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Hawaii is just one area experiencing chronic food insecurity in the midst of climate change’s wide-ranging natural consequences. As the world searches for viable pathways to sustainability, indigenous communities around the globe are finding solutions for the future by looking to traditions of the past—including in Hawaii, which has turned to ancient fishponds as a way to help make the state more self-sufficient.

On the global level, impact investors can learn from how many indigenous populations approach sustainable solutions to modern problems such as racial inequality, financial instability, and climate change. It is becoming ever more clear that achieving a range of ESG and UN SDG goals hinges on greater engagement with and support of indigenous peoples. Hawaii’s fishponds offer an example of how these communities show ingenuity and resilience in the face of change.

Protecting Vulnerable Communities

Indigenous peoples represent less than 5% of the world population. Yet they own, use, or occupy 22% of the global land area in which exists 80% of the world’s biological diversity. Beyond often having comparatively small population sizes, these communities are also more likely to come up against isolation, the absence of recognized rights over their territories and resources, and a lack of access to educational and professional opportunities. Amid this combination of factors, many indigenous populations have become increasingly vulnerable to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) changes, particularly climate change.

Despite such vulnerabilities, indigenous societies are finding success with unique approaches to climate change, many of which echo long-held traditions that emphasize a balance with and respect for nature. Combining traditional and modern methods of land management and food production may offer opportunities for new progress on environmental, social, and economic issues alike.

Indigenous societies are finding success with unique approaches to climate change, many of which echo long-held traditions that emphasize a balance with and respect for nature.

Case Study: Studying Hawaii’s Fishponds

Traditional Hawaiian fishponds—managed, natural ponds used in fish farming—offer an excellent example of resourcefulness amongst a native people as well as a model of sustainability. Indigenous Hawaiians studied the currents and built these ponds to lure fish toward a sluice gate, allowing small fish to escape but trapping larger fish. While in the pond, the fish feed on cultivated algae; thus, once established, the ponds are largely self-sustaining.

Reviving Old Traditions for a New Age

Researchers estimate there were 488 fishponds across the Hawaiian Islands prior to contact with Westerners. Their use has declined in modern times, however, primarily due to Westernization and related changes such as increasing development, the spread of invasive mangroves, and sediment accumulation.

Modernization has also left Hawaiians dependent on mainland food: Hawaii imports up to 90 percent of its food annually. This opens up potential vulnerabilities to natural disasters—pandemics included—as well as to economic and political instabilities. With each pond able to produce up to 300–500 pounds of fish per acre annually, fishponds may provide part of a sustainable solution.

Centering Community Leadership

As with many efforts to lift up indigenous people, both from within these communities themselves and from the rest of the world, community organizations often play a major role. In Hawaii, fishpond practitioners came together to form Hui Malama Loko I’a, a group dedicated to mutual empowerment via leveraging their skills, knowledge, and resources to restore and manage Hawaii’s fishponds. This group contributed to a more streamlined permitting process in 2015, which reduced regulatory barriers to restoration efforts.

Their success has inspired others, strengthening the movement across the board. There are now approximately 49 different fishponds across the Hawaiian Islands, managed by 35 different community groups including the Mālama Loko Ea Foundation and the Maui Fishpond Association.

Fishpond restoration projects in Hawaii range from concerted efforts to informal endeavors, with some establishing relationships with landowners or purchasing land themselves to physically rebuild the fishponds. Others work to engage the community and raise awareness of this cultural resource.

Focusing on Inclusion

Many modern indigenous practices connect ideas around sustainability to a rich history and tradition of living in balance with nature. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals recognize the value in this and incorporate indigenous peoples.

Despite this acknowledgment, more progress is required to truly include indigenous populations in ESG considerations. A 2020 survey by US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment found that, although 75% of its members include “indigenous peoples issues” in their social investment practices, fewer than 20% of them had actually developed specific criteria for them. Furthermore, 56% indicated indigenous peoples were part of a broader human rights screen. Of the leading ESG standards in use today, only two currently make cursory references to indigenous issues—the Global Reporting Initiative and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.

Raising Indigenous Voices

Despite the lack of attention paid to indigenous issues among formal ESG factors, a variety of community foundations have devoted themselves to expanding indigenous peoples’ influence in socially responsible investing spaces.

  • NDN Collective fosters sustainable solutions on indigenous terms by “grounding investment strategy in Indigenous systems thinking.” The NDN Fund provides debt financing and capacity-building services for large-scale projects and businesses to help indigenous peoples access technical knowledge and networks.
  • Native Americans in Philanthropy boasts a mission of “equipping philanthropy with resources to maximize investments in Indigenous communities in the US” through its work in the areas of youth, education, climate justice and environment, health, employment, and women and girls.
  • International Funders for Indigenous Peoples states that it is “the only global donor affinity group dedicated solely to Indigenous peoples around the world.” The organization works to get indigenous peoples recognized as high-impact investments by philanthropists.

As the largest minority in the world and stewards of the majority of the world’s biodiversity, it makes sense for investors seeking to make an impact to look to indigenous populations for sustainable solutions. In the same vein, omitting the interests and concerns of indigenous populations from ESG standards presents risks to investors as well as silences potential solutions to universal challenges.

Any company, security, fund or other investment identified herein is provided solely for illustrative purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any such investment.

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