Rights and Responsibilities:
An Inextricable Link
Langscape Magazine, Volume 12, 2023
The 1990s and early 2000s were momentous years for the global Indigenous Peoples’ movement—years marked by a fervor of activities around the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Those efforts culminated in 1994 with the drafting of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP, officially adopted by the UN in 2007). Bookending the formulation of that historic declaration were the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, which enshrined the preservation and promotion of Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ traditional knowledge and practices relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and the 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, adopted by UNESCO to protect and promote the diversity of cultures around the world.
Those were also heady years for the development of a novel idea: biocultural diversity. Building on key precedents like the International Society of Ethnobiology’s 1988 Declaration of Belém—which had affirmed the existence of an “inextricable link” between biodiversity and cultural diversity—the idea of biocultural diversity emerged in the mid-1990s as a holistic way to think of the diversity of life in all its forms: biological, cultural, and linguistic. That perspective was germane to Indigenous worldviews, which see language, culture, and land as intrinsically interconnected, and it naturally lent support to the Indigenous Peoples’ movement. It’s no surprise, then, that rights issues had a major place in one of the field’s founding books, the 2001 edited volume On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge, and the Environment.
In my own contribution to the book, a chapter titled “Language, Knowledge, and Indigenous Heritage Rights,” I ventured to suggest the need for a new, biocultural framework for the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. At the same time, I found myself musing on how, in Indigenous worldviews, there appears to be another “inextricable link”: that between rights and responsibilities—people’s responsibilities toward one another and toward their languages, cultures, and lands. UNDRIP itself had, at least in part, made that connection. Yet, in the ongoing debates, one side of the coin—rights—was far more in view that the other—responsibilities. With plenty of reason: colonialism had denied and trampled Indigenous Peoples’ self-determination, and that vital space had to be reclaimed. That’s where the battle began to be couched and fought in terms of rights. And, in the heat of the battle, that those reclaimed rights ought to be not an end in themselves but a means to a renewed, reaffirmed ability to fulfill traditional responsibilities, remained less in focus.
I doubt whether anyone read my chapter. Even I forgot about it—until more than two decades later, that is. As I was contemplating a theme for the 2023 issue of the magazine, somehow the thought of the inextricable link between rights and responsibilities re-emerged in my mind. And I suddenly realized: in the meantime, a small but growing contingent of scholars and activists, Indigenous and not, had been busy exploring that topic and had expressed some powerful views in that regard.
Witness the words of Chief Oren Lyons (Onondaga): “The [US] Bill of Rights—that’s what you [settlers] called it. Our instruction has always been about responsibility. So, it should’ve been the Bill of Responsibility. If it was the Bill of Responsibility, I think we’d be in better shape today than [we are with] the Bill of Rights.” Paradoxically, some of these thinkers suggest, a largely exogenous focus on rights may have ended up being a distraction from the performance of inherent responsibilities. As Jeff Ganohalidoh Corntassel (Cherokee) puts it, “Rather than focus on the rights discourse, our energies should be directed where the real power lies: our inherent responsibilities.”
That was the genesis of this issue’s theme. In the pages that follow, a diverse cast of authors from all over the world ask some thought-provoking questions: Can we have rights without responsibilities? Is today’s prevalent focus on rights diverting our attention from our fundamental responsibilities? Can we achieve a biocultural resurgence by claiming our rights alone? Or do we need to reconnect to an ethic of responsibility that once was the hallmark of human communities worldwide?
We begin with a set of think pieces from various corners of the globe. Indigenous Hawaiians, Kawika Winter tells us, traditionally had no concept of “rights.” Rather, their outlook focused on responsibilities—on “taking care.” On that basis, they built an enduring, sustainable “eco-civilization.” While at one point displaced by colonization, that eco-civilization is now being rebuilt and holds invaluable lessons for the world today. Lessons in responsibility are also learned in Jeff Ganohalidoh Corntassel’s story, as he and his daughter drive to their ancestral Cherokee home in what is now the southern United States and stop to help a more-than-human kin—a snapping turtle—out of harm’s way. From that episode, Jeff draws deep reflections on how Indigenous Peoples’ relationships to the lands, waters, and natural world go beyond the current rights discourse and shape their responsibilities, governance, and self-determination.
