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Climate Stories: Environment, Colonial Legacies and Systemic Change

Meet the people working with diverse communities to build a movement.

Bison skulls in the US in 1870, hunted as part of an attempt to seize land from Indigenous peoples. (Photo: Public Domain)

In under 60 days, this year’s UN intergovernmental conference on climate change will begin in Paris. This is No. 21.

Meaningful action on climate change today means nothing less than widespread paradigm shifts across social, economic, political, cultural, and built infrastructures. So it’s unfortunate that this is not what UN multilateral negotiations are known for.

When thinking about most global social issues today, whether climate change, migration, conflicts over resources and state power, inequality, poverty or environmental disasters, it’s possible to trace connections between the present-day and the period of European colonialism and chattel slavery dating from the 15th century.

Colonial expansion powered by the industrial revolution and its exploitation of much of the world – unleashed colonial infrastructures into socioecological systems across the world, setting in motion the death of bioculturally diverse regions stewarded by diverse human peoples. Today we live in the ‘Anthropocene’ – a geological epoch beginning around 1610, which is characterised by the impact of this. Two biological markers that date this geological shift – the trade and trafficking of thousands of species (including humans) across the earth’s surface and the genocide of 50 million indigenous people – point to the role a tiny part of the human family had on today’s world. And the ongoing legacies.

On a visit to Jamaica last month, David Cameron was questioned about whether Britain should pay reparations for slavery. In Cameron’s family background is one of 46,000 British slave owners financially compensated when their ‘property’ was taken from them, whilst millions of enslaved peoples taken from flourishing societies who suffered the Maangamizi, or African Holocaust, received nothing. The difference in approach when compared to other communities who have experienced their own Holocausts is stark. Part of the purpose of Cameron’s trip was to support the building of a new prison for Jamaican prisoners currently incarcerated in the UK. Despite racist institutions skewing life-chances for many people of colour and the mass incarceration of black men being precisely one of slavery’s ongoing legacies [1], Cameron’s response to this questioning was that Jamaica should ‘move on’. That’s tricky in a world run on coloniality [2] – a form of colonialism today where, for example, the African continent loses 6 times as much as it receives in an aid, ‘aid’ which often goes on payments to Northern institutions.

Whilst in the 16th century, colonial expansion was aided by narratives of Christian benevolence, the reproduction of racial power hierarchies continued from the 19th century with the growth of what could be described as a ‘secular’ academic industry (with ongoing intervention in formerly colonised regions now abetted by white saviour narratives). The work of colonial advocates across the arts and social sciences – such as Thomas Hobbes – and natural sciences – such as Francis Galton – depicted a ‘natural’ hierarchy with the ways that white men like these believed society was organised at the top and black people and their theories of social organisation at the bottom, alongside ‘flora and fauna’. Indigenous people in Australia were legally classified as such until 1967. Today ties between academia, governance and colonialist enterprise remain. For example, research on GM crops needs approval by agritech companies before it can be published, which helps, alongside governmental aid, large agro-corporations to control global agriculture at the expense of small farmers with diverse seed stores and knowledges that are proving important in addressing climate change. These repeating patterns of exclusion, denial and silencing make genuine environmental justice impossible.

Today’s environmentalism may readily highlight how mainstream economic policy externalises nature’s contributions to human society, but it often simultaneously ignores the impact of structures that treated the rich contributions of many peoples and the ecological fabrics they were part of as a resource to be used and abused. Information on this and the ways these patterns continue – including the trauma it causes – rarely appears in standard climate change narratives, even though it’s central [3] to building a collective future on this planet.

Movements from distinct political perspectives and historical junctures have of course challenged this trajectory, including anti-colonial, national liberation and third world women’s movements as well as anti-racism, indigenous and decolonial groups. [4] These are legacies that a few of today’s Northern climate justice groups are beginning to learn from.

One group I’ve personally learnt a lot from are the Association of Indigenous Reserves of Northern Cauca (ACIN) in Colombia, who organise dialogues to bring about lasting peace they say can only happen in a country of ‘peoples, without owners’. Many rural communities – poor mestizo, Afrodescendant and indigenous communities – have been displaced by war, pushed onto limited land space, with many working as low-cost labour on expanding plantations and ventures owned by a minority elite. This generates conflict – reminiscent of divide-and-rule tactics – so some of the work of ACIN (and many others) do is to build the cross-community relationships needed for a collaborative grassroots political model.

