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A Lakota Perspective on the United States’ Non-Commitment at UNEA6

by Anpotowin Jensen, Oglala Lakota Nation

Embarking on the journey to the UN Environment Assembly Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, I felt a mixture of excitement and determination. Over the years, I spent an obsessive amount of time studying the legacy of treaties within the international realm and their growing relationship to Lakota science-led interventions.

With this, my goal was clear: to delve deeper into the intricate process of drafting of declarations and resolutions, a subject that had captivated me since my participation in the ICCM5 in Bonn, Germany. There, amidst a diverse youth cohort, I witnessed the art of policy-making unfold, igniting within me a fervent desire to understand how nations position themselves in global negotiations.

Presenting an Indigenous-led youth project on the impacts of intergenerational mining at the conference was a pivotal moment for me in Bonn.  It was a testament to the power of grassroots efforts to bring awareness to the environmental challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples, including the contamination of our drinking waters. As a Lakota individual, sharing our Nation’s struggles on a global platform resonated deeply with me, underscoring the importance of addressing the health disparities experienced by my people – an injustice that began with the violation of our treaties as early as 1872.

What struck me most during the conference was the realization that our experiences in this were not isolated. Across the globe, youth activists were grappling with the repercussions of decisions made by today’s leaders, acutely aware that the consequences would shape our collective future.  However, the Lakota perspective offers a unique insight into these challenges, rooted in our historical treaties with the United States.

These treaties were signed as a result of my Nation and allied Nations defeating the U.S government in multiple wars including the notable Battle of Greasy Grass or Battle of the Little Bighorn. Today, these treaties are not only considered supreme law of the land but are internationally recognized, a legacy brought forward to the United Nations by Lakota activists. Today, these treaties are what brought education, healthcare such as the Indian Health Service and the protection of the environment within treaty boundaries. Till this day, the U.S fails to meet treaty obligations and is continuously reminded of it.

Drawing on my experiences in Bonn and my knowledge of Lakota history, I eagerly observed discussions on air pollution, water policies, climate justice, and mineral extraction at UNEA6. It was disheartening to witness the dominance of developed nations over developing countries, particularly in shaping the discourse around climate change mitigation. Moreover, the U.S.’s reluctance to commit to legally binding agreements further underscored the disparities in global decision-making.

Two instances epitomized this reluctance. Firstly, in the water policies resolution, paragraph (h) exemplified the U.S.’s aversion to stringent commitments:

“(h) Promote dialogue [at all levels (ETH)] (USA, CHN del) and in (RSA) collaboration with (RSA) [on] (RSA del) [traditional knowledge and SAU, CHN)](US A del) Indigenous [Peoples] (USA del) knowledge [and traditional] (USA de)local (USA) knowledge] (SAU, USA del) and approaches related water (BRA, IND, SAU) [on water-related nature-based solutions and’or ecosystems-based approaches (USA)] (BRA, IND, KEN del), including among others (SAU) (for (SAU del) integrated sustainable and climate-resilient tank cascade system and management (KEN);”

In the paragraph above, notice how Ethiopia, a developing country, suggested dialogue to be at all levels; whereas two global north countries opted to have the commitment deleted. Furthermore, it is from my understanding that the deletion of traditional knowledge and Indigenous Peoples are meant to further undermine any commitments in upholding the rights of Indigenous Peoples especially in regards to the UN Declaration of Rights on Indigenous Peoples.

Secondly, the debate over the use of “Nation” versus “countries” highlighted the exclusion of Indigenous Nations from international discussions, a glaring oversight with far-reaching implications. This was found in the climate justice resolution:

“PP2 Welcoming the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including the Sixth Assessment Report, and take notes that all [nations] (CAN, NOR, EU del) countries (CAN, NOR, EU) are subject to the impacts of climate change, and that in particular, [vulnerable communities](SA, BRA del) developing countries (SA, BRA)(USA keep original) who have historically contributed the least to current climate change, are disproportionately affected, (while some mitigation options can have trade-offs with other aspects of sustainable development.] (RUS) (NOR del)”

I posit that the U.S.’s apprehension towards legally binding agreements stems from a deep-seated fear of honoring its treaty obligations. This reluctance undermines our collective efforts to enact meaningful change on a global scale, perpetuating a cycle of environmental degradation and injustice.

As a youth advocate, I am privileged to have been able to witness history at UNEA6, yet am painfully aware of the voices that remain unheard. It is incumbent upon us to hold the U.S. accountable, aligning its obligations to tribes with its international commitments on planetary health. By amplifying Indigenous perspectives and prioritizing Indigenous Nation’s in decision-making processes, we can forge a path towards genuine climate resilience and justice.

In conclusion, our inherent sovereignty predates the United States, underscoring the imperative of including Indigenous voices in global conversations on environmental stewardship. Words hold power, and it is time for the U.S. to acknowledge the impact of its actions—or inactions—on Indigenous Peoples and the planet at large.

Imagine how different the world would be, if I, a sovereign Lakota, sat right next to a member state with the decision making power and the ability to influence and craft the words aiding a global framework in addressing the planetary crisis. The world would look very different, perhaps we might actually mitigate the globe’s descent in climate change and further descent into colonialism.

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