Mashudu Takalani and Gertrude Pswarayi-Jabson engage in a wide-ranging dialogue about Earth Jurisprudence from their southern African perspective. They explore the idea of Earth as the primary giver of law—law that recognizes the existence of all creation in its totality. That’s where rights and responsibilities intertwine, they argue: we have both the right to participate in the web of life and the responsibility to do so in a respectful, caring way that enables the rights of all other beings. Finally, Nigel Crawhall brings decades of experience in the international organizations arena to bear on his critique of the biases and limitations of Western human rights traditions. Weaving together examples from diverse Indigenous Peoples and local communities, he advocates for the restoration of traditional concepts of rights and responsibilities and for the establishment of a shared ethical framework that will sustain both people and the planet.
In the next section, we witness the often-victorious struggles of several communities in the affirmation of their right to uphold their responsibilities toward their lands. Benjamin Evine-Binet relates the story of the Kota, a forest-dwelling community in Gabon, which has stood for generations—despite colonially imposed displacement, rampant logging, and political corruption—in defense of its “territory of life”: the ancestral lands that the community has always been committed to responsibly protect. In Kenya, Rudo Kemper joins the Ogiek people of Mount Elgon in celebrating boititap korenyo, or the wealth of their lands, which they have cared for since before colonial times but which are now endangered by encroachment, evictions, and forest plantation schemes. In efforts to safeguard their territory and affirm their land rights and ancestral stewardship practices, the Ogiek are engaging in community mapping and the creation of official community plans.
Europe may not immediately come to mind as a site of successful battles in defense of communal lands—but, as Gretchen Walters and Alain Levet show, don’t tell that to the stewards of the last remaining land commons in rural France, who for generations have staved off the government’s attempts to claw those lands back! To this day, those commoners continue to staunchly defend their right to self-govern, thus ensuring the responsible management of the forested commons on which their livelihoods depend. Similarly, Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica fight for legal rights over their lands to uphold their inherent spiritual responsibilities to Mother Earth. In turn, Felipe Montoya and his co-authors point out, from these spiritual responsibilities the communities draw strength in the struggle for the right to their legally established Indigenous Territories.
Other communities grapple with threats to their biocultural heritage that, coming from external forces, can and often do destabilize ancestral relationships between rights and responsibilities. In the prairies of what is now Alberta, Canada, the Piikani (Blackfoot) seek to uphold their sacred custodianship of and responsibility to their traditional lands, which exogenous development has been encroaching upon. They are doing so, Ira Provost explains, by formulating biocultural community protocols that are meant both to reaffirm and strengthen Piikanissini, “the Piikani way of life and being,” and to communicate it effectively to external actors. On the Greek island of Kalamos, Léa Denieul-Pinsky witnesses the social and environmental pressures that are jeopardizing the traditional way of life of the local fishing communities and transforming their relationship with the land and sea. While younger generations seem to welcome that change, older people ponder their course of action: should they reclaim their communal rights by legal means or simply go ahead and reaffirm their responsibilities on the ground—or maybe both?
In some cases, the threats are of such nature and magnitude that, by and large, they defy communities’ ability to uphold their rights and exert their responsibilities. In Mexico, Thor Morales documents the harrowing plight of another fishing community, Las Barrancas, the right of whose Afro-Mexican members to an ecologically responsible way of life is being threatened by climate-change-driven sea level rise. In this cautionary tale, the community’s valiant efforts to adapt are no match for the might of the sea that’s increasingly lapping at their doorsteps. Drawing from his work with internally displaced people in the Congo, Paulin Regnard, a civilian peacekeeper, illustrates the daunting challenges of safeguarding biocultural heritage in conflict situations. At the same time, he explores the role of biocultural rights and responsibilities in achieving reconciliation and peace in conflict areas.
Other stories in this section bring up a twist: for better or worse, sometimes matters of rights and responsibilities don’t quite work the way one might conventionally expect. Reflecting on his background as a Canadian of Chinese and French descent and on his field experiences with Indigenous communities in Costa Rica, Chang Liu explores a paradox: few will question the fundamental right to formal education; yet, if formal education is predicated—as it mostly is—on suppressing mother tongues and traditional knowledge, it ends up perpetuating the colonial structures that undermine biocultural diversity. Instead, he invites us to envision a right to an education anchored in one’s biocultural heritage and ancestral responsibilities. Kanna Siripurapu and Aniket Bambole bust another widespread myth: that of men as the more enterprising gender. They take us to an Indigenous Gond community in India, where people are endeavoring to reaffirm their long-curtailed traditional rights and responsibilities to land and resources. After the village men attempt but utterly fail to restore the community’s fisheries in a nearby wetland area, the women organize in a self-help group and resoundingly succeed.
