By Khadija Sharife
Goldtooth expresses his misgivings about agriculture being included as part of the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD). Arguing that “REDD is going to be the largest legal land grab the world has ever seen”, the indigenous North American warns of colonialism and forced privatisation. And according to him “those with the most money and power can – by remote control, lock up the largest land areas in developing countries”. “They are happiest to work with the most corrupt because it is easiest that way,” he says.
THE AFRICA REPORT: How do indigenous peoples, such as yourself, perceive REDD?
TOM GOLDTOOTH: There are a number of reasons for profiling REDD as a false solution. For indigenous peoples, and as an indigenous organisation that specialises in environmental issues, and which has consulted with many indigenous peoples from the North of the world to the South, from the East to the West, one of the biggest issues is escalation of global warming. In Alaska, melting ice has forced entire villages to relocate, there is coastal land erosion. It is not an easy situation to pull up your entire life – as a community – and move, especially with the other issues involved like settlers with private land rights. So the biggest issue we feel, is putting a stop to climate change by shutting the valve of GHG. It is a matter of life and death.
So we are very concerned that the second round of the Kyoto Protocol is being held back by the powerful governments of the world, including my own government, the US. Any real mitigation is welcome with open arms because we are the people who are most vulnerable and desperate for a solution. But is REDD a real solution? Already, there has been manipulation of the data, displacement of peoples, narratives driven by industry-funded scientists. We are concerned that the same people who caused the problem are now shaping the solution to fit with their agendas – which is making a profit using the same principles that caused the problem. Look at how it is being implemented as well – corporations know that it is easy to exploit the peoples of the South given the state of their governments, the lack of land rights, the violation of human rights, through that piece of paper – the carbon certificate, that says one corporation somewhere in the world now controls and owns what in our culture cannot be owned – land, air, the trees. How can this belong to a one financier when it belongs – and has a right to belong, to the earth?
THE AFRICA REPORT: Give us your perspective on the US government’s position in the climate talks?
TOM GOLDTOOTH: In our country, there has been the expansion of fossil fuel development, so even while they are talking a green policy view, they are expanding dirty industry right in our backyards, which is also the homeland of indigenous peoples. Look at the tar sands in Northern Alberta, Canada – this is within the traditional homelands of the Dine’ people – I’m a Southern Dine’. Another group, the Namate, live downstream and with the immediate zone. They are about 22 corporations – many of them state-funded, including Statoil from Norway, and Total from France. The companies involved are not only polluting the atmosphere and the earth, but they’re depleting water, and the same companies are involved with clearing away the boreal forest. It is a viable option now that the price of fuel is going up. Yet Canada, which has not come close to meeting their commitments and is a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, has gone ahead with tar sands. These are the governments that are supposed to provide the solution?
THE AFRICA REPORT: Has there been any co-option of the indigenous leadership through corporatising policies such as Alaska’s ‘native corporations’?
TOM GOLDTOOTH: Yes – there are many shams, precisely like the native corporation. At the top, our allies in the UN tell us they are still wondering whether it can even scientifically work or not – offsetting biotic carbon in trees for the carbon mine from the earth and burnt through combustion. In the long term, we pay the price. The indigenous peoples in Alaska are very concerned about the destruction of their leadership through the native corporations that was a mechanism by the US government and politicians to gain title to buy them out with money through forming these corporations, which also locates negotiating tactics within these capitalist structures. We work with the Alaskan organisation Redoil – some have resisted becoming part of it and still call themselves traditional governments, they are not part of the regional corporation structures. Some have sold their shares. Others still participate to try and make a difference. These corporations are lobbied and collaborate with the business-as-usual fossil fuel leaders. It has taken us away from our traditional principles and values which is the opposite of commodifying, privatisation resources that are destructive and spell a death sentence. The native corporation heads – we see them in meetings, wearing designer suits, and talking designer talk. We don’t talk because their agenda is the same lethal talk that has caused a global crisis.
THE AFRICA REPORT: If we look at the way in which the UN is structured, is there legitimacy to this UNFCCC event – should it be delegitimised or engaged with?
TOM GOLDTOOTH: It is a two-way street for us. Certainly, the UN is what you say. But look – we tried to use it as a way of lifting up issue of human rights, social and environment justice, and bring that to the framework. We know that the first Kyoto Protocol had many problems including that the emissions target that Annex 1 (developed) nations were signatories too, was the bare minimum. It was very hard for us to accept the compromise. Some of the bigger organisations said, ‘Tom Goldtooth – this is the first step, we can strengthen it later.’ But here, it is ‘later’ and the issue of relevant binding agreements holding industrialised countries accountable has to happen. But as indigenous peoples, we cannot wait for another international agreement to be negotiated – another wasted decade. You have petroleum companies now that are investing millions to offset their pollution by owning the environment. Our people end up as renters. But what happens when the carbon market falls apart or collapses? Who is liable? Who pays the price? We are told to safeguard and trust the process, but the advisors in the UN and World Bank, have even admitted that it is going to be very weak.
