The Last Well: Indigenous and Feminist Approaches to Environmental and Climate Change Issues (Part I)

 The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in COand other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3 to 5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2 to 3 degrees warmer, and sea level was 10 to 20 meters [30 to 60 feet] higher than now,” said Mr Taalas of the World Meteorological Organization, (20 November 2018).*

In 2018 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported on the implications of failing to keep global warming below 1.5 degree Celsius. We are currently about 1 degree warmer than we were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago.

*All temperatures are in Celsius.

Keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees is crucial to avoiding a “truly catastrophic unravelling” of our current climate system. Given the extreme weather events, droughts, sea rise, ocean warming, forest fires, and acidification, species extinction, and land degradation we are already seeing, achieving that will be extremely difficult. According to the UN World Meteorological Organization, we are on a path to warming the world by 3 to 5 degrees by the end of the century. According to the UN IPCC we have less than ten years to reduce our global emissions enough to have any chance of avoiding this result. Meanwhile national governments from the United States to Brazil, Australia, Canada, Russia, China, India and elsewhere are pursuing industrial and economic development policies that are headed straight towards climate catastrophe within our lifetimes. Our industrial economy currently still relies so heavily on the production, export and import of oil, gas and coal that governments have chosen to put national economic interests ahead of the climate crisis. Brazil has indicated an intention to withdraw from the Paris Accord and shows no interest in climate change policy. The US, now under a new administration, has indicated it wishes to rejoin the Paris Accord. The Glasgow Conference of the Parties to the UN Agreement on Climate Change, rescheduled for later this year (November 2021), may well be our last chance to turn this juggernaut around.

But, climate change is not our only challenge. Biodiversity is collapsing around the world, eco-systems are being degraded or disappearing, and what appears to be a sixth great species extinction is now occurring. And this collapse is human-caused. Resource extraction, corporate agriculture, urbanization through suburban sprawl and the creation of giant shanty-towns, infrastructure projects such as dams, and the exploitation of land and water has created a global privatization of the Earth’s commons greater than any in human history. Along with this is a massive degradation of Earth’s systems due to pollution, desertification, salinization, soil depletion, deforestation, melting ice, over-population and over-consumption. Human beings have been interacting with Earth’s natural systems of growth, death, and regeneration for tens of thousands of years. This has now accelerated to the point where the human role is no longer that of partner or guardian, but of destroyer. But Earth’s systems are hitting us back.

There is a conspiracy theory making the rounds that the Covid-19 pandemic was manufactured by humans in a laboratory somewhere in China. The truth is, the pandemic was indeed caused by humans. Many people around the world rely on “wet markets” to buy food. Often these markets include wild animal meat as a cheap source of protein, as in the wet market in Wuhan. Much of this meat is harvested in areas where the natural habitat is already disturbed by humans. And some of it can be infected with pathogens humans have not encountered before, including viruses. HIV, Ebola, the Zika virus and Covid-19 were all transferred from animals to humans in this way. Viruses and bacteria can also spread from domestic animals such as chickens, pigs and cattle to humans. Many human diseases that used to be more common than they are now, such as small pox, originally jumped species from domesticated animals, and creatures who have accommodated themselves to humans such as mice and rats, to people. Annual mutations of the flu and the common cold still do this. From mosquitos, ticks, fleas, bats, monkeys, birds, poultry, cows and pigs to humans is not a big step for many pathogens.

There is a growing popular movement of outrage at what industry and governments have been doing – or not doing. Much of this is led by young people. The Extinction Rebellion in Europe, the Sunrise Movement in the United States, and other mass mobilizations around the world are demanding revolutionary change. School Strikes for Climate Change are bringing people onto the streets all over the world (or were before Covid locked us all up) insisting that we have to change course now, or there will be no future. The face and voice of these movements has been Greta Thunberg, a teenaged girl from Sweden who set about to change the world all by herself, beginning her own school strike in 2018. She became the catalyst of a global youth movement that is unprecedented in modern history. As she told the economic and political leaders meeting at Davos, Switzerland in 2018:

If everyone is guilty, then no one is to blame, and someone is to blame . . . Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular know exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people. . . . I don’t want your hope . . . I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is. . . .

