Animal killing, environmental justice and Indigenous peoples

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency' (EPA) provides the following overview of the conflict between contemporary' lifestyles, which exploit the environment, and the more ‘natural’ environmentally conscious lifestyles of Indigenous people:

Advanced knowledge, innovation, technology and wealth have accelerated the insatiable need to feed, finance and advance growth and development, consuming natural resources at a rate that exceeds Mother Earth’s ability to restore. At the same time, Indigenous peoples whose communities and nations pre-date the settler-state have maintained their unique relationships with the land, rivers, seas and sky. But in the 500 years since western contact, Indigenous peoples have experienced dispossession and disenfranchisement, rendering them one of the most vulnerable subgroups on standard measures for quality of life and sustainability such as: poor health, obesity, unemployment, teen pregnancies, high school drop-out rates, drug abuse, incarceration, etc.

(EPA 2013: 8-9)

Firestone and colleagues (2005: 222) suggest that when one culture is heavily' outnumbered, marginalised, or subjugated by another (as often happens with Indigenous cultures located within a dominant non-Indigenous population), problems can arise even when the nondominant culture exists within a democratic state. Accordingly, states have begun to introduce laws that protect Indigenous people, even going so far as to allow the harvesting of protected animals that would otherwise be unlawful. As noted above, animal harm, socially constructed to have different meanings according to the society in which it occurs, can allow the same act (for example, the killing of a whale) to have multiple meanings: illegal wildlife crime in the view of animal activists and legislators, legitimate cultural practice in the eyes of the Indigenous person committing the act (Nurse 2013). Fisher (2008: 17) claims that Indigenous people comprise around 4 per cent of the world’s population and that pockets of Indigenous peoples still carry out ‘sacred ways handed down from their remote ancestors and adapted to contemporary circumstances’. As a result, forms of animal killing, such as fishing, reindeer herding, whaling and even big game hunting, have cultural significance to Indigenous peoples and are integral to their ethnic identity, persisting even where such practices might otherwise be considered unlawful.

While many legal systems prohibit animal killing (except with respect to so-called ‘invasive’ or ‘pest’ species and certain species, classified as legitimate field sports quarry, killed within the scope of regulated hunting activity), exceptions are sometimes made for Indigenous peoples to engage in animal killing practices recognised as culturally significant. Some animal killing is also socially justified when individuals either do not recognise the legitimacy of the law or consider its restrictions to be unnecessarily harsh (von Essen and Allen 2017a). Robinson and Redford (1985) point out that the goals of animal conservation and those of Indigenous peoples wishing to hunt are not always compatible. They suggest that animal harm seen as integral to cultural identity often trumps legislation prohibiting animal harm from taking place where the legislation is perceived as lacking cultural legitimacy. This perspective is later echoed by White’s (2008) view that human interests become privileged in determining the relationship between nature and society. While legislation may in some respects preserve species justice as a conservation priority, cultural expression rights may dictate that animal harm should continue (Nurse 2013; von Essen and Allen 2017b).

Recognising that government decisions do not always take into account the needs of Indigenous people (particularly Native Americans), a report issued by the EP A recommended the following:

The EPA should better incorporate the wishes of state-recognized tribes and other Indigenous people in its decision-making processes through consultation and meaningful engagement/involvement in policies;

EPA should work effectively with tribal governments regarding on-reservation environmental justice issues;

EPA should continue to recognise and support tribal authority to set environmental standards, make environmental policy decisions and to manage environmental programs; and

EPA should create a standing Indigenous Peoples Environmental Justice Committee to help advise EPA to address Environmental Justice concerns.

The EPA’s recommendation reflects the fact that federal governments and Indigenous peoples’ interests are often in conflict. Firestone et al. (2005: 220) suggest, however, that

a fundamental change is occurring in the way Indigenous peoples’ rights, aspirations and knowledge influence international environmental law. Whereas historically, international environmental law was state-centred and did not concern the rights and the role of Indigenous communities regarding environmental issues, recently a number of debates have emerged touching on issues central to Indigenous peoples.

The debates referred to by Firestone et al. (2005) include questioning: whether Indigenous people should be encouraged or forced to change their customs so that they align with broader society’s mores and laws; how best to define an Indigenous practice; how to distinguish between culturally essential and merely desirable or ‘cosmetic’ traditional practices; and to what extent should the law permit practices to continue that perhaps should have been discontinued many years ago? The following discussion and the case study explored later in this chapter illustrate some of the complexity inherent in these questions.

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