Indigenous rights and the climate emergency

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“The lungs of our planet are on fire” was a common refrain heard in the past days as a response to the unprecedented wildfires in the Brazilian Amazon. An international outcry from politicians, celebrities, and regular people on the internet alike, was urgent and panicked: we need to do something now or we’ll lose the forests, we’ll release high levels of carbon stored in the rainforest’s trees into the atmosphere, and we’ll lose the Amazon’s immense biodiversity. However, the focus on the inhabitants of their ancestral lands, however fleeting, came much later, even though they have been raising concerns about the Brazilian government’s rhetoric and its encouraging of illegal exploitation of indigenous land for a long time.

A couple of days before the Amazon wildfires reached global headlines, Brazilian indigenous women marched against Bolsonaro’s government. This was just one instance of the Amazon rainforest’s indigenous tribes – and in particular its women – fighting to preserve their ancestral land even when we aren’t paying attention.

Environmentalism has regained its fashionability as our winters feel like summers and our summers become infernal, and young voices are getting more earnest about what climate catastrophe would mean for them and the next generations to inhabit the planet. However, it seems like the movement has its internal issues it ought to, but doesn’t nearly as much as it should, contend with. One of the main issues with the movement was showcased when the emphasis was placed on the Amazon being the ‘lungs of our planet’ without mention of the many people who have lived there for generations and the systematic destruction of their homes, livelihood and land at the hands of governments and Western consumer behaviour. When the plight of indigenous tribes across the world are mentioned, it’s often from a Western perspective with an insidious sense of paternalism rather than highlighting the voices of the people on the front lines. The United Nations itself has said that indigenous peoples play an important role in tackling climate change. But it goes beyond just including, or even centring, indigenous voices in the climate debates. When indigenous people, in particular women, are still disenfranchised, abused, incarcerated, have trouble accessing a basic human right like healthcare and still fight for a say in how their sacred land is used, it is imperative that we do not just see indigenous peoples as resources to be used to fight the climate emergency, but as communities that are vulnerable to climate change’s effects and many social injustices. It is clear that if we are going to be serious about environmentalism, that we will have to centre indigenous voices and fight for the (human) rights of indigenous peoples.

In the Congo, Baka people have been pleading with WWF and the European Commission to stop funding a national park that threatens their way of life. Sadly, this is hardly a unique situation when it comes to indigenous people’s rights and livelihoods in the conservation industry. Human rights abuses seem to be commonplace in conservation, with a recent scandal haunting the world’s most recognisable conservation NGO the WWF. Local poor and indigenous people are being murdered, raped, attacked and shunned, all in the name of conservation. The narrative we have constructed says, sometimes implicitly and sometimes not, that we care about indigenous land and its biodiversity, but not about indigenous peoples. Simultaneously, we seem to place the blame of climate destruction squarely on the shoulders of the poor and indigenous rather than face our own patterns and unsustainable economic systems in the metaphorical mirror.

The narrative we have constructed says, sometimes implicitly and sometimes not, that we care about indigenous land and its biodiversity, but not about indigenous peoples

To have environmentalism, conservation, and climate change activism mean something, we will have to centre human rights and indigenous voices. Climate activism without social and economic justice and respecting human rights is nothing but a self-congratulatory movement that does more harm than good. Caring about, and centring, indigenous voices means taking a step back and listening when necessary as well as amplifying and lobbying on tribes’ behalf when asked.

Whether it is indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon, or Baka people in the Congo, the rights of people living on, and in sync with, their ancestral land should be respected and should be front and centre in the climate debates. For our activism, lobbying, policies and worries to mean anything we need to listen and act when required. What use are lungs without the peoples that make up the body?

(consider donating to Amazon Watch, Survival International and the indigenous women’s march in Brazil.  Also consider writing your MP/MEP and sharing indigenous voices on social media)