The section closes with two more examples of communities that reclaim their responsible relationship to the land by rekindling traditional skills. In Nepal, Sheetal Vaidya and her co-authors visit an Indigenous Newah rice farming community that has taken responsibility to counter environmental degradation and loss of cultural identity. By protecting and sustainably managing their lands and resources, they were able to restore an age-old tradition of weaving rice straw into useful objects, creating employment and reducing the labor migration that was threatening the community’s cultural integrity. In turn, Native Californians have been striving for years to revive the ancestral practice of cultural burning that was traditionally employed to reduce fire risk and foster forest regeneration. Jeanine Pfeiffer relates how an intertribal alliance affirms the right to bring the practice back and teaches young community members about responsibility while training them in the use of “good fire.”
Journeys—whether in physical or existential space—can be life-changing, as the stories in the next section reveal. Abraham Ofori-Henaku, a young creative from Ghana, reflects on his life’s path and learns about the “price of his negligence”: by choosing “modernity” and a culture of rights, he had been ignoring his ancestral cultural background and the social and environmental responsibilities that come with it. Now conscious that there are no rights without responsibilities, he vows to do his part to foster a biocultural resurgence. Jessica Herman, a young Canadian of Guyanese and German heritage, reaches similar conclusions during a solo wilderness hike: Western culture has disconnected people from place and given them a sense of entitlement rather than of responsibility. Remembering that our privileges always come with responsibilities, she muses, is the first step toward healing and regeneration.
Kathryn Morgan, an Australian landscape designer, visits a bay in the Sydney area and notices the absence of references to the Aboriginal people who are the rightful owners and caregivers of the land. She embarks on a journey of the imagination, in which—having taken responsibility to learn about the people, the place, and the language that connects the two—she envisions and depicts the clash of worldviews as Aboriginal people and settlers come into contact along the shores of the bay. Finally, Darcy Ottey, writing with Sharon Shay Sloan, visits her ancestral Ukrainian home and reflects on the hard fact that, having emigrated to the United States to flee oppression in Eastern Europe, her ancestors joined the settlers who, in turn, became colonizers and oppressors in the New World. And she asks herself difficult questions about settlers’ responsibilities in decolonizing their minds and supporting Indigenous sovereignty.
This issue’s last section focuses our attention on the more-than-human kin with whom we share the earth. Expressing the worldview of the Indigenous Karen of Burma (Myanmar), Saw Moe Aung puts it unequivocally: “We are wildlife; wildlife is us.” Inextricably linked to the environment and its plant and animal life, people have both the right to draw from nature for their subsistence and the responsibility to follow traditional practices to protect it. During her research in Sri Lanka, Elizabeth Oriel learns about an age-old social contract between humans and elephants that has ensured coexistence through the shared use of water bodies. Seeking to think with water, she suggests that being responsible to the earth means “learning the patterns that constitute the living world’s philosophy.” In a powerful conclusion to this section and to this Langscape issue, Jay Cooney and Brandon Harrell contrast Native American views of wildlife as fellow nations, along with whom we participate in and draw from an interdependent web of life, to settlers’ view of dominion over and extraction from nature. Countering the latter view, they argue, doesn’t call for a hands-off, detached approach; on the contrary, it requires taking responsibility for full immersion—a continuous contact with wildlife that is needed to “understand what they ask of us as fellow nations” and to recognize that “collective flourishing is achieved by tending to the places that truly sustain us.”
Complementing this remarkable set of stories are three web extras available online, all three contributed by young and committed activists. Deven Carse, writing with his sister Milana Carse, touches on the issue of the biocultural heritage of displaced people, which we already encountered in Paulin Regnard’s story. In Chicago, he takes responsibility to teach English to Rohingya refugees from Burma to help them adjust to their new home, while reflecting on their right to maintain their language and cultural traditions. Brian Jones learns about responsible stewardship of the land and sea from Indigenous Peoples in Mexico and applies those lessons to environmental protection in both Mexico and Canada. And Pinarsita Juliana, who works with Borneo’s Dayak communities to save their ancestral forests from logging, tells the story of Rani, an intrepid Dayak woman who uses traditional song to speak truth to power—taking her responsibility as a forest guardian to voice her opinion in the battle for her community’s rights.
Back in 2001, I concluded my chapter in On Biocultural Diversity with a heartfelt conviction: innovative thinkers, both Indigenous and not, would someday be able to devise a new, urgently needed, biocultural framework for the protection and thriving of natural and cultural heritage worldwide. Twenty-plus years later, I am in awe of how many such thinkers have put their minds to it—and am thrilled to share the inspiring perspectives of a number of them in the pages of this magazine.
Savor the reading!