There has also developed out of socialist, anti-colonial and international perspectives of the last fifty years, or longer, a somewhat deeper analysis of the climate crisis as a symptom of corporate capitalist, nationalist, and colonial agendas. One solution that has been proposed is a “Green New Deal” gaining significant traction in several First World countries. But, the focus in First World countries is often still on economic redistribution of the proceeds from resource extraction, and regulation of pollution, while attempting to reduce the power of large corporations through taxation, government and international regulation, carbon offsets and technological innovation. It has been described by some commentators as little more than capitalist “greenwashing” of the global economy. Socialist or so-called progressive governments have proven to be especially disappointing in their response to climate change and the environment given their stated commitment to human welfare, as opposed to the bottom line.

For example, our “progressive” social democratic government in the province of British Columbia, Canada gained power in 2017 (and an outright majority in 2020) over a previous conservative government by forming an alliance between the left-wing New Democratic Party and the Green Party of British Columbia. They promised to deal with climate change, environmental and Indigenous issues vigorously and effectively. But, four years later, mining licenses are still being issued for projects on Indigenous land without Indigenous consent. Old-growth logging has increased to feed the global bio-fuel market (wood pellets are a supposedly renewable energy source). Fish farms of imported salmon are still operating along the Coast spreading disease to wild stocks of salmon whose numbers have plummeted to fifty-year lows. A large hydroelectric dam project was approved and the LNG fracking and transport industry is now on fast-track. A supposedly liberal progressive federal government in Canada has approved and even purchased an oil pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the Pacific West Coast. Whether governments can be described as right-wing, centrist or even left-wing, the rhetoric and practice effectively ignores environmental concerns and the climate crisis for “business as usual” – profits and jobs always come first. A gradualist approach to change is emphasized, when what is needed is a mobilization of resources on the scale of the New Deal response to the Great Depression, World War II, or the reconstruction of Europe after the last war ended.

But perhaps we need to pay more attention to another set of intersecting perspectives. Indigenous peoples around the world have been leading a very different kind of activism based less on social, economic or political theories than on a struggle to maintain or return to Indigenous values and lifeways that see land, water, the environment and energy, not as property or manifestations of inanimate systems, but rather as living systems with spiritual and cultural significance. They have led radical and often dangerous strategies to circumvent or stop development projects and develop political power systems that draw on traditional knowledge and cultural ways of decision-making. The water protectors and land guardians of Standing Rock in North Dakota; the barricade builders blocking roads into Unis’tot’en land on the west coast of British Columbia; Mauna Kea protests in Hawaii; legal battles in South America to protect the Amazon; civil actions brought by Guatemalans in Canadian courts protesting the actions of Canadian mining interests; Sami efforts to protect reindeer habitat in Scandinavia; Inuit in the Arctic working towards protection of ice, land, water and animals, and the effects of an enormous iron mine expansion on Baffin Island; Australian Aboriginal efforts to stop coal and uranium mining and agricultural take-overs of their land – the list goes on and on. Subsistence farmers, often but not always Indigenous, have also been working to save their homes and build infrastructure that protects their land from resource extraction and agri-business. This can also have a big impact on environmental and climate systems.

Indigenous communities are not recognized as parties to the international agreement [on Biological Diversity, or any other international agreement]. They can come as observers to the talks, but can’t vote on the outcome. Practically though, success is impossible without their support.

One amazing example of this is the “Great Green Wall” project in which trees are being planted by local communities right across the breadth of Africa:

The Great Green Wall is taking root in Africa’s Sahel region, at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert – one of the poorest places on the planet. More than anywhere else on Earth, the Sahel is on the frontline of climate change and millions of locals are already facing its devastating impact. Persistent droughts, lack of food, conflicts over dwindling natural resources, and mass migration to Europe are just some of the many consequences. Yet, communities from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East are fighting back. Since the birth of the initiative in 2007, life has started coming back to the land, bringing improved food security, jobs and stability to people’s lives. The Great Green Wall isn’t just for the Sahel. It is a global symbol for humanity overcoming its biggest threat – our rapidly degrading environment. It shows that if we can work with nature, even in challenging places like the Sahel, we can overcome adversity, and build a better world for generations to come. More than just growing trees and plants, the Great Green Wall is transforming the lives of millions of people in the Sahel region.

There are similar projects in Asia including not only tree-planting, but also clean-up of land and water polluted by plastic, urban and industrial waste; rehabilitation of degraded habitats; and species conservation. Much of this work builds on cultural and religious systems of respect for nature and community, and is a rejection of modern industrial and agricultural development. It is also local, at least at first, until the problems are seen as shared across different communities and different environments. Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples often form significant alliances as part of these projects, allowing for interrelationships and community-building that can counteract colonial, nationalist, and racist agendas.

