Opinion Editorial Archive December, 2021: Indigenous Girl of the Year

opinion editorial
Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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We don't usually think of Icelanders as indigenous people — but we should. Most of the population is descended from the Norse and Gaelic settlers who first arrived there around eleven hundred years ago. (Iceland was one of the last large landmasses to be settled in all of human history.)

Mainstream news outlets underreport stories from Iceland. But one story from September this year did garner some international attention. Iceland narrowly failed to become the first parliament in modern history to achieve greater than 50% female representation.

I was struck by this story — having visited Iceland only two months prior. What the mainstream coverage largely missed is that Iceland has the oldest parliament in the world. Also, Icelandic matrilineal ancestry has been genetically traced back to a very small group of female settlers. Furthermore, Iceland is today one of the most progressive societies in the world in terms of gender equality. We should conclude scientifically, then (even though we already knew it), that female political representation is a slow process — notwithstanding that, last month, a woman became symbolically the most powerful person in the world for a whole 85 minutes.

My "Indigenous Girl of the Year" for 2021 is from Iceland. I took this photo on my last day there and immediately thought of her when I read that news story back in September. Two days previously I had visited a geothermal power plant, Hellisheidi. It is currently the world's leading industrial plant for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When I saw this young girl two days later, I recognized that she lives in a country where indigenous knowledge of environmental sustainability is taken seriously. (The capacity for carbon dioxide removal was increased at Hellisheidi in September this year.)

In contrast, we saw at COP26 last month that the world's biggest polluters abandoned indigenous knowledge of environmental sustainability a long time ago. While COP26 had its up moments, key delegates were either down or out; some, of course, were down-and-outs. It would be ironic indeed if the one thing that makes us a unique species, language, brings about our extinction because we cannot admit, for political reasons, that two words represent scientifically measureable terms.

We learned from Malawi's education minister, Agnes Nyalonje, at COP26 that the climate crisis is disproportionately affecting girls in low income countries. By extension, that means it is disproportionately affecting indigenous girls worldwide. As more frequent, extreme climate events lead to school closures in that part of the world, enrollment is disproportionately down and dropout is disproportionately high among girls. Two words do represent scientifically measureable terms.

There was one positive announcement at COP26: $1.7bn was pledged to indigenous peoples in recognition of their critical role in battling climate change. Not that we should think the struggle for indigenous rights is over. We need look back only two weeks to an event in British Columbia, Canada. Not the flooding but the arrest of two journalists for doing their job. Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano were not protesting alongside indigenous Wet'suwet'en people against the Coastal GasLink pipeline — they were merely attempting to report that protest.

While the guilty party (in this case the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) claimed law enforcement as their defense, the important question should be about how Canada can expect to be taken seriously in its diplomatic criticism of the denial of press freedom in other countries. Perhaps the Canadian government has already beta-tested the metaverse. Fortunately for her and the rest of us, my Indigenous Girl of the Year lives in the Icelandverse.

Watch a short film on YouTube about carbon capture at the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant.

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