Climate Change Stories

Having recuperated lands stolen from their ancestors, the ACIN have developed a comprehensive Plan of Life through a series of Weavings in harmony with Mother Earth; Ecological Economy, involving production, conservation and exchange activities; Peoples & Culture, promoting identity and well-being and including health, education, women, family and youth programs; justice & harmony, developing community-appropriate legal systems in coexistence with the constitutional framework; defense of life, implementing protection strategies including the unarmed Indigenous Guard and Human Rights Watch; and finally, the Communication and External Relations for Truth & Life Weaving, which uses traditional communication strategies between communities to reflect and decide on actions as well as carry out diplomatic work. An ACIN leader Feliciano Valencia, was recently arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison on politically motivated charges. In the following statement about the incident and commenting on the recent peace deal concluded between the Colombian government and the FARC, ACIN communications member Emmanuel Rozental illustrates the difficulties faced by many frontline communities engaged in efforts to protect land and life, mitigating climate change in the face of economic imperatives to exploit ‘resource-rich’ lands they steward.

Note that on Monday 12th October (Indigenous Resistance Day – when indigenous resistance against the colonisation of what is now known as the Americas began in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus) there was an emergency picket to call for Feliciano to be released at 16.00 outside the Colombian embassy [5]

“Peace denied in the agreements they sign”

…The experience of this country during and after the peace negotiations illuminate how legislation and processes of dispossession and extraction are consolidated even whilst peace is negotiated, linked directly to extractive megaprojects and the massacre of people who resist the handing over of the country to these megaprojects…

Peace is an agreement between warring parties. If the parties violate agreements even before they sign, no peace is possible. Both the Constitution and Constitutional Court jurisprudence recognises indigenous jurisdiction over any offence committed within indigenous lands. In 2008, a soldier, who self-identifies as indigenous, infiltrated a peaceful demonstration – the Social and Community Minga – and was discovered – in direct violation of indigenous laws – with military equipment in his backpack. He confessed to be acting under military orders, was sentenced and then handed over to the authorities. This was done in an assembly of more than 30 thousand people. The trial, sentencing and carrying out of the sentence was collective. Immediately, President Alvaro Uribe Velez described this as a kidnapping and a violation of the human rights of a soldier. At the same time, CNN was airing a video of police firing against unarmed indigenous peoples….

Last week, Feliciano Valencia, the most visible indigenous leader in Colombia and former Presidential candidate, was sentenced to 18 years in prison, charged – among other charges – with the kidnapping and torture of that individual. Feliciano was not the judge. Nobody kidnapped the soldier, who was ordered to infiltrate the Minga and commit an offence by his superiors. Instead, the Colombian state sequesters an indigenous leader, burying him in a political death, denying indigenous jurisdiction and autonomy and making as if the peace agreements it signs with the insurgency have validity.

In reality, Colombia is in a state of war over the power to dispossess.”

The power to dispossess people of land, livelihood, sense of self, community, knowledge beyond what makes them useful in a commodified world, of the many human stories [6] that exist aside from the (his)stories fed to us in colonialist education systems.

“I am colonization personified.

The foundation of my being,

my language of thought,

belongs not to those ancestors

whose blood now feeds my freedom,

but to the slave master

whose oppressive bark echoes deep within my mind.”

-Thabiso Nkoana

Throughout an upcoming ‘Climate Stories’ series we’ll be talking about this power, felt through racialised political, economic, immigration, war, education, health, and policing systems that prevent many people from living, let alone ‘taking action on climate change’.

We’ll also highlight avenues of hope, the perspectives, processes and innovations making it possible to imagine the weaving of a different kind of collective story.

“I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny. I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.”

