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Our Heritage, Our Future: Indigenous Youth on the Front Lines of Climate Change

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

By Ke Lin (Linka), Movers Envoy and Storyteller of Young Climate Leaders


Every year on 9 August, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed to show solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous youth worldwide by working to end the inequalities they face, recognizing their climate change challenges, and celebrating their knowledge and wisdom.

indigenous young man from malaysia

When the word "Indigenous" is mentioned, what images come to your mind? Is it a secluded life in the jungle, far removed from modernity, clad in grass-weaved garments, and surviving on hunted and gathered food? And what about in the context of climate change and global warming? Do you envision a group of people celebrated for their unique knowledge of harmonious coexistence with nature?


Joshua Belayan, an Indigenous youth with a heritage blending two Indigenous groups from Borneo, Malaysia the Iban and Kayan Dayak group, offers a nuanced perspective on climate change. Growing up, he spent his childhood in a longhouse, a traditional communal house built on stilts, alongside his grandfather. They lived in harmony with the ecological calendar, attuned to the seasons of harvesting and anticipating the fish migratory period.

indigenous young man from borneo speaking on stage

As he was growing up, Joshua began to observe a "trend" within his community. There is a prevailing external perception that Indigenous peoples were resistant to development, consequently being "left behind" in economic terms. To escape poverty's grip, an Indigenous person is expected to sacrifice a part of their Indigenous identity and embrace modernization.


In the early 21st century, the allure of consumerism started to captivate Indigenous communities. When Indigenous individuals ventured into cities, they were advised that progress meant selling their ancestral lands for plantations and earning money to provide education for their children.


What Joshua once knew as a dense forest in his youth has now transformed into sprawling palm oil plantations or into secondary forests. For him, his Indigenous identity is intrinsically tied to his environmental rights.

natural landscape of an indigenous community in borneo at sunset

He also learned from his grandfather that certain traditional practices, like head-hunting, were abolished with the arrival of the Brooke Family, an English family that ruled the state of Sarawak, Malaysia for about one hundred years. Joshua recognizes that blind adherence to all traditions is not the solution, just as fully embracing a modernized approach is not the answer either. It is possible to adapt and evolve practices while staying true to core values. Joshua realized that a faith-based approach to life could bridge our differences of various religious backgrounds and bring people together to address climate change.


Seeking common ground, Joshua discovered that more than 70% of the population in ASEAN countries adheres to a belief system. Thus, he embarked on faith and cultural-based environmentalism projects with

YSEALI. Recognizing that religious organizations often invest in poverty alleviation, the aim is to emphasize the connection between climate change and the hardships faced by economically disadvantaged groups. By addressing climate issues within these communities, poverty can be alleviated.


Every religion has its own commitment to living in harmony with the environment. For instance, Catholicism has "Laudato si," and Islam has its own teachings, the same as in Buddhism. Joshua highlights the local and indigenous knowledge of conservation biology and how these communities have utilized Nature-based Solutions to adapt to environmental changes. The Iban tribe believes in "Tembawang & Sacred Land," where ancestral spirits inhabit the sacred forest. Trees marked with jars (tajau) are considered forbidden to cut, but hunting and gathering are permitted.


Until now, Joshua has organized numerous interfaith dialogues and climate action initiatives such as School for the Planet: Stories of Creation, and Rhyme for Nature, drawing the attention of policymakers and development agencies in ASEAN countries.

indigenous young man speaking at an online event

In redefining Indigenous identity and environmental stewardship, Joshua challenges us to consider a balanced path forward. It is not about rejecting progress or holding on to tradition for tradition's sake. Instead, it is about embracing a value-based approach that respects both the wisdom of the past and the opportunities of the present. Joshua's story serves as a reminder that by harmonizing tradition and modernity, we can forge a sustainable future for all.

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