Suffering from Global Warming First

Indigenous people who live close to the land are seeing the effects of global warming sooner and more alarmingly than many urban dwellers and thus are demanding a strong voice in the Paris Climate Summit, as Native and Indian leader Andrea Carmen told Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Among the world’s people already seriously impacted by global warming are the Native and Indian communities of the Americas and they are demanding to be heard at the Climate Summit now in progress in Paris, France.

Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, is part of the council’s delegation to the Paris talks, working with representatives of Native peoples from across the hemisphere. Pacifica Radio’s Flashpoints host, Dennis J Bernstein reached Carmen in Paris as she was working on language for a proposed preamble to the agreement being fleshed out in Paris.

Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council.

Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council.

DB: Andrea, what is the agenda for the Native peoples you are representing?

AC: It’s important that we share what’s happening here from the inside to anybody concerned about the climate crisis, which should be everybody by now. We’re keeping our future generations first and foremost in our minds as we do this work. I’m one of two representatives on the global steering committee of what’s called the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, which represents indigenous peoples from all seven indigenous regions in the world.

Chief Bill Erasmus, from the Canadian Northwest Territories, and I represent the Indigenous people of North America. We have about 20 indigenous people with us from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. There are also large delegations from Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, the Arctic, Africa, Asia and Russia. We’re very excited to be working with a very large team here.

We have collective consensus points that we’re working on with the U.N. States, which is what countries of the U.N. are called. I was selected by the whole indigenous caucus that met to finalize our positions and strategy for getting the rights of indigenous people recognized in the final legally binding agreement. This Paris agreement will hopefully come out by the end of the two weeks.

I was at the opening plenary and got to hear President Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Prince Charles, the King of Jordan, and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, who mentioned indigenous peoples. It was very appreciated by the Canadian representatives here who worked on him hard to be sure he mentioned it. President Obama didn’t mention either indigenous peoples’ rights or human rights. We hoped he would at least talk about human rights.

We’re concerned that an agreement on climate change will make a difference on the ground. Some of the countries, like the U.S., are settling for working towards an agreement of no more than a 2 degrees centigrade temperature increase globally, but many scientists, including the U.N. scientists, say that degree of temperature rise will have a devastating impact on the traditional life ways and ecosystems of indigenous peoples – in many places, not just the Arctic and island communities, but everywhere. We’re joining with over 100 countries, including small island states, to try and keep an agreement of a temperature rise no greater than 1.5 degrees centigrade. It makes a huge difference.

Where I’m from, the Sonora desert in Arizona and Northern Mexico, is experiencing drought. Corn isn’t growing like it used to. There is an increase in tornadoes in places like Oklahoma, and increased forest fires in California, the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Salmon are dying at unprecedented rates. The coho salmon run are not expected to even survive beyond this century in central California because of the warming temperatures. This is all over the planet.

DB: You were disappointed in President Obama, and his lack of recognizing the importance of considering indigenous communities within the climate concerns. What are some of the key issues impacting indigenous communities now?

AC: We’re experiencing an impact here. The U.N. General Assembly adopted the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007, and of course the U.S. was the last country to come on board in 2010. The declaration says that indigenous people have the right to participate in decision-making that would affect our rights. But during the negotiating sessions here on different parts of the text, we’re not even allowed to come into the room, even to observe and listen.

Some of the indigenous people from the Pacific and Canada managed to get credentialed, so they are able to get in there and report out to us. Since we are not at the table to participate in the negotiations of text and decisions that will dramatically affect our rights, our rights are being violated right here, at COP21. We are taking note of that.

But we are talking to many countries. Today I talked to at least 20 countries, such as New Zealand, Ecuador, Iraq, and, of course, the U.S. and Canada, about our position to include phrasing that says “respect, promote, protect and fulfill human rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples.” That must be a fundamental principle of how this agreement will be carried out.

We know, as indigenous peoples, that a lot of our land is still protected, pristine, with healthy ecosystems, because we protected it. Yet when they talk about adaptation and mitigation, our land, water and resources will be a target for use by the states as they look for ways to try to resolve the problems they created around climate change.

