. To prevent the death of the language, Ekvn-Yefolecv operates a language immersion school wherein Maskoke is the sole medium of instruction, and the curriculum centers on traditional ecological, agricultural, and cosmological knowledge. Now, Ekvn-Yefolecv is home to the only fluent-speaking Maskoke children on the planet.

What is the role of Indigenous self-determination in relation to the climate crisis on a global scale?

Although the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge has gained global attention in recent years, seemingly much of the focus has been on technical management as opposed to a philosophical worldview. One of our traditional teachings most directly related to addressing climate change which grabs little attention is to live simply. Our elders taught us that we aren’t supposed to accumulate material possessions or money. Ekvn-Yefolecv residents work daily in exchange for food, lodging, and a $400 monthly stipend. This relatively small wage is intentional to constrain our participation in the accumulation of capital and material items that are inherently tied to the abuse of Mother Earth and exploitation of human bodies worldwide. This is just one of many ways that our indigenous Maskoke traditions help address the climate crisis on a global scale.

The work we do is categorically underfunded by the type of large foundations that pledged support last November. Instead, we rely on the type of funders who are deeply invested in transformational systems change and Indigenous self-determination.

Indigenous Peoples who are committed to their original instructions, given by the Sacred, will always defend the rights of Mother Earth. For example, lake sturgeon, a culturally important fish species to our People, were extirpated from the Coosa watershed, primarily due to hydroelectric dams preventing them from returning to natal spawning areas. Ekvn-Yefolecv residents partnered with Indigenous Anishinaabe People, in what is colonially known as Ontario, to spawn the fish, then we returned the embryos to our ecovillage to hatch them, grow them out and release them back into the watershed. Therefore, restoring and protecting riparian zones of the Weogufka stream, a tributary to the Coosa River, along which Ekvn-Yefolecv is situated, is critical work, and demonstrates how the many facets of our ecovillage work our inextricably tied. We cannot compartmentalize human impact on the land in ways that the Western world has learned to do. For instance, timber framing is not our traditional Maskoke construction technique, but it coincides with our values. We enter the forest and select trees based on species population densities in a selected area; we then have a communication ceremony with each tree to ask it’s permission before harvesting; we fell the trees ourselves, skid them out of the forest with a farm winch and mill them all on-site to avoid embodied energy that would have been required to import the timber from off-site; the mortise and tenon joinery of the timbers, with which we use wooden pegs (instead of precious metals), enables us to raise a building with green wood instead of requiring intensive energy usage in the kiln drying process necessary for lumber. Another example includes our commitment to bison restoration in our traditional homelands. Exercising holistic management (intensive rotational grazing) to increase soil health, we choose to create silvopasture (trees, forage and animals all inhabiting the same land) namely for carbon sequestration, an improved small-scale hydrological cycle, and providing shade for the culturally iconic buffalo.

How do you feel about philanthropy’s action in this space?

Few funds go to communities like ours, which are active, daily participants in ecosystem restoration. Typically, large conservation organizations receive funding before frontline communities. But these ‘big greens’ have long ubiquitously exhibited subscription to a paradigm that suggests humans are not integral parts of ecosystems and that conservation means protecting lands necessitates they remain undisturbed by human activity. This is antithetical to ways in which communities like ours – who actively steward lands in regenerative ways on the ground daily – uphold relationships to lands because these respective ecosystems of Mother Earth are our homes – on whom our entire livelihoods are dependent.

What would you like to see from climate funders?

The philanthropic community, high-net-wealth individuals, and all who care about a resilient future must fund and support projects that are led by frontline communities and accountable to Indigenous land stewards. But they must do this, not from a place of charity to Indigenous communities, but because all our lives depend on it. There is much attention paid by non-Indigenous folks who are hungry to reforest the lands that have suffered clearcutting at the hands of colonized minds. But this restoration must be done from a lens of repair, and not in the name of compromising Indigenous self-determination. We encourage everyone to be wary of the reforestation projects that continue to perpetuate land grabs and a colonizing, exploitative mindset, and sometimes merely fall short of producing the livelihood outcomes that they aspire to accomplish.

How should foundations value climate activism and identify the most impactful ways to support it?

Simply, live simply! All folks in philanthropy should engage in introspection of their own personal and institutional relationships to ecosystem health, and subsequently, find ways to improve. It would be good for foundations to find ways of supporting and honouring Indigenous self-determination wherever they call home, while simultaneously seeking to embody values that foster ecological regeneration as was imbued in the lifeways of the First Peoples of the lands on which we reside.

Erin Axelrod is the Project Director for Jonas Philanthropies Trees for Climate Health project and a Partner/Worker-Owner at LIFT Economy, helping to accelerate the spread of businesses that benefit our climate, specializing in enterprises that address soil and water regeneration and uplift traditional ecological knowledge. Marcus Briggs-Cloud (Maskoke) is a language revitalizer, scholar, and musician, as well as a co-director of
Ekvn-Yefolecv, an Indigenous ecovillage community in Weogufka, Alabama comprised of Maskoke persons who have returned to their ancestral homelands and remain committed to linguistic, cultural, and ecological sustainability.

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