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Who Owns The Climate?

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January 16, 2006

Who Owns The Climate?

Indigenous leaders demand a voice in climate change negotiations

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Indigenous peoples are disproportionately impacted by climate change. photo credit: Dru Oja Jay
The solutions to climate change must involve Indigenous people, insists Tom Goldtooth, Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), an organization that amplifies the voices of grassroots Indigenous activists fighting for environmental justice. According to Goldtooth, Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by climate change and should have a central role in any proposed solutions. "We have wisdom from people who have lived on the land and have certain knowledge that can provide solutions to this dilemma."

For the past seven years the IEN has been demanding a formal mechanism that would allow Indigenous peoples to officially participate in International Climate Change Negotiations. At the most recent round of talks, held in Montreal between November 28th and December 9th, the demand has been met with indifference. Goldtooth says that the climate change solutions being proposed by governments are stuck in a paradigm that is disconnected from the planet it purports to fix.

"They [government leaders] come from an industrialized mindset that looks at technical or market-based solutions. We're saying that we have to look at the values that have gotten us into this situation. Industrialization separates community from nature."

Carbon trading - a system that allows polluters who emit more than their limit of greenhouse gases to buy carbon credits from those who pollute less - is an example of a market based approach that Goldtooth believes will not work because it fails to address the root causes of the problem. "As Indigenous People we view Mother Earth as sacred. For people to really address these issues we have to reevaluate our relationship to the sacredness of Mother Earth."

Clayton Thomas-Muller, Native Energy Organizer for the IEN, agrees, adding that some of these "solutions" are actually making things worse. "We believe that these market based approaches escalate the on-the-ground impacts for poor, disenfranchised communities." Thomas-Muller cites the example of eucalyptus plantations in the global south. Polluters who are emitting above their limit can now claim carbon credits for creating monoculture plantations that act as "carbon sinks." According to Thomas-Muller, these plantations have done more than absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; they have also "wreaked havoc" on the fragile biodiversity of the region and displaced indigenous communities from the land that has been their source of food and has been integral to their way of life.

It is not surprising, says Thomas-Muller, that Indigenous Peoples are being disproportionately impacted by climate change "solutions," since they have also been disproportionately impacted by its causes.

Major oil industries, strip mining, and huge hydro projects are often situated on or near First Nations' land. "Our culture is based on a healthy relationship with Mother Earth," says Thomas-Muller. "When you have landscape fracturing industries, they not only destroy that relationship, they also create a lot of other problems." Thomas-Muller believes that the money these industries bring into communities is over-rated. "What jobs do our people get? They get the toxic jobs, the dangerous jobs. Drugs come into the community."

The Mackenzie Valley Project, a proposed 1220 km natural gas pipeline, is the most recent initiative that is promising to bring wealth to Indigenous communities–and add to the problem of climate change. Many First Nations people, including The Arctic Youth Alliance, a grassroots group made up of youth from across Denendeh and the Beaufort Delta in the Northwest Territories, are resisting the project. However, there are others that are welcoming the project. The Aboriginal Pipeline Group (APG) - founded by 30 Aboriginal leaders in the Northwest Territories to maximize the ownership and benefits of Aboriginal Peoples in the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline - has partnered with Imperial Oil, ConocoPhillips, Shell Canada and Exxon Mobil to bring the project to fruition. The APG website proudly states that " This is the first time that Aboriginal groups in Canada will participate as an owner in a major, multi-billion dollar industrial project."

Goldtooth is not surprised that many First Nations people are welcoming oil and gas development. He points out that many of these communities are devastated by poverty and the promise of money and jobs are hard to resist. Even so, he has grave doubts that partnering with multinational corporations on oil and gas development will bring good to Indigenous communities.

"What we are experiencing right now is that some of our tribal chiefs are negotiating with these ruthless unaccountable corporations in the world of petropolitics. It scares a lot of our Indigenous people and our grassroots, who are very cautious of these big money deals," explains Goldtooth. "Because it's not going to benefit our people - over the long run. It's a boom-bust society. How many years of oil or natural gas we have left?"

While climate change is threatening the future existence of the oil and gas industry, Indigenous cultures are being deeply impacted by climate change today. "Cultural ethnocide is being committed on Indigenous Nations," says Thomas-Muller. He argues that changes in the Earth's climate are wreaking havoc on Indigenous cultures which are based on a direct connection to nature and living off the land. The warming in the North, for example, is changing caribou migrations and hunting seasons, not to mention the frozen landscape on which people live.

In the face of cultural and environmental devastation, Indigenous peoples are turning to the courts. In December 2005 a petition was filed with the Washington, DC-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking relief from violations of the human rights of Inuit resulting from global warming. The United States isn't the only one in the hot-seat, however, says Thomas-Muller. "More and more our First Nations and Aboriginal groups in this country are gaining legal footing. Our legal base and collective understanding of law and our rights are expanding. More and more you will see landmark decisions being won in the Supreme Court by Aboriginal groups which give us say about what happens on or near our traditional homelands."

At the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, Aboriginal groups were not given a say about what happens to their land or their people, says Goldtooth who remains determined to fight for just solutions to climate change. "We're going to get through this but we need to involve the people out there right now," he adds. "The people are basically locked out."

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