One common thread that links all of these approaches including children’s school strikes, progressive and environmental movements, Indigenous groups, and subsistence farmers – is who is providing much of the leadership. Participation in action or inaction on climate change and protecting the environment tend to be gendered as either male or female. Corporate and political leadership is overwhelmingly male. Organizational structures in business, government, trade unions and the military (a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction) are rigidly patriarchal and masculine in nature and behaviour. Movements of children, Indigenous groups, some progressive political movements, and environmental groups are often led by women and girls. Even where leadership is male, the decision-making processes tend to be less authoritarian and more cooperative, although this is not always true of course.

But a difference in leadership or participation within organizations is not a complete explanation of the issue of sex differences, although it is important. A disproportionately high number of Indigenous environmental activists who are killed are women. Sexual assault, torture, murder, disappearances and intimidation are tools used by male-dominated governments, corporations, military and police, and para-military forces, against both women and men, but women seem to be disproportionately targeted.  Central and South America are particularly dangerous for Indigenous rights advocates as well as for women’s rights.

Climate change and environmental degradation can also force families off the land and into the cities. There women struggle to make ends meet and raise their children in the face of increased family violence, gang violence, femicide, and sexual assault. The “golden triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where most asylum-seekers to Mexico and the United States come from, has been decimated by climate change induced drought, dislocation, paralyzed governments, repression, American-backed military take-overs, and an enormous increase in armed gangs who are the male leftovers of guerilla movements throughout the region. The impact of male violence in impeding efforts to deal with the effects of climate change and environmental damage should not be underestimated. Nor should the courage of individuals and groups of women within communities, especially Indigenous communities, be shrugged off. These women are adept at bringing often conflicting groups and interests together; they are much less prone to corruption and violence; and their approach tends to be much more holistic in terms of human rights, the environment, social and family needs, children and traditional teachings.

There will be a time, in most of the world, when the last well goes dry. And this is because so much of the world lives already on the brink of a dreadful thirst, a life only made tolerable because women travel great distances to find the wells or the rivers or the ditches, scoop up the water, and bring it home. They carry it on their backs, or their heads, or on their hips, like a child. In Africa alone, women walk forty billion hours a year to bring this water home. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls are responsible for 72 percent of all the water collected. This means that women spend a significant proportion of their lives simply carrying water. And as the climate steadily gets warmer, droughts will become more frequent and water will become more salinized, harder to find, and farther away from habitation. As it now stands, clean water is already unavailable to over 633 million people—one in ten of the people of the earth. Diseases from contaminated water kill on the aggregate more people than any form of violence, including wars and acts of terror. Forty-three percent of these people are children under age five. Water is a large part of the embodied life of women who bear these infants. Without abundant water, it is hard to carry a pregnancy safely to term, to give birth, nurse, or bathe children, or to launder clothes and diapers—all details for which women, and women alone, are largely responsible.

For many women around the world, the last well has already gone dry. Drought has become a serious problem in environments as diverse as Guatemala, Yemen, Syria, the American Midwest, and Australia. Drought and water shortages fueled the war in Syria and the displacement of millions of people, the majority of whom are women and children. Women, children and men are dying in a modern genocide of famine and thirst in Yemen as a result of both climate change and savage warfare perpetrated by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the US and Canada. People are fleeing their farms in Guatemala and Honduras because of drought and their inability to grow both corn and coffee. In the cities they face very high levels of violence by male gangs armed with weapons supplied by American military and arms manufacturers. Women face rape, violence and murder while their children are in danger of being recruited into these gangs. Many women and children have fled to the American border where families are separated, and children are locked up in internment camps in Texas and elsewhere. These camps are run by private prison companies who are making a fortune off the suffering of mothers and fathers turned back at the border after losing their children. In Australia towns and cities in the Murray/Darling River system face water shortages so severe that they will no longer be able to rely on tap water, while cotton farmers have sequestered huge amounts of water for irrigation upstream. Recurring heat and drought have made this form of agriculture unsustainable. It is families in small towns and big cities downstream who will suffer. Australian mothers, like their African counterparts, will have to fetch water from elsewhere, although with much less individual labour.

The key to turning our current planetary crises around is to look to those people who bear the greatest burden in dealing with these crises now, and in the future.

Sources for all three parts of “The Last Well” will be included at the end of Part III.

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