April 16, 2024

Now 30, Big Wind spent most of their 20s fighting mining projects. They were at Standing Rockthen, immediately after, traveled east to build the Tennessee Gas Pipeline. A Northern Arapaho tribe member from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Big Wind learned important financial lessons during those actions: Working collectively in resistance camps means pooling and sharing resources. That’s because climate work, at least on an individual level, doesn’t pay much.

“You don’t really use money inside a camp, even though it helps to get resources to function,” said Big Wind. “There are so many possibilities because no one has to worry about their basic necessities,” they said.

Outside the camps is where the likes of Big Wind should worry.

A member of the 30×30 White House Advisory Committee, and a longtime climate activist, Big Wind spoken in Dubai by the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December and has funded conservation initiatives on the Wind River Reserve from an early age.

“I’m not paid to go to these things,” Big Wind said, “by these institutions, by the Fed or by the international community.” Big Wind’s day job at the Wyoming Outdoor Council helps pay for some of these trips, and they still rely on crowdfunding to support travel.

The unpaid labor Big Wind provides to fight climate change is at the heart of a new paper published in Cambridge University Press “Wages for Earthwork” — “earthwork” is the term to describe labor that cares for the planet and provides benefits to all. That work should be compensated, argues essayist David Temin, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

“If we’re going to think about a just transition to a world without fossil fuels, we have to put a lot of this invisible labor at the center,” said Temin. “A lot of this is obvious to indigenous communities. Everyone implicitly benefits from this.”

The argument may seem quite basic, but the exploitation of unpaid land labor has far-reaching economic dimensions. Take unpaid housework or childcare: labor that sustains society and allows the economy to continue, but is invisible in everything from labor markets to gross domestic products. Because productivity in most economies is a matter of goods and services, unpaid labor – such as elderly care or earthwork – lies outside the market.

“The parallel is absolutely apt,” said Erin Hatton, a professor at the University of Buffalo specializing in gender and labor markets. “Because of our capitalist system, labor outside the home has some respect.”

Earthwork, Hatton says, broadens that definition of home by caring for the Earth, as one will tend toward a household where everyone lives. “It’s a house built wider,” she said.

While unpaid housework and childcare have historically fallen to women, unpaid landwork typically falls to indigenous people, who are expected to manage land and share traditional ecological knowledge for free, says Michael Mikulewicz, a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “The argument is that they should be grateful that we actually ask and try to help, which doesn’t help them put food on the table,” Mikulewicz said.

The federal government does provide applications allowances pointed to tribal nations and organizations. This year the Biden administration awarded $120 million dollars to 146 indigenously led projects for everything from climate adaptation planning to community-led resettlement and habitat restoration. But that doesn’t account for all the labor done without federal funding. Grant funding also tends to privilege organizations with the means to pay grant writers, which can leave smaller organizations at a disadvantage.

“We’re not really talking about the amount of work and labor that will be needed to adapt to climate change,” Mikulewicz said. “To actually make changes in our economy, in our society, in the way our economic system works, or even the way we grow food for that matter. The phases of adaptation are very, very diverse.”

Mikulewicz adds that there are no easy answers to solving these imbalances, but that compensating Indigenous climate labor is a step in the right direction and could open up the possibility of broader, more fruitful alliances between environmentalists and labor.

According to Temin, the paper’s author, solutions could range from hourly wages to pressure on non-native conservation organizations to pick up the tab, but he acknowledges that answers typically depend on situations with no one-size-fits-all approach to compensation not. The funds to help from major conservation organizations are do not make it into the hands of local indigenous communities.

However, Temin said the best way for indigenous peoples to start seeing real forms of compensation is for governments to strengthen tribal sovereignty and return traditional lands to indigenous stewardship.

“The most important component is to secure land tenure rights and support local communities’ efforts to protect themselves and their territories from environmentally damaging mining development projects and conservation projects that kick them off their own land,” he said.

Big Wind, on the Wind River Reserve, agrees. “I don’t think money is going to solve it. But I also feel that we have a responsibility to ensure that we take care of the people who work for all of us.”

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