Indigenous peoples’ climate labor benefits everyone. Should it be paid?


Now 30, Big Wind spent most of their 20s fighting extraction projects. They were at Standing Rock, then, immediately after, traveled east to fight the construction of the Tennessee Gas pipeline. A Northern Arapaho tribal member from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Big Wind learned important financial lessons during those actions: Working collectively in resistance camps means resources are pooled and shared. That’s because climate work, at least at the individual level, doesn’t pay much.

“You’re not really using money inside a camp, even though it’s helping get resources to function,” said Big Wind. “There’s so much possibility, because nobody had to worry about their basic necessities,” they said. 

Outside of the camps is where people like Big Wind have to worry. 

A member of the 30×30 White House Advisory Committee, and a long-time climate activist, Big Wind spoke in Dubai at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December and, from a young age, has crowdfunded conservation initiatives on the Wind River Reservation. 

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

The unpaid labor that Big Wind provides to fight climate change is at the heart of a new paper published in Cambridge University Press called “Wages for Earthwork” — “earthwork” being the term to describe labor that takes care of the planet and provides benefits to all. That work should be compensated, argues essay author 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 need to put a lot of this invisible labor at the center,” Temin said. “A lot of this is obvious to Indigenous communities. Everyone is implicitly benefiting from this.”

The argument may seem quite basic, but the exploitation of unpaid earthwork has far reaching economic dimensions. Take unpaid housework or childcare: labor that maintains society and allows for the economy to continue operating but that 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 — like eldercare or earthwork — lies outside the market.

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

Earthwork, Hatton says, broadens that definition of home by taking care of the Earth as one would tend to a household where everyone lives. “It’s a home more broadly constructed,” she said.

Whereas unpaid housework and childcare have historically fallen to women, unpaid earthwork typically falls to Indigenous peoples, who are expected to steward land and share traditional ecological knowledge for free, says Micheal Mikulewicz, a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “The argument is they should be grateful that we are actually asking and trying to help, which doesn’t help them put food on the table,” Mikulewicz said. 

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

“We don’t really talk about the amount of work and labor that will be necessary to adapt to climate change,” said Mikulewicz. “Actually making 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 really, really 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 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 pressuring non-Indigenous conservation organizations to pick up the tab, but he recognizes that answers are typically dependent on situations with no one-size-fits-all approach to compensation. The funds to help from large conservation organizations are not making 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 securing land tenure rights and supporting local communities’ efforts to protect themselves and their territories against environmentally damaging extractive development projects and conservation projects that kick them off their own land,” he said.

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


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