At COP 21, indigenous people wield voices in fight for justice

PARIS – Just outside the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, at the free-to-the-public side event called Climate Generations, the People’s World was going from exhibit to exhibit, talking with activists at tables and catching snippets of dialogue and video presentations. Suddenly an emotional voice carried across the building, relaying a hard truth: “Mother Earth will go on without us. If we don’t take care of her, she will not take care of us.”

That voice belongs to Kandi L. Mossett, known also by her tribal name, Eagle Woman. Mossett is a lead organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, which has outlined talking points for this year’s convention, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions, calling for moratoriums on new fossil fuel development, and fighting against “false solutions,” like fracking and nuclear energy.

They set up a pavilion at the event, speaking each day on different environmental topics and aspects of the struggle for indigenous rights. The organization, which has members from many tribes and nations, pointed out that climate change is more than a social issue; the problems that are causing climate change are truly a violent attack on the earth, and human beings will pay the price for it.

“We see that now,” said Mossett, “with the droughts, the fires. We live in an age of such great technology, and yet we’re in the age of stupid. We’re seeing the commodification of air and water. Companies can buy a forest in another country and put a fence up around it and displace indigenous people. They can frack on indigenous land, killing nature. You know, as Gandhi once said, ‘There are enough resources for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.’ Right now it’s a matter of making the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy that does not harm the planet.” But the troubling thing is, she added, natural gas and nuclear energy are pushed as ‘alternatives,’ and ‘job creators,’ and yet they contribute just as much damage. “It’s a fear-mongering tactic to push these things and say ‘jobs, jobs, jobs.’ “

The Indigenous Environmental Network “was formed in 1990,” said Mossett. “It was largely as a result of the American Indian movement really starting to mobilize” around that time. “We try to help tribes network and fight back together against the fossil fuel industry.” That unity is significant to her, and the driving force behind the organization. “It’s important for people to know that as human beings, we’re all responsible for taking care of Mother Earth, regardless of age, sex, color, or cultural background.” She asked everyone to hold up their hands. “Fingers separately on a hand can be broken. But together, they can make a fist.”

And it would seem that there is more than one reason for indigenous people to unite and defend their rights: in addition to having much of their land bought up by fossil fuel corporations, tarnished, or destroyed outright by ecological disasters, they are also being shut out of the official climate talks at COP 21.

Tom Goldtooth, of Navajo and Dakota descent, and executive director of the Network, remarked, “We are a nation of people, but this organization called the ‘United Nations’ doesn’t recognize indigenous nations. And yet, we have land, language, spirituality, values. Many of the nations our organization represents have their own legislative authority. We have everything that these other world leaders who are negotiating have, and yet we are not in that room with them. Why don’t we have people there talking about what we’re discussing here?”

Eriel Deranger, communications manager for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, also saw another reason for indigenous people to be privy to the discussions. “There’s an imbalance in most world governments right now. Most of them are largely composed of men. And it’s not a coincidence that Mother Earth, a feminine figure, is being harmed by these administrations.” And each time they attack her, she said, “these governments and corporations always argue the economic benefits and job creation of the projects, regardless of whether they infringe upon habitats and their species, or hurt us. Government simply insists that it’s ‘in the public’s interest.’ Well, it’s not in our interest.”

“And when they say clean energy,” said Mossett, “there’s a perimeter around what they mean. Anything that displaces us and hurts Mother Earth can’t be considered clean. We assault and pillage the world in the name of power and greed. The people who are responsible think that climate change won’t touch them. But that day will come, and they’ll be sitting there wondering why they can’t eat their money and drink their oil.”

Photo: Kandi Mossett (left) and Eriel Deranger.  |  Teresa Albano/PW




Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the PW home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have also appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the 2010 BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Illinois and frequently visits Europe. He likes cats, wine, books, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a music reaction channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a fantasy novel.