Peace Science Digest

Conversations on Indigenous and Decolonial Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding: Interview with Dr. Theresa “Isa” Arriola

We conducted a series of interviews with experts to gain deeper insight into Indigenous and decolonial approaches to environmental peacebuilding.

Isa Arriola is an Indigenous Chamorro community and demilitarization advocate and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University. She currently lives on Saipan. Her research and community work explores how the everyday lives and identities of Indigenous peoples are transformed by militarization and imperialism. 

PSD: Can you introduce yourself and how you got into your work?

IA: I was born and raised on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and I’m Chamorro.[1] That [upbringing] gives you a view of war that’s conventional—we learn a lot about WWII history through our grandparents’ stories and U.S. history books. But you don’t really grow up here [in Saipan] with an awareness of the global process of militarization. When I left for college, I really started to think about militarization and I saw that we were so wrapped up in it, but had never been taught that part of the story. This was an intentional invisibility as I later found out but this propelled me into doing my dissertation, called Securing Nature: Militarism, Indigeneity, and the Environment. The reason why I mention the name of the dissertation is because that title is where I started to see the convergence of militarism in the environment. There was this original idea that the environment was just one of the sites where the military impacted us. For example, there was the environment, there was economy, there was culture, etc.  And then I started to realize as time went on that this is all about the environment in a more holistic sense and wasn’t something that could be disconnected from our social and politics lives. This thing that we call the environment and how we imagine the environment, how we relate to the environment, and how our bodies are allowed to move in these spaces. And so, [my work] became this broader project of looking at environmental regulations and constructions of the environment in the context of militarization on Indigenous territories in these islands with a long history of colonialism. 

PSD: It’s interesting, reflecting on my own educational journey, there are parallels in how I was or wasn’t taught about imperialism and militarism. You are taught that there was an imperial period and then decolonization but not this treatment of colonization as an active issue.

IA: Yes, exactly. That’s really what was inspiring to me in the beginning. There’s a term that talks about militarization as a process. I remember feeling like my worldview changed in a lot of ways by [understanding] that war doesn’t necessarily end and we’re still wrapped up in it. How do we not really recognize in so many ways how we’ve been made to feel a certain way about war? When I was starting out, I was really interested in the idea of war and memory, the ways that wars are commemorated. There was a Chamorro scholar, Keith Camacho, in Guam, that had written book called Cultures of Commemoration where he explored how our people talked about, thought about, and remembered war. Why do we not think we’re as wrapped up in it as we were in the past? There is a bleeding into the contemporary moment where it is much harder to identify how things are being militarized. There’s this way of thinking about war where it’s all about this notion of security and we’re not aware of what the economics are or how our social life is being influenced. Then this word, “strategic,” which I’m always insistent on unpacking because it’s so overused and it’s so loaded. So much war preparation is justified by this one word. Everything is in the name of national defense, but then what does that mean for us, especially in these “territories”? Essentially, over the years, we find our environmental goals, our political goals, our economic goals are swayed toward bolstering United States [defense] goals. They’re not even necessarily our goals because we’ve been colonized for so long. There’s this very deep connection to the U.S. and this feeling that supporting the military is supporting the U.S. because they’ve always supported us. It takes a lot to break through that because if you challenge it, you’re considered anti-military, anti-those sentiments that people want to be associated with.

PSD: In our special issue, we use the following definition for environmental peacebuilding from an International Affairs special issue: “environmental peacebuilding comprises the multiple approaches and pathways by which the management of environmental issues is integrated in and can support conflict prevention, mitigation, resolution, and recovery.”[2] What is your reaction to this definition? Anything you might add or change?

IA: I appreciate the notion of multiple approaches, but also know that the environment is also such a loaded term particularly within governmental spaces. We should always contextualize what we mean by the environment and how the term itself is couched in existing political systems and histories. It’s not just that there are differing perspectives but that there’s a stake in those differences. There’s a political reality that creates hierarchies of legitimacy in terms of environmental knowledge and intelligence. There’s also a cultural politics that highlight the changing definition of the environment and our place within it. I was thinking about the ways that these issues [are] systemic at this point. It’s not a mistake that Indigenous folks aren’t often part of planning environmental changes but are viewed as consultants, not owners in the process or knowledge producers.

