People working on water and climate change—water warriors—participated in a workshop organized at the alternate COP 16, known as Dialogo Climatico. At a session titled "Water, Dams and Disasters," we heard moving testimonies from those affected by toxic pollution in their air and water, and peasants displaced from their farms.
Indigenous Rights and Water
“Indigenous Peoples 'managed' lands for thousands of years, and it wasn’t until the colonizers came that the problems began.”
We heard from the Fort Berthold nation from North Dakota first and there was no mincing of words. Speaking to all present, she said, “we were colonized, and we speak the voice of colonizers.” She said this, because she spoke in English and not her Native language. Native languages in the U.S. have been decimated. The modern system has relied on fossil fuel based energy because it is cheap. It is cheap because it has historically been exempt from paying its dues, both to our environment and to humanity. The list is long, black lung, mountaintop removal, company town exploitation, mercury, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, mining accidents, sulfur dioxide, and of course, water pollution. Coal, in particular, needs water—and massive amounts of it—to be transformed into energy we can use. The consequences can never be fully measured. But contrast this with values that have guided Indigenous peoples.
“We believe that coal is like the liver of our Mother Earth, it naturally filters the water.”
The tensions between different knowledge systems are certainly on display in these settings. What is truth to one community is denigrated as myth to another. One does not have to believe in Indigenous beliefs, but if we are to live in a truly democratic society, the right to retain these longstanding ways of knowing must be acknowledged. In so-called “modern” times, “modern” science has become the ultimate validator of truth. But from the perspective of Indigenous people, its contribution tends to come as a Johnny-come-lately compared to Indigenous science. For example, Indigenous people have warned about massive resource extraction for hundreds of years.
“Things are probably going to get worse before they get better. We have good hearts, good minds and good souls. One path leads to destruction, and one leads to renewal.”
“We have a history of commodification beginning with peoples, bought them across the seas and sold them on the open market. Since then, we have been fighting oppressive regimes of capitalism.”
Next came the recounting of the historical exploitation of African American people and communities by an environmental and human rights advocate from the southern United States. Just as the organization and technology of the modern energy structure has been evolving and innovating to new stages of development, the story of how communities have had to respond to this evolution was presented through the eyes of one such place. The town of Mossville, Louisiana was formed by five families of former slaves in the late 1700s. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway used to travel to Mossvile to fish and muse for his writing precisely because it was known to be a rich biodiverse area. But all of that changed with the modern appetite for energy and things. Years later, Mossville was founded by another group of actors: a set of corporate production facilities. Today, in an area covering 5.5 square miles, 14 industrial facilities are in operation.
“These companies are emitting many of the most toxic chemicals, choking the life of the community— people can no longer fish or grow crops. Their bodies are contaminated and yet their call for safe alternatives is not heard.”
Hydro: The Old Green or the New Green?
In the race to find low-carbon solutions, hydro power continues to be at the top of the alternative list; but then we heard from those on the other side of the dam: Mexico's Indigenous communities and farmers.
“Our town is going is be flooded by the dam; the place where we have lived, where we have grown our food, where we fish.”
We heard from those who are struggling to have a voice. The rush to economic development, including tourism and expansion of energy through “green” alternatives, has catalyzed investment for massive large-scale projects. But what about the villager whose livelihood is affected and whose community is displaced? He asks for help in understanding how his human right to water and life can go unanswered.
“They’re privatizing water, and selling it to rich companies. Poor farmers will be left without anything. The hills will not be able to be cultivated. We have thermal waterfalls, hot water, springs, but now it’s a tourist area.”
The message being received is that agriculture is not valued, the natural flows of water are without value, sustainable livelihoods are irrelevant, and people are displaced. This to the farmer is what it means to live in a commodified world. Green or clean energy without democracy will fail at its core objective. Democratic clean energy systems are more than technological alternatives, they are alternatives in which political voice is given to everyone.
“We don’t agree with them setting a price on our lands and our waters. Not only people who have money have rights.”
In closing, everyone reaffirmed the intrinsic connection between water, climate and food security. Any solutions need to support local approaches and connect globally to challenge the institutions that do not value people or ecosystems.
Dr. Cecilia Martinez and Shiney Varghese are blogging from the U.N. climate talks in Cancún, Mexico.