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Territories of Life

Territories of Life are areas self-governed, managed and conserved by Indigenous peoples or local communities so as to maintain meaningful livelihoods and biocultural diversity, typically inspired by strong attachment to place and non-human life, as well as philosophies and practices of respect and reciprocity that offer crucial alternatives to currently dominant systems. Much of L4E’s work with the Territories of Life concept is centered in the nearby transboundary watersheds that link McGill University and the University of Vermont: the Chateauguay River watershed that runs from the Adirondack Mountains in New York State to the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, and the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River watershed that originates in Vermont and New York and flows north into the St. Lawrence as well.



Focusing on this local scale, L4E researchers partner with Indigenous and local communities to think about how the current state of lifeways and human-Earth relationships of people and communities in the watersheds contribute to local-to-global pressures on critical ecosystem functions, and how imagining and working toward those places as Territories of Life could better provide for long-term human well-being within thriving, life-enhancing ecosystems.  Framing the watersheds as “desired Territories of Life” opens pathways for increasing agroecology, agroforestry, protection of surface and groundwater and biodiversity, and phasing out industrial-scale agriculture, illegal waste disposal, extractive industries and other harmful practices that treat the land as a “sacrifice zone.”  Through this work, L4E is exploring how the two watersheds could move along a long-term trajectory in which the Indigenous and other communities form enduring alliances and law and governance regimes focused on providing meaningful livelihoods within the ecological limits of the territories.

The diverse cultures, ecosystems, rural and urban landscapes and land uses of these watersheds make them particularly interesting and challenging areas for applying the Territories of Life concept. They are culturally diverse in that settler-colonial communities and landholdings dominate their landscapes in both the United States and Canada, but they also include several Indigenous communities, such as the Kanien'kehá:ka community of Kahnawake near Montreal and the Wab-Anaki (Abenaki) community of Odanak northeast of Montreal, as well as a significant amount of the historic, unceded homelands of the Kanien'kehá:ka, Wab-Anaki and other Nations.  Landscapes of these watersheds include mountainous regions (mostly in New York and Vermont), the generally flat St. Lawrence valley (mostly in Quebec), protected areas, forests, vast amounts of agricultural land, and urban and suburban areas. The related land uses are also diverse, including wilderness, recreation, farming, timber harvesting, industrial uses and a wide variety of urban and suburban uses.  Currently, nutrient and pesticide runoff from heavy agricultural use, loss of wetlands, loss of species habitat, surface and groundwater contamination from improper or illegal waste disposal and other environmentally adverse consequences of human activity prevent both watersheds from meeting criteria for Territories of Life.  If people in the watersheds have the average ecological footprint of North Americans, unsustainable consumption patterns persist as well, with heavy reliance on material and energy from outside of the watersheds.  Thus, the pathway from the current “disturbed Territories of Life” to desired and ultimately functioning Territories of Life would undoubtedly be long and face considerable resistance. Community is at the core of Territories of Life, and so a key challenge is defining the communities around which the concept of desired Territories of Life in the watersheds can emerge.

See here for students' work and publications in the region. 

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Credits: Dan Garand

Pictures credits: Geoff Garver.

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