There are also two words that stuck out to me in this definition. The word “management” strikes me and it’s reminiscent of institutional jargon that implies a sense of control over what we can do to the environment rather than how we are a part of it. Also, the word “mitigation,” perhaps we’ve been given a false sense of the ability to make things better after we’ve destroyed things in some ways. It begs the question of who bears responsibility for mitigating and for fixing those things? 

PSD: Can you describe how Indigenous or decolonial approaches are distinct in environmental peacebuilding?  

IA: We center the land in our perspectives and worldviews because it’s what gives us life, it’s what sustains us and our identities as people. The environment is something that’s genealogical, not something outside of us in any way. It’s not romanticized either. I think there’s a tendency for Indigenous perspectives to be added onto existing discussions about the environment rather than understood as part of creating or foundational to our understandings. 

Indigenous and decolonial approaches don’t shy away from the political. They understand that our contemporary moments are shaped by distinct histories of dispossession and that the environment has often been a site of dispossession for Indigenous peoples. Toxicity, destruction, and pollution on Indigenous lands is a systemic problem built on Indigenous erasure primarily because Indigenous life is a constant reminder of settler injustice and extraction over the land. A distinct Indigenous approach would be that all environmental planning and regulatory work has to be connected to Indigenous calls for “land back.” Institutions are deeply invested in the status quo that participate in this erasure and so thinking about the environment in the context of “land back” means something other than protecting capitalistic interests, it means returning land to its rightful caretakers and stewards and recognizing that this benefits everyone, not just a select few. This is why building Indigenous global solidarity is so important because it allows us to build power to make the appropriate changes that center the health of the land.

Sometimes we forget that imperial ideologies about the environment are just that—ideologies—because they are hegemonic and unquestioned. But Indigenous peoples defy these logics through their existence everyday. This means that what the environment is and how we relate to it shifts and changes and doesn’t have one Eurocentric definition that is unchanging. It’s really tough to cut through that notion at a regulatory level or at a community level where we have to strike a balance and consensus between different kinds of expertise. 

We also realize that we don’t just live on the land and do things to it, like impact it, but the land transforms us as well and we are it. Decision-making about environmental changes can’t simply be understood as top-down decisions in the realm of environmental regulation, but instead are rooted in community-building and theorizing about place that is linked to sustainable living. I mean sustainable in a very broad way not just greening things, but also politically sustainable because you can’t make sovereign decisions about your environment when you’re politically subordinated or under duress. For example, on our islands, sometimes we make environmental policy decisions based on the needs of the military, like exempting them from conservation spaces or allowing them to skirt local environmental laws to complete their goals. This is why demilitarization work in environmental spaces inevitably takes on that political dimension. It’s not just about stopping the military from destroying an island, for example, it’s also about Indigenous resurgence and cultivating a deeper sense of self-determination and Indigenous sovereignty that create long-term safety.

PSD: Which is why it can be perceived as very threatening to the status quo.

IA: Absolutely. That’s why it gets so violent. When you assert those rights, even if you’re saying that you’re trying to advance Indigenous sovereignty, you get pushback from folks that feel this is all American territory that can be sacrificed for the broader nation. It’s been so interesting throughout the years to see who’s most upset by calling out militarism in our community. A gendered analysis is important here because it’s threatening to this very patriarchal way of thinking about land and what militarized security looks like from that perspective. But as I’ve learned from bell hooks’ analysis of militarism and feminism, it’s really rooted in imperialism. Indigenous perspectives are intersectional in that way too. We’re always thinking through the politics of all of this. Why is it that normally women are at the forefront of demilitarization movements? Historically, our society has been matriarchal and, even though that’s shifted, there’s aspects that we’ve maintained in this struggle. So many of the resistance movements are led by older, Indigenous women that then train the younger generation of women. In our own community here, I owe so much to Cinta Kaipat. She was a former representative here and had a deeply impactful role in the community. She was a knowledge keeper, a musician, a mentor. There were so many things that she was, but she was dedicated to spreading this cause and garnering a whole group of younger women to understand the importance of our lineages in these islands

PSD: I’m so happy you brought up a gender component. My own thinking on patriarchy and internalized misogyny has helped me to better understand this relationship with other systems of oppression, like colonization.

