WATERLOO – A new study led by a Wilfrid Laurier University researcher found that land dispossession due to industrial resource development has predominantly negative mental health impacts on Indigenous communities. After reviewing global examples of extraction projects developed on Indigenous territories such as mines and hydroelectric dams, the research team discovered corresponding threats to Indigenous ways of life and child welfare, and the introduction of harmful substances and racism to communities.
The study, published in The Lancet: Planetary Health, calls for industry and government actors to include mental health risks as a necessary component of health impact assessments for potential resource development projects. It should be a critical aspect of free, prior and informed decision-making for Indigenous rightsholders and land custodians, according to the researchers.
Land dispossession is defined as the taking or using of Indigenous land without free, prior and informed consent. Primary author Assistant Professor Melody Morton Ninomiya, the Canada Research Chair in Community-Driven Knowledge Mobilization and Pathways to Wellness at Laurier, highlights that land is a key determinant of health, especially for Indigenous communities whose knowledge systems, culture and survival are intimately connected to it.
“For most Indigenous nations involved in the studies we looked at, the land was their sustenance,” said Morton Ninomiya. “When communities can’t access the land that is core to their identities, sense of purpose and history, it impacts all facets of their sense of collective self. Communities start to lose their language, for example, because they can’t engage and teach younger generations the activities and ceremonies that the language is embedded within. Even burial sites of ancestors have been flooded or contaminated.”
The research team analyzed 29 case studies of Indigenous land dispossession from Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, and the Arctic. The industries represented included hydroelectricity, petroleum, mining and agriculture. These developments often had significant adverse effects on local ecosystems and, in many cases, led to community displacement or substantial changes to the social and economic lives of community members. Indigenous rightsholders and land custodians often did not consent to the projects, or were excluded from meaningful involvement in decision-making processes and were not involved in health impact assessments.
Beginning with the “covert” tactics used to take over Indigenous land for resource development, Morton Ninomiya says the subsequent ripple effects on community wellness are rapid.
“There are typically efforts to hire a few people from the community to work at industrial sites, which is often short term,” she said. “This injection of new money can create economic and cultural disparities within the community. And when non-Indigenous workers are brought in for projects, they often have little knowledge or understanding of the local people or respect for the land. This can bring a lot of violence, racism and the introduction of greater substance use. Such changes to the social fabric start to infiltrate the health of family units and can have intergenerational effects.”
Morton Ninomiya notes that some Indigenous nations have asserted their interests and use industry to help their communities thrive. In such cases, self-determination was a key factor in avoiding adverse mental health outcomes.
“Indigenous rights must be respected to determine what is best for their communities based on transparent, thorough risk assessment processes,” said Morton Ninomiya. “Just as we conduct environmental and physical health assessments, we need to prioritize risk management for mental, spiritual and other cultural realms as well.”
Morton Ninomiya’s team made sure to prioritize the voices of Indigenous peoples in its systematic review paper. The study was initiated by West Moberly First Nations in British Columbia. As part of an ongoing legal battle to halt the construction of a dam on their ancestral lands, the First Nation sought out Morton Ninomiya as a content expert to conduct research on the mental health impacts of similar developments. West Moberly First Nations helped to shape the research questions but remained at arm’s length during the research process.
Co-authors of the study included Laurier researcher Alex Latta, associate professor of Global Studies, and alumna Nicole Burns (BA ’16, MA ’20).