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COP21: A Rallying Cry – No Climate Justice Without Full Indigenous Rights

Part of systems change is the recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Tom Goldtooth (pictured above) shares his thoughts on climate activism in this piece. (Photo: Mat McDermott)

Also see: “We Do Not Want to Die in Silence”: Indigenous People Demand Rights as Draft Climate Deal Reached

This month’s climate talks take place at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher. The 21st Conference of the Parties, held this month in Paris, are aimed at reducing the emissions responsible for acidifying oceans, melting glaciers, raising sea levels, and collapsing our agriculture. If it sounds apocalyptic, it should; if we fail this test, the results could be dire.

The seriousness of the climate challenge seems to be getting through to global leaders. President Obama has arrived in Paris with an EPA-administered clean energy policy already in place, commitments to greenhouse gas reductions, and his recent decisions to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and further drilling in the Arctic. China and India are both ramping up their renewable energy commitments. Canada under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is putting a halt to massive oil tankers off the Pacific coast of British Columbia. And Pope Francis’ strong call for action on climate change is having rippling effects throughout the world.

Nonetheless, there are big questions. Will the commitments be enough to keep temperature increases below the two degrees centigrade target, and will they be binding? Will action be delayed until some hazy future?

Then there’s the question of the climate policies themselves – whether they will be structured in ways that allow corporations and wealthy nations to game the system, using offsets and trading schemes to avoid real emissions reductions. These are the sorts of policies Tom Goldtooth and other members of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) have been fighting for years.

The IEN, other indigenous peoples and their allies have been calling for policies that result in real emissions reductions by those who are creating the pollution, and rejecting approaches that undermine the livelihoods of the people who live in the world’s most biologically diverse places.

Goldtooth, the executive director of IEN, a member of the Dine/Dakota tribes, and a prominent figure in the people’s movements for climate justice, speaks frequently around the world, and especially at global climate gatherings. I spoke to him in October as he was preparing for the Paris climate talks. Shortly after we talked, he was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize for his decades of work on behalf of environmental justice.

Sarah van Gelder: What do you think is most important right now leading up to the Paris climate talks?

Tom Goldtooth: The spirit of life itself, because one of the main mitigation issues for climate change being decided in Paris is going to be the privatization of nature. The mechanism for that is cap and trade, carbon trading, carbon offset, and what I call regimes. It has a lot of implications not only on the environment and economics and the livelihood of a lot of people throughout the world – especially peasants, small farmers, indigenous peoples – but also represents another level of what we call commodification of the sacred.

And this is why we’ve been trying to look at those different areas of the world, where we could have a presence, to link this discussion to not only the implications of a changing climate, but to the roots of this issue. And to consider all the symptoms as well as the deep causes that we feel. At this point in time capitalism plays a strong part.

We’re also going to be addressing the issue of militarization. They don’t even have a mechanism for evaluating the carbon footprint of militarization throughout the world. Not only is it an indigenous issue – especially in those places in the world where indigenous communities are living, where these natural resources, mineral extractive resources are located – but it’s many other people that live in those areas, whether it’s the indigenous peoples of northern Africa where the extraction of uranium is going to be feeding industrialized countries like France, for example.

We have to look at those issues that are not fossil-fuel energy developments, such as mega-dams. Like the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil that is removing indigenous peoples. But also infrastructures like highways, and large scale centralized energy projects, and tree plantations to fuel biofuels or agrofuels, and the whole issue of dominance of export-based, industrial forms of food production. Food sovereignty has been a main component of our interventions.

Woven into these issues and these market systems is that it will, and it is resulting in some land grabbing and relocation of people from these forest areas. In Ecuador they have Socio Bosque. They have these park systems where indigenous people cannot go and collect wood. They have these park rangers now to protect forests that have been bought up by the Chevrons and by the polluting industries of the North, using those forests as carbon sponges. How they do it? They get carbon credit and they privatize the land. They put it into a trading regime. Before you trade anything in this world, you have to determine whose property right it is.

So it is a privatization. The atmosphere becomes a property right. Methane gas becomes a property right. And at the end of the day will it actually be a mechanism to reduce emissions. No, we’re seeing it’s Ponzi scam. [laughs] Jobs have always been an important area, especially with our brothers and sisters in the urban area of Seattle, the Bay Area, Denver, Minneapolis, St. Paul. Decent paying jobs, especially when we look at alternatives, and climate jobs, we gotta make sure that those climate jobs are going to people that can benefit from that.