– Frantz Fanon

Some (More Than White) Voices of the Climate Justice Movement

In this collection of interviews, people working in related aspects of environmental justice talk about their experiences. For many people of colour, agreeing to be interviewed is a difficult decision. Public exposure can make them a target. Many come from settings where decisions are made collectively and they want to highlight the issues, not themselves. That’s why, when approaching people about this piece, several declined. For those who agree to step into the spotlight, it’s often only after struggling with many competing factors that they decide to take the risk. So, to the following people, thank you.

Asad Rehman, Senior Campaigner at Friends of the Earth

I grew up in Lancashire, I come from a small town called Burnley, which is now infamous for riots and the election of 11 BNP councillors. I was in a group called Asian Youth Movements working around self-defence from failures of the state – that’s what got me into justice issues, racial, social, and economic. We were always trying to build community resistance of ordinary people and we used to come across the environmentalists. There was a moment for the radical environmental movement – the M11 protest – and we were always fascinated as black community activists, because less than half a mile away we’d have demonstrations of 5-10,000 people against police violence. And here there was police violence against the environmental movement, but it was a bubble. We used to say to them, ‘look you’re not connected to the community, they see you then see the environment as being a white middle class issue, even though it’s very much an issue for our communities.’

Our movement had slogans like ‘No to colonialism’, that saw that our struggles here were linked to struggles at home in the Global South. That was what brought me into contact with what we could call ‘environmental justice activists’ globally. Then into contact with Friends of the Earth.

I’m a reluctant environmentalist; I’ve come to it because all the issues – racial, social and economic justice – they are encapsulated in the environmental fight, particularly the climate fight. In the Sahel, 15 million people are affected by deforestation. Then there are the military conflicts in Syria, which means a collapse in agriculture, rising food prices. More people are directly being made refugees from environmental collapse than military conflict, 30-40 million people in the next few years and beyond that we can’t imagine. And this is a crisis at only 0.8 degrees of global warming.

You can see the split in the US where the environmental movement is white, but the environmental justice movement is mostly black and hispanic. For black people from working class backgrounds still rooted in their communities, this isn’t an intellectual exercise where it doesn’t matter if we compromise to accommodate people in power. Yes we can use a diversity of tactics, but we can’t compromise on principles, because what’s being decided at the moment is about the environment in the abstract, but who is living and dying, who is going to stay poor or rich. It’s a fundamentally political fight that’s going on. Grassroots communities globally involved in environmental justice movements say that what we’re fighting for is justice. People don’t have a siloed approach – they see that the structures political elites, corporations – are the same ones all of them are fighting. And as much as incremental changes happen, it’s the systemic changes that are needed.

Suzanne Dhaliwal, co-founder of UK Tar Sands Network

It’s a shock to think that it was still possible for the Guardian to write a piece on climate change activism in 2015 and not recognise the diversity of the movement, given that people of colour are at the forefront of resistance and innovation in the climate movement.

I often feel like I am a broken record when it comes to calling out racism in the UK green movement. I can really feel like giving up and moving somewhere with a more inclusive movement that ‘gets it’ but the truth is we can’t give up. Britain is the heart of colonialism, the centre for oil companies, financing and decision-making that can impact on the future of Global Energy Justice. UK Greens can’t sit around anymore disconnecting the social from environmental justice!

That’s how the UK Tar Sands Network was founded, in 2009, to stop tar sands extraction in solidarity with frontline indigenous communities in Alberta, Canada. We very quickly had to figure out how to do international solidarity work that was grounded in environmental justice and anti-oppression principles, within the UK climate movement.

In the US you can see that the refinery communities (communities immediately impacted by fossil fuel extraction) are the racialised communities and there is a direct relationship between those communities and indigenous communities resisting extraction. My family moved to Canada as British Asians and enjoyed settler privileges, so I’m trying to work with my privilege to act as an ally with indigenous communities. There the indigenous movement has managed to move forward in a dialogue about how those relationships of settler and indigenous relations connect towards building a movement.

Key to that work was connecting groups from different spaces in the movement together and having some of the difficult conversations we tend to avoid around race and power in the movement. What emerged from that is a real collaboration between the green movement and indigenous people leading the resistance to ‘extreme energy’ developments and calling for the transition to renewable energy in North America and Europe.