We want to make sure that our rights to our land, our traditional economy, subsistence, as well as traditional knowledge and ways we can contribute to solve some of these problems using our traditional understanding of our relationship to the earth, our original seeds, our practices that have not contributed to climate change. We have something to offer these discussions. Our traditional knowledge must be protected and respected.

There are some elements in the text that we are working to make sure are included. It’s an uphill battle. The U.S. and Canada today, a result of much pressure from indigenous people and other organizations here, are beginning to look at supporting our language. We are fighting to have the language in the operative, but they are only suggesting it for the preamble at this point.

There is much common ground with human rights in general, such as gender equity, intergenerational equity of youth and elders, so there was much agreement on our concerns and proposed language. We work on mutually agreed on language that can take everyone’s concerns into consideration. But there are countries here that don’t want human rights at all.

DB: These are struggles crucial to indigenous peoples. What are the battle fronts? We hear about the incredible suffering of people of color through environmental racism. Can you put a human face on this?

AC: We are emphasizing what indigenous people call food sovereignty, or a right to food. Many communities, not just indigenous people, can’t grow traditional corn anymore because of the climate changes and lack of rainfall. Traditional people from the salmon areas along the Pacific coast are saying there is an 80 percent salmon die off of the coho salmon run on the Columbia River this year because of the warming water temperatures. These are real issues that affect indigenous people’s lives, their culture, their ceremonial ways of life.

DB: That’s the Columbia River that wraps around the Hanford nuclear facility, which is a disaster waiting to happen and affecting indigenous communities, correct?

AC: No doubt. The dams there have already affected the salmon run, so this is one more thing to add to a very struggling species. Salmon is called an indicator species. We heard from indigenous people of the Great Lakes area how the wild rice they live from is diminishing and is a fundamental part of their culture. We heard from indigenous people in Alaska that they are not able to hunt seals or walruses, what they have always lived off of. These are isolated communities. They don’t have another resource to turn to, and this is part of their culture as well.

Indigenous people’s relationship to our traditional food is not just economic and nutritional. It’s our identity. Spiritual and clan relationships are all included. We’re giving people the opportunity to talk about that here.

The tar sands directly affect indigenous people from Canada. An elder spoke about the victory we all had with defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline. We give Obama credit for doing the right thing by standing up to the political opposition and denying the permit that would bring filthy oil down from tar sands – devastating for the communities of Alberta, Canada – down into the middle of the U.S., just waiting for a spill.

As a sign of important solidarity between indigenous nations in the U.S. and Canada, we presented some videos. We have an Indigenous Pavilion and the opening with North America Day was packed, standing room only, as people from the communities as well as delegates from countries listened to indigenous people tell their stories. We started with a panel of elders talking about traditional knowledge of climate change, and how it’s been prophesized, predicted to occur, if we continue to misuse the natural resources of the earth. We have a lot to contribute here.

DB: In Canada, there are indigenous communities that have already lost their land. This isn’t philosophical, or a debate, or something happening in the future.

AC: It’s absolutely happening now. There is a relationship between what indigenous people are going through on the ground to mega-projects like tar sands in the far north of Alberta, which used to be forest and clean rivers but is now devastated, contaminated. That tar sands project alone produces more greenhouse gases that cause climate change than all of the other sources in Canada – cars, buses, planes, factories.

What Indigenous peoples are defending with their homeland struggle on the ground is also a major part of fighting global climate change. We heard from representatives from the Navaho Dine Nation about the fight against coal mining there, which is also a fight against global warming, because burning fossil fuels is the biggest cause. We heard about some of the impacts of fracking in Oklahoma – the earthquakes, devastation of water supplies.

DB: A record number of earthquakes. It’s extraordinary. Talk about the fight against the coal miners the digging up of the earth, and its impact on indigenous communities. This isn’t a new story, but it’s become a battlefront of global warming and climate change.

