Historic gathering shows the way on climate change

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“The West needs to undergo structural adjustment, like a junkie needs to be weaned off drugs.  We need, in fact, to shift back to what our traditional societies were like not so long ago. The right thing to do is to refuse all forms of insanity – vigorously oppose all new fossil fuel development – get away from crack cocaine that is the tar sands.   Recognize that agribusiness is a driver of climate change.  We must fight our own unsustainable practices and also those of the world economy and globalization. Globalization is predicated on access to cheap oil and to money.  And that is no longer the case.” - Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe), Honour the Earth

“The first world cannot continue to be subsidized by the third world. Those who are subsidized try to appear as benefactors while those who are subsidizing them are made to look like beggars. We need to rethink our relations with Mother Earth and move towards sustainable patterns of production and consumption.” - Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, UN General Assembly President

For five intense days last month (April 20-24) about 300 indigenous leaders and activists from around the world convened in Anchorage to discuss climate change. The Alaska Indigenous Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change was convened by the Inuit Circumpolar Council, with a group of international advisors.

Mainstream media missed this historic event

Three full years went into the planning. At least 100 additional people attended as observers: NGOs, supporters, international agency representatives, funders, onlookers and, undoubtedly, corporate spies trying to spot the “good Indians.” A journalist or two was sighted, although mainstream Canadian media seems to have completely missed this historic event.

Historic because of the size of the gathering, the sophistication of the debates, the feeling in the room when indigenous people heard their brothers and sisters describe their reality of climate change: declining crop yields and seed varieties, loss of access to traditional hunting grounds, changing animal migrations, frequent flooding or persistent drought, lands encroached upon for resource exploration and extraction; promised benefits that never came; and in some case, whole towns sinking into the sea creating a new category of climate refugees, set to explode over the next decade.

Historic because it was a Summit, in many ways like a UN Summit, working to broker agreement amongst very diverse peoples with a common indigenous identity. In fact, the gathering had a UN-feel to it: regional meetings interspersed with thematic sessions, information booths and artists selling their crafts, observers lobbying delegates -- only this time delegates were representatives of indigenous nations, not states per se.  

Controversy and multilayered debate

The main sources of controversy were whether or not an immediate fossil fuel moratorium should be called for, and whether or not indigenous peoples should support the UN REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries).

I attended for ETC Group, a small Canadian-based NGO that works on the impacts of new technologies on vulnerable groups. In particular, I was there to talk to people about our research on geo-engineering and what it means for the future of the planet, and how indigenous and peasant forms of agriculture hold the key to food security and combating that part of climate change which is provoked by agribusiness.  

In so many ways, geo-engineering -- the massive and intentional manipulation of the earth’s climate primarily to mitigate climate change -- is the antithesis of indigenous approaches. Looking for a technofix for climate change by shooting sulphates into the atmosphere or fertilizing oceans with iron is surely the opposite of restoring ecosystems, relying on traditional knowledge and seeing the inherent sacredness of all living things.

The Summit debate was multilayered and cannot be reduced, as it was in an AP story, to a conflict between young and old. No doubt, youth delegates were strong in their opposition to fossil fuels, calling for a moratorium on all new development. But so were elders like Carrie Dann of the Western Shoshone, currently fighting Barrick’s plans to mine a sacred mountain in her traditional lands. 

Youth 'ready to take on the big corporations'

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, of the Athabasca Chipewyn first nation in Northern Alberta, who has seen the traditional hunting and fishing grounds of her community devastated by the Tar Sands, said “the pollution affects young people more because they are growing -- we’ve got kids who are 11 and 13 ready to take on the big corporations.”

Likewise, the young people who are the backbone of the Indigenous Environmental Network were active in their opposition to the dominant “market-based solutions” to climate change. Unwilling to commodify nature and to sanction and participate in carbon trade schemes which seek to involve indigenous people in climate change, they consistently raised fundamental issues. They spoke with great passion and great knowledge of the causes of the current crisis and what challenges the younger generation faces.

The Sami of Finland spoke of the changing tree line and shifting reindeer migration patterns, of new insects in the tundra. We heard of the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and the disappearing snow on the mountains of the Andes. African delegates spoke of the displacement and famine amongst the Masai to ever more marginal and unproductive lands, and delegates from the Democratic Republic of Congo spoke of losing their forest homelands to unsustainable logging. Mexicans spoke of the strains of corn that could no longer grow on their lands. 

Climate change is a human rights issue

All this against the backdrop of climate change 'ground zero': Alaskan coastal villages that are now being relocated as their houses are sinking into the ocean as fast as the Arctic ice is melting.

“Our peoples have been wounded many times over -- substance abuse and suicide are histories that our peoples share,” said Sheila Watt Cloutier, former ICC chair and last year’s strong contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, via video.  “But we have always had our environment and our land. That is no longer so sure. Climate Change needs to be reframed as a human rights issue."

Indeed, virtually every speaker addressed human rights.  The constellation of patient, perseverant partners that finally brought about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007 continues to bear fruit.  

Through that process, institutions, networks, friendships, leaders and a web of global solidarity emerged.  Further, those countries that are the laggards on the UN Declaration -- namely Canada and the United States -- are the biggest emitters of GHGs and are stalling progress for upcoming climate negotiations leading to the December meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Canada was repeatedly shamed, especially but not only, for the Tar Sands.

Fury at World Bank, applause for Bolivia

The international bureaucracy trotted out their power points, explained their “operational policies” and “consultation guidelines.” For the most part, they were politely listened to, but the World Bank presentations on “carbon funds” and “climate investment funds” met with the fury of delegates. “Don’t give me your www dot com,” yelled one African woman from the floor. “We cannot use computers to save our forests. You train us on your program and then you do not even answer our calls!”

The democratic argument regarding the involvement of indigenous peoples gave way easily to a much more strategic one: indigenous peoples need to be involved not only because they are deeply affected already by climate change and solutions dreamed up without them will not work. 

They also need to be involved because they are the stewards of millennia of traditional knowledge which governs their relationship to all living beings.  Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, UN General Assembly President, spoke to rapturous applause of the profound significance of the UN General Assembly recognizing April 22 as “Mother Earth Day.”

David Choquehuenca, (Aymara) Foreign Minister of Bolivia, was also loudly applauded when he stated that capitalism was in crisis. “Capitalism only cares about money,” he said. “For socialism, human beings are the most important. But we indigenous peoples care about all forms of life: the rivers, the mountains, the fish and the oceans.” 

This theme echoed throughout the conference deliberations, from the diverse ceremonies which opened each day, to the elders in workshops who quietly intervened to remind people of the sacred dimensions of the land, the heavens, water and fire when the talk got too technical.

The Anchorage Declaration will be received as an official input into the climate negotiations this December in Copenhagen.

Let’s hope someone is listening.

Diana Bronson works with the ETC Group and is a member of rabble’s board of directors.

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