So systems change is a big bundle of things. And it does require that we do really evaluate the corporate driven, free trade and investment agreements and how that is linked to also harmonizing the trading regimes, and investment regimes, and trees, and nature itself. These are things that generally the public does not see, and that’s why we’re calling it out.

van Gelder: Do you see any possibilities for an outcome that could be appropriate to this crisis?

Goldtooth: I like to remain positive in the work that we are doing. I don’t see the outcomes of the Paris Accord as being where we need to go to address the climate crisis that we’re in. I think that there are too many variables and factors involved with politics, especially politics around energy and economics.

I have never gotten a sense that the world wants to wean itself at the level we need away from a fossil fuel economy. I think that the governments that are dependent on a fossil fuel economy and the corporations that depend on petroleum are very committed to burning up every last drop of oil there is in the world. And that’s why they craft what we have called “false solutions” that just buy them time to continue to explore unconventional oil.

For example, we’re in a time period now when our own government here in the United States is advocating exploration and production of Shell oil, which involves hydraulic fracturing, going offshore in Alaska, for example, in the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea up there, even though there are so many ecological risks involved.

Again, it’s the same old, same old related to an economic system that is not in balance, that feeds off of life itself. So it goes back to that concern.

We were very inspired by the statements Pope Francis made, linking the concern of nature with creation and the role of humanity to educate itself on the imbalances that are there, the responsibility within their articulations as Christians, on realizing their responsibility within creation, and their duty toward nature and the creator as a part of their faith.

van Gelder: So is that a cause for hope?

Goldtooth: That goes back to what I was thinking. I don’t see the Paris Accord as being what this world needs, but I do see that there’s a new global energy of mobilization throughout the world. And that has been one of IEN’s strategies.

We realize that in this country we don’t have political power. So we have always looked at building alliances, coalitions, or being part of coalitions. We need to mobilize around a lot of the issues that the Pope, in fact, had lifted up. He linked the social justice issue with climate change. I mean that’s something IEN and our allies within the environmental justice movement have always organized around and have been strong advocates of: this concept of frontline communities and the voices that we have.

So that’s where I believe there is hope, this mobilization of the people’s spirits, of the land stepping up. And that will continue. We foresee more actions, especially from the younger generation because the youth are starting to understand that whatever decisions come out of these United Nations climate negotiations has a direct impact on their future,

van Gelder: What could you imagine happening if things went really well in Paris?

Goldtooth: Well, the one thing that is very, very important is the need to cut back on the amount of fossil fuels that are burned. The indigenous meetings that we’ve been part of for the last 10 years have all articulated the importance of keeping the oil in the ground.

As native, indigenous peoples of North America, the system change that’s really required, especially coming out of Paris, is full recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, especially using the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples as the instrument.

Part of systems change is the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, as well as the human rights of other populations. That’s going to be one of the issues that we’re going to be lobbying for: a rights-based approach.

But I like to always say it goes deeper than that. It requires looking at the root causes of climate change. And that leads us again to the systems change, to make that transition away from an economic system that doesn’t respect the natural systems of Mother Earth.

We have a global economy, and the United States has its roots in this. The U.S. has been pushing economic globalization. We have a system that recognizes corporate rights as the most sacred of property rights and, of course, then it subordinates indigenous rights. It subordinates human rights to corporate rights. In my opinion, it’s a system where nature is not recognized as having any intrinsic rights at all.

It’s been very frustrating that corporations have more rights and more legal standing than tribal nations, and sovereign nations. It seems like time and time again, we have to fight for our legal rights. And woven into this from day one, we find that many of our elders have always been speaking up, not only for our well being, but also for Mother Earth. They’re speaking for the plants. They’re speaking for the animals, the fish, the birds. They’re even speaking for the water and the air. So we have always recognized the natural laws of Mother Earth. There’s no separation with indigenous peoples from our rights as human beings of indigenous nations and the rights from Mother Earth.

van Gelder: IEN has been saying many of these things for a number of years. Are you starting to feel that people are getting it and starting to adopt your understanding and your articulation?

Goldtooth: It’s been a slow process. I find that in our campaign to wake up the world – when we have an opportunity to talk to people of the land, of the street, of the neighborhoods, of the villages, and go to the heart of the issues of making a better world possible – I find that there’s a lot of hope there, that people understand somehow in what we have been advocating for.

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