AC: Absolutely. The biggest single emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly from burning coal, is China. Where does that come from? Much is from indigenous land in the Americas as well as other places.

The big debate is about the responsibility of the different countries, which they call differentiated responsibilities. Africa produces 7 percent of the total greenhouse gases. Obama recognized that the U.S. has been a major contributor to climate change. It still has the largest output per capita. That gets back to demanding a change in energy policy as well as our own individual carbon footprint that we could maybe cut back on.

China is still considered a developing country, so should they cut back as well? The U.S. is pushing hard for that. Countries are talking about economics. We’re talking about survival, as indigenous people – not in the future, but now. It’s coming down to a political and economic debate among countries about who is to blame, and who should do more. We’re sitting here saying we are being killed off, literally, by this climate crisis. And the cause of the climate crisis is fossil fuel extraction.

DB: Groups like the United Farm Workers are on the cutting edge of standing against environmental racism because of the pesticides and other deadly chemicals that are used on the land that people of color and indigenous communities are exposed to. This has been a long-term battle, and a workers’ struggle as well.

AC: Absolutely. And a human rights struggle as well. We are fighting this battle in our Yaqui communities of northern Mexico. We just brought a case against Mexico for importing pesticides that are exported by the U.S. We’ve also taken the U.S. to the United Nations on this because they are the biggest exporter of pesticides they ban for use in the U.S. They ship it to Mexico and Guatemala, and spray it from airplanes over schools and communities. We documented 39 cases of children who died from direct exposure to these pesticides in small Yaqui communities.

We got the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to declare than environmental health was a human right that all children have, which relates to maternal health, which relates to pesticides. There is a strong connection between that kind of chemical contamination of indigenous and farming communities and what’s happening with climate change, both in cause and effect.

Many insects are now moving further and further north. Over 38,000 acres of forest have been killed by an invasion of bark beetles – forests from Alaska, British Columbia, California and Montana. That’s a direct impact of climate change. But of course the industrial solution is to spray pesticides on them. This is a growing problem. It is strongly connected to climate change and we are just beginning to think and talk about that.

DB: If you could sit down with the people calling the shots there, doing their best to exclude indigenous communities, trying to hold you at bay as they do whatever they want to represent the 1 percent, what would your speech sound like?

AC: We all have children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and children in our communities. Think about their lives, and what it will be for them in 25 years if this situation isn’t radically changed. Not just a little, but a radical withdrawal from the fossil fuel-based economy to a sustainable way of life. What is their life going to be? They will look back at us, and say “What did you do for us in Paris? You knew what was happening. What are you going to do to put whatever comes out of here into action on the ground – to make a difference for the future.”

We need to appeal to hearts and souls of the countries, heads of states, state negotiators, so we all realize we all live on the same planet. Our future generations will look back and judge us to see what we did so they could have a life that was just and livable – where they and the natural world can thrive.

We have a lot of opportunity to interact with the countries, the states and present our positions to them. We might not be in a certain room, but we catch them when they go in, come out, and we talk to them in their offices. We talk as a human family and about how indigenous people have a lot to offer in this dialogue for solutions based on our traditional knowledge and practices. We want to offer as solutions how we maintained our relationship with the Mother Earth and natural world.

All of our lives are at stake, particularly our children and grandchildren. I think we’re making an impact. The text will probably be finalized in the next 24 hours. We ask for thoughts and prayers from everybody. We’re all in this fight together.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.  You can access the audio archives at

2 comments for “Suffering from Global Warming First

  1. hebgb
    December 8, 2015 at 13:16

    Climate refugee from Kiribati has been denied by NZ. Apparently, it isn’t a big enough problem… climate, that is.

  2. December 6, 2015 at 04:58

    It would b reasonable for the refugees in the South West Pacific islands to resettle in safer countries along ethnic regions.–news/refugees-from-sea-level-rise
    New Zealand should take the Polynesians and Australia the Micronesians.

Comments are closed.