For many of North America's indigenous activists at the Bolivia summit, the fight against climate change is rooted in local issues
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 24 April 2010 11.00 BST
This week's massive climate conference in Bolivia played host to a geographically diverse group of diplomats from the US, well-versed in advancing tough negotiating postures, and working within a framework of international treaties often not worth the paper they're printed on. The US delegation didn't come from the state department, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the department of energy. Yet one delegate was given central billing in the inaugural event that kicked off the conference earlier in the week.
"We remain firm in our inalienable, sovereign rights," Faith Gemmill told a crowd of thousands that filled up Tiquipaya Coliseum on a sun-scorched morning, to a loud round of applause. "We the indigenous people of the north have survived colonial policies intended to terminate us, assimilate us, and displace us from our land. Despite this, we are still here! Indigenous people of Alaska and North America have given me voice to transmit this message to you."
Faith Gemmill is executive director of Redoil (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands), an Alaska Native grassroots alliance formed in 2002 that organises around the impacts of oil and gas development on or near native land in Alaska. She was one of more than 20 indigenous representatives from North America who travelled to the Cochabamba, Bolivia this week for the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which ended on Thursday with a host of concrete proposals heavily informed by indigenous thinking on "living well" versus "living better", and influenced by the long and fraught histories of the impact of resource extraction on their traditional lands. The US government politely declined to send as much as a low-level observer to the historic summit, which drew more than 31,000 people from all over the world, and representatives from almost 50 governments.
"People have to make a choice, whether they want the Earth to continue to be here, or if life will disappear. It's a hard choice, and we're all involved in it," Carrie Dann tells me, a 75-year-old woman who travelled to Cochabamba from the Great Basin ("What non-indigenous people call Nevada," Carrie tells me), representing the Western Shoshone Defence Project. Carrie came to meet with other indigenous activists whose advocacy and activism against climate change is rooted in very local struggles. For Carrie, it's the Barrick Gold Corporation, a Canadian mining giant that is looking to mine a rich store of gold in Mt Tenabo – a sacred site for the Shoshone. The tribe has sued the US Bureau of Land Management, which approved the lease to Barrick, in an attempt to block the project.
"They were given the right to mine, but nobody knows what it's going to look like. It's a horrible destruction, it looks like a cancer on the earth. They keep extracting more and more for their people, eventually there won't be anything left."
One consistent premise that seemed to unite many indigenous activists from North America who travelled here was a desire to debunk many of the much-touted technocratic solutions to combat climate change – such as carbon offsetting.
"Including forests in the carbon market, it's a terrible idea. They want to offset emissions by planting or protecting trees," Jihan Gearon told me, an organiser with the Indigenous Environment Network, from Navajo country in the Southwest. "So corporations say, 'Great! we'll expand our emissions, but offset it by planting trees in the Amazon'. But in our network, which encompasses North and South America, we are seeing indigenous people displaced from their homes to 'protect' the land."
Another theme that came out of my many conversations with these North American diplomats was a deep historical analysis about who bears the brunt of extraction and energy development – including the resurgence of a nuclear industry that has successfully branded itself as form of "clean energy" that will be a key component in mitigating climate change.
"My homeland has one of the largest deposits of uranium in the world," Navajo activist and scholar Michelle Cook tells me. Although the Navajo nation, and the smaller Havasupai tribe whose ancestral lands run through the Grand Canyon, have long banned uranium mining, there is a encroaching on tribal lands. "People often don't realise how destructive nuclear energy is and how it impacts indigenous communities specifically. There is nothing clean about an energy source that gives people cancer, and causes irreparable harm to the land, water, and future generations."
If the raison d'être of the meetings here in Cochabamba was to advance the kind of genuinely ambitious solutions to combating climate change that many world governments failed to deliver on in the UN sponsored talks last winter, it also appears to have been a place for a diplomatic corps on the frontlines of the struggle against climate change to meet each other, compare notes, and fortify each other for what will likely be a long slog ahead.
"Our indigenous people are the third world of the north," said Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), sitting with me outside on the last day of the conference during one of the closing plenaries, echoes of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez's long-winded oratory in the background. "We're working hard to break down the borders placed between our communities."