However in the UK environmental movement it has proved profoundly difficult to continue to broaden the climate movement outside it’s ‘white ghetto.’ People can be profoundly uncomfortable with talking about power, resource extraction, colonialism, and environmental racism the real roots of global environmental destruction and climate change. As an activist in the UK, where I don’t have the same legal relationship to the land as an indigenous community, I’ve struggled to be heard when speaking about environmental justice.

With UKTSN we did a lot of spiky direct action, I started to feel vulnerable and as a woman of colour in the UK where it is difficult to go through the legal process. I suffered from PTSD trying to open up dialogue about how the tactics and culture of ‘white middle class activism’ were impacting my ability to participate in the kinds of actions the climate movement had got used to, maximum media coverage, minimal inclusion.

As an immigrant I’ve been disconnected from my own community and needing to survive in systemically racist environments, at university or in jobs. I’ve been having to unpack my own internal racism constantly, it’s part of a process of decolonising myself in order to learn how to work with deep solidarity with communities and heal my own wounds.

In response to this I have been really vocal about the racism in the UK green movement, in the press and constantly with friends and allies, the more we talk about it the quicker we can normalise those conversations. I’ve co-developed a process called ‘Recentering our movement’ to tackle oppression in our movements. The process invites people to position ourselves within the complex power structures that have pushed us towards ecological and social crisis. It’s a safe space to have some of the conversations what we need to have about race, class and power in our movements without resorting to blame and shame, with focused, honest self reflection.

I’ve set up a sister organization to UKTSN called ‘Echo’ to build on UKTSN expertise of working with environmental and social justice principles in the UK. We use collaboration, arts and music to amplify the unheard voices within the environmental movement and to strengthen our movements both in the UK and globally. Our logo is a megaphone held to the ear. It’s essential to our movement that we listen to the people feeling the impacts of climate change and ecological degradation, who hold the solutions and nourishment to keep moving forward. When we work with climate justice we’re dealing with something that we don’t fully know about, so without listening to the land and to each other, we will always be speaking for others.

Ian Solomon Kawall (aka KMT), co-founder of May Project Gardens

At May Project Gardens we want to demonstrate grassroots solutions to climate change and sustainability. Like most movements – such as hip hop – the green movement has been co-opted by people with resources and a network of contacts. That means that ultimately the people that could most benefit from a transition to a green economy are being omitted. So what we are saying is that you don’t need big budgets, you need good people, willingness and support.

The project is my home, which contains different elements of permaculture in action. People can learn about food foraging, how to be more sustainable, live more healthily, connect with nature. I’ve found it difficult to communicate political issues, for example about economics, class, race or gender. The space facilitates that to happen quite naturally, without forcing it. Right now we’re focusing on our latest workshop, Food, Hip Hop and the Green Economy, bringing education and art into the Green Economy to diversify the audience and appeal to young people.

We hope that more people from the most marginalised communities will grab this opportunity to live a more self-sufficient lifestyle. In this society, people are forced to stress about how to pay bills, rent, get water, eat, heat their property – the basics of human existence. We hope to create more spaces that allow more people to live this lifestyle, so that they can focus on what they truly want to do, which is be a human being.

Shilpa Shah, founder of My Heart Sings

I started out working in climate and environmental justice and often encountered stereotypes about Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people not caring about environmental issues or anything outside their own sphere of activity. This seemed to be a convenient excuse for the inability of many environmental organisations to connect across race and class.

So in 2005, together with Cambridge Carbon Footprint, I created Akashi, which – as part of its outreach programme – delivered activity sessions with a climate justice theme, tailored to a faith or cultural group. This led to a network of BAME and faith groups tackling environmental issues on their own terms.

There is so much wisdom about nature and respect for water, food and other natural resources within different faith teachings and cultural traditions. Humans are seen as stewards for the earth and interconnected with all living beings, and reducing waste is an automatic part of day-to-day life for those who remember a childhood growing up with little material wealth. ‘Don’t you tell me about recycling,’ my Gran would say. ‘Our people have been recycling for centuries before you came along.’ Akashi meetings often included a discussion about the difficulties BAME people experience when living in the UK – still close enough to traditions that encourage the respect of community and resources yet surrounded by a throwaway culture of materialism and individualism.