There is a lot of risk. We fear that at the end of the day, with agriculture now being included as part of REDD, REDD is going to be the largest legal land grab the world has ever seen. Back to colonialism, back to forced privatisation, especially for forest communities. Those with the most money and power can – by remote control, lock up the largest land areas in developing countries. And they are happiest to work with the most corrupt because it is easiest that way.
THE AFRICA REPORT: Do you have representation through large green political muscles – and if so, how, if not, why not?
TOM GOLDTOOTH: “When indigenous peoples started to call into question the false solutions, we were attacked by large environmental organisations, saying that we were not looking at the bigger picture, at the benefit of REDD. We saw a campaign mounted to disrupt us, and to marginalise what we’re saying. But indigenous people no longer are able to stand back and let the ‘good intentioned’ voices speak on our behalf. In 1999, it used to be five or six people, at most, holding the line. Only when REDD became part of the picture, did indigenous peoples begin to stand up and actively resist. Corporations that fund some of the green organisations know how to play the game, and the organisations play back, to stay in business. The corporations know there is money to be made from investing in privatised trees, and that it looks good in paper. If you look at the NGOs, these are European ‘white’ NGOs, and there is tremendous racism and classism woven into that. When an ethnic person speaks up, they get offended they don’t want a solution from the marginalised. They want to devise the solution they feel is best for the whole system – and we have to ask ourselves what the system they actually represent, entails.
THE AFRICA REPORT: Many have proposed ‘eco-socialism’ and other similar models as the solution. Renowned Marxist David Harvey says it may be necessary to separate indigenous-type peoples living in the commons, like the Amazon, from the ‘natural’ commons – what is he advocating and from what standpoint?
TOM GOLDTOOTH: “The white-is-right dogma – where they don’t care to understand what the reality is and the culture and beliefs, of indigenous peoples, all over the world, especially the most marginalised, the forest peoples. We are the ones most anxious to protect, our cultures are principles on the belief that we cannot own and abuse the earth for our short-term benefit.”
THE AFRICA REPORT: Youth from all over the world have flown in – yet many lack understanding of the political economy of pollution, both problem and solution. Why is this?
TOM GOLDTOOTH: “Look at the role of the WWF-type organisations. These are educators. Al Gore – pushing for the carbon market, he is an educator on the environment and climate. They are slumming it out in Durban, it is fashionable for a young white kid from the US or UK to be concerned about a global poverty issue, not the reality in their own backyards, but somewhere where they can be special, become heroes. We challenged the big organisations with environmental racism – the top ten movements, including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, to bring our voices to the board, to the way in these campaigns are shaped. They resisted us. Even when they do appoint a person of colour, it is usually from within the mentality of surburbia, so that they are never questioned or taken out of the comfort zone where ‘white is right.’ And these organisations and their narratives are so popular – you have young kids coming, getting their hands dirty. They leave, feeling vindicated, slumming around – as if they have done their share. But this is our life, and that parachuting in and out of communities, the ruckus society, is destructive and presents the distorted reality. We have challenged, and become very unpopular, for raising the issue of classism which is source of the problem and requires an economic analysis if the environmental and climate narrative is to be truthful…. Look at 350.org – we had to challenge them to bring us to stand with them on the pipeline issue. Bill McKibben, the ivory tower white academic, didn’t even want to take the time to bring people of colour to the organising. We managed a negotiation that allowed for both groups to unite.
THE AFRICA REPORT: Concerning celebrated activist voices like Naomi Klein – they appear to come from a specific formula – What are your thoughts?
TOM GOLDTOOTH: “Well, it is always the case with the media that ‘white is right’ or that global issues affecting people of color on the frontline should be represented by the type of voices that don’t engage, in a threatening way, the realities of capitalism. There are also many fashionable voices that become part of the establishment in the sense that while they do espouse the truth, it is not pose a threat for change, for ending the system, because someone has adopted a cause that they were not born into. The communities that live in the cancer hotspots, in the immediate environment, their voices are too real, too threatening. Meanwhile, infiltration continues – how the corporations lend their money to the media – how the media shapes the tones and get the right voices to provide just the right amount of dissent. Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg donated millions to the Occupy Wall Street. We need a systems change, not an isolated trendy environmental change. The organisations that speak need to have a real constituency – they need to be accountable to the people they represent. There is no time for egos and games anymore.
As Navaho people, as Dakota people, we are struggling to understand how the problem that created the problem becomes the solution? In our language, we have no translation of ownership for the air – or carbon. One of my elders told me, if you ever have a hard time translating something into your language, beware that it may lack the truth.
This article first appeared in The Africa Report.
Khadija Sharife is a journalist; visiting scholar at the Center for Civil Society (CCS) based in South Africa and contributor to the Tax Justice Network. She is the Southern Africa correspondent for The Africa Report magazine, assistant editor of the Harvard “World Poverty and Human Rights” journal and author of Tax Us If You Can (Africa).