IA: Women in the movement have described what’s happening here as a “rape” of our lands and waters as if they are just there to dominate and spoil. Like, we’re being asked just take it all in the name of defense. Honestly, it’s just the violation that you feel, the sense of powerlessness. You feel like you’re in an abusive relationship where you depend on the military for a lot of things, so you must keep crawling back to them. Economically, militarism is like tourism. It’s a boom and bust economic prospect that isn’t sustainable in the long term. There’s a lot of money that’s promised to our communities, but how that money actually trickles into the community is yet to be seen. Even if [you] rely economically on the military, what are the trade-offs? So, a lot of times it’s this promise of infrastructural development like roads. But it’s really shocking when you look at the records of how much they’ve given us. One of the islands here named No’os was on a 50-year lease by the Pentagon for $20,000. That is pennies. There’s no other way to describe that kind of relationship other than colonial if you’re being honest.

PSD: What does an Indigenous and/or decolonial approach look like in practice? 

IA: A decolonial practice means prioritizing the safety of the land and aligning environmental and political goals with Indigenous sovereignty. As Unangax̂ scholar Eve Tuck and K. Yang have shown us, it’s not metaphorical or performative. It means investing in community. It means language revitalization. It means reinterpreting conventional histories from islander perspectives. It means imagining alternatives beyond militarism. It means respect and humility in relationship building and making room for error. It also means resisting imperial and Orwellian narratives about the environment that work to convince us that violence or war preparation, for example, are acceptable forms of environmental governance and stewardship. It’s intersectional and it’s honest about the real damage that colonialism has caused and continues to cause on world systems rather than viewing colonialism as something in the distant past. 

You can’t be equitable in peacebuilding if you’re ignoring the sociopolitical and economic realities of Indigenous peoples whose land extractive systems are literally built upon. Indigeneity is always in the making. It’s not simply an add-on to theorizing about peace. It’s fundamental to understanding power differentials in the world. 

There are also deep core Chamorro cultural values like respect and humility that are very much part of the decolonial process here. If you’re not careful, you would think that you’re making a lot of progress in some ways, for example in conservation, but if you don’t have a decolonial approach, you can end up doing much more harm to the very communities that are supposed to be protected. That happens all the time. Like, there are federal environmental regulations that are meant to protect the environment but can harm Indigenous communities. For example, what good are environmental regulations that restrict local access to fishing for war preparation?

PSD: How does militarism and militarization show up in environmental peacebuilding? 

We’ve gotten to a point where you simply can’t talk about the environment without addressing militarization and the role of the military industrial complex. When the U.S. spends 1 trillion dollars on the Pentagon budget, you can see where the country’s priorities lie. Our islands are critically connected to this budget because billions of those dollars are now being used to invest in war preparation and military infrastructure in this region called “Indo-Pacific.”  That hypermilitarization has caused many Indigenous folks to pause and say: What is actually security here? How are we defining security? If it’s more militarizing, then that’s not sustainable. I want to be very clear: militarism is not environmentally friendly. Militarism is no substitute for conservation, even if certain species flourish in spaces where the military restricts movement, and certainly it is not a form of stewardship. It is simply greenwashing and, quite frankly, Orwellian to describe militarism as a kind of stewardship over the sea. The Pentagon is bombing No’os as I mentioned earlier, and there’s coral growth around the island as a result since nobody can develop the island or access the land because it’s so dangerous. The Navy will cite that coral growth as a positive outcome of their bombing. That is not Indigenous stewardship. The military has entirely different goals. They want to boost their capabilities to engage in war, and war technologies, and things like that. Those are not our goals. We have such a discrepancy in what we see as stewardship. For us, it’s being able to trace your genealogy to the land peacefully and continue to flourish for generations to come—that’s a very different definition of sustainability for us.