I took the learning from Akashi to Friends of the Earth after this, where I led the Rights and Justice Community Empowerment programme. I left in 2012, disillusioned with big environmental NGOs, but excited by other more community-led, integrated and powerful forms of organising beginning to emerge.

I no longer describe myself as working within environmental justice. Societally, we’ve separated out and focus on addressing symptoms, rather than the root causes. Now I focus on supporting people to link their inner transformation with societal transformation – building voice, health and strength and supporting liberation from oppressive structures. That’s what My Heart sings is about.

Sai Murray, co-founder and facilitator of Shake! Young Voices in Arts, Media, Race & Power, member of Virtual Migrants collective, on the organising committee of the Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition In Europe (PARCOE)

An event called Weatherfronts I attended last year replicated this idea that environmental activism is the preserve of people with certain knowledge, ie scientists who have the knowledge, which needs to be tailored to the ‘masses’. The scientists there were from a European background, predominantly white and male. Virtual Migrants will be touring their performance #ContinentChopChop from the end of this month, involving poets Zena Edwards and Nnimmo Bassey. Nnimmo works with communties directly affected by climate change in the Niger Delta. Impacted communities have knowledge from their lands, oral histories and actually working the land, but their experience is negated and seen to be not as valuable as this ‘scientific’ facts, figures and charts.

Zena’s approach has also been to question the framing of climate change and environmental activism in dialoguing with youth and impoverished communities. Talk of CO2 emissions does not necessarily have resonance with people who are already struggling to feed, clothe and house themselves. She is researching how community-based approaches such as urban greening provide and cater for the more immediate concerns of oppressed peoples. Looking at the everyday activism of securing access to green space, fresh veg and fruits, clean water, using pavements to grow food. Or against zero contract hours. This activism is not labelled as ‘environmental campaigning’, but it is vital work needed to repair damaged environments.

The environmental movement – with good intentions – does try to work in solidarity with communities, but often this relationship is entered into thinking “we can help you, we have the knowledge” rather than recognising that they can learn from these directly affected colonised communities who have been working the land for millennia. PARCOE is part of the International Social Movement for Reparations and they’ve been very good at looking at how communities across the globe have been organising against the colonisation of their land, repairing their land independent of NGO help. For example, the Anchorage Declaration from the Indigenous People’s Global Summit on Climate Change is a powerful statement and call to account of the fossil fuel industry as is the Ogoni Bill of Rights from this community in the Niger Delta. Further, the idea of Reparations is not just the financial compensation that is needed, it speaks to holistic repair. Reparations is about true repair, looking at relationships, psychological harm, environmental damage, the destruction of Afrikan lives through the ongoing chattel, colonial and neo-colonial holocaust of Maangamizi. PARCOE has made efforts to highlight some of the key figures who have been instrumental in this, linking current reparations activists to the ancestors and wider historical movement; these are the faces of colour in this movement to repair our planet.

Relating to reparations is Shake!’s work looking at healing justice. A key aspect of this is its intergenerational framing, with participants facilitating as well as learning, skill-sharing, levelling the knowledge and the experience. We’ve always designed the courses together with the young people, responding to current concerns. One recent issue has seen many participants active in campaigning against Yarls Wood and immigration controls. Shake helps foster artistic responses to these issues and looks at the intersections of privilege, race and class. There is a power in art, to get under people’s radars, to have more lasting impact and as a medium of expression, often outside of academia, but as a contributor and creator of knowledge in itself.


[1] See also, Angela Davis, ‘Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture & Empire’

[2] Coloniality describes colonialist structures that reproduce in distinct (yet familiar) ways in the present. See Waldon Bello’s ‘Capitalism’s last stand?‘ for an overview of trends in today’s world and Vitamin D’s series of podcasts on coloniality

[3] see also John Clammer’s Culture, Development and Social Theory

[4] See Vijay Prashad’s ‘A Possible History of the Global South’ for a brief introduction

[5] People in the UK can also write to the Colombian embassy at [email protected] expressing concern over Feliciano’s detention and quoting this statement from Colombian human rights organisations and social movements

[6] See this piece for one example

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