Militarism is transformative because it shifts environmental policy in the service of this notion of national defense. That term is very misleading because not only does security often mean more investments in war or more weapons in Pentagon terms, but also the term can only think in very state-centered ways that make no room for other interpretations of what sovereignty might look like outside of the state. This is especially troublesome in a place like the Marianas where political status is something apart from Indigenous identity. If you look at Guam—Guam is on the list of non-self-governing territories. They don’t even have a political status, they are a colony. So, what does security look like from the perspective of a colony? I think about this quote by Jaskiran Dhillon in her introduction to a special issue in Environment and Society where she says, “Contemporary manifestations of colonial violence are deeply interconnected to environmental violence.” This perspective is important for making sense of how militarism is a form of colonialism that enlists the environment at all costs to support the goals of the nation state especially in Indigenous territories where political power is lacking. Bombing an island, which is destructive, is turned into a necessary for national defense. To me, that’s environmental violence that is tied to colonialism in the Pacific.

Militarism is quite incompatible with Indigenous knowledge about the environment because it often leaves lands polluted, toxic and, worse, uninhabitable. It redlines where people can fish, collect local medicine, and so forth. It causes psychological stress of marine mammals through sonar usage and testing. There’s so much we simply don’t know about how militarism is impacting the environment. We have found that throughout the years, when the Pentagon produced environmental impact statements, they often lack critical baseline data about the environment to make appropriate assessments. If they do, often this information is coming from scientists hired by the Pentagon. So, I think in this case, we have to work hard to shift the very idea of what the environment is and how we can relate to it in this literature. This is really key for me. So much of the way that the Pentagon talks about environmental transformation is through the use of this word “impact.” That has very serious consequences in the way that they see what they’re doing. For example, they can impact the environment but then they can mitigate it so that’s supposed to make everything better, but how do you mitigate irreparable damage? In the long term, we see that that mitigation doesn’t always happen. In other words, there’s no way to bring things back to the way they were. There’s no real oversight for any of that happening. Even if we can get the land back, what if it’s so toxic or bombed out? What does that mean for our futures?

You almost have to take a couple steps back and remind yourself that bombing is not safe. It seems so simple, but it’s because we’ve become so desensitized to it. Sometimes in the Northern Marianas, you see these notices in the newspaper that tell the public about the times and dates when the military will be bombing one of the northern islands and there is a ten-mile radius around the island where nobody can enter, even the fishing community, because it’s so dangerous. Nobody even blinks an eye anymore about those advertisements. To me, these are glaring, horrific reminders that there’s islands being bombed and we hardly notice or if we do, we make ourselves feel better by saying that it’s necessary for our safety. I always want to keep that sense of shock and grief. That these things don’t have to be this way and that we don’t have to resign ourselves [to] how our environmental futures being framed in those ways. We still have the ability to articulate a sovereignty that protects us from this, and that’s a safer future for all of us.

Continued Reading

Arriola, T. H. (2020). Securing nature: Militarism, indigeneity, and the environment. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California Los Angeles. Retreived April 25, 2024, from:

Dhillon, J. (2022). Indigenous resurgence: Decolonization and movements for environmental justice. Berghahn Books.

Kaipat, C. (2019, July 24). On the militarization of Pågan and defending island sovereignty. For the Wild. Retrieved April 25, 2024, from:

Na’puti, T. R., & Kuper, K. G. (2021). Special issue on militarization of the Mariana Islands. Micronesian Educator, 31.

Burrell, A., & Bunts-Anderson, K. (2023). A Marianas mosaic: Signs and shifts in contemporary island life. University of Guam Press.

Whyte, K. (2018). Settler colonialism, ecology and environmental injustice. Environment and Society, 9, 124-144.

Photo credit: Theresa “Isa” Arriola

[1] The Chamorro people are the Indigenous people of the Mariana Islands, which includes Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

[2] Ide, T., Bruch, C., Carius, A., Conca, K., Dabelko, G. D., Matthew, R., & Weinthal, E. (2021). The past and future(s) of environmental peacebuilding. International Affairs, 91(1). doi: 10.1093/ia/iiaa177

This interview is featured in our Special Issue: Decolonial and Indigenous Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding.