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When will we realize that the savior we’re waiting for is us? / We are the hope for the future because we are the future. –Aka Niviâna, “We are the future”
A little over a year ago, young Inuk poet Aka Niviâna returned to her home country of Greenland with urgency: she was forgetting her native language.
The two thin lines of tattoo ink running from her lower lip to the bottom of her chin mirror the trail of meaning that follow her words. The “savior” should not grant a future to certain rule-abiders but to everyone equally. “We” is not a demographic limited to certain countries, professions or income brackets, but every person on the planet. And the “future” is only a future if it includes all that “we” are: languages, cultures, loved ones, environments, homes.
On 22–23 June 2019, more than 600 people from across the world gathered in at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Bonn, Germany to rally behind a new approach to achieving this future – a future that is more inclusive and sustainable than the present – through the establishment of secure and proper rights for all.
Held alongside the UNFCCC’s Bonn Climate Change Conference (SB50), the GLF conference began with Niviâna’s poem to set the tone for two days focused on the rights of the world’s most important environmental stewards, who are also among the most threatened, criminalized, and rights-less: Indigenous peoples, local communities, women and youth.
The lands of the world’s 350 million Indigenous peoples are one of the most powerful shields against climate change, holding 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and sequestering nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon (equal to 33 times 2017’s global energy emissions). With massively ambitious targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and limiting global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius approaching in 2030 and still far from being achieved, dialogues about the global future have begun to wake up to the fact that these peoples’ relationships with the natural world are not only crucial to preserve for their own sake, but for everyone’s.
The Forum, which each year carries a different theme through its series of events, news, workshops, community outreach and online courses, is focusing 2019 on rights: giving land rights the visibility they need to leapfrog to the top of global discussions, framing rights as a solution to the climate change crisis, and developing a ‘gold standard’ for rights.
The drafting of the nascent gold standard has been led by Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development and the Rights and Resources Initiative in the months leading up to the GLF. Wider discussions over the two days will serve as a consultation on the draft, which will be finalized by the end of the year as a concrete guide for organizations, institutions, governments and the private sector on how to apply different principles of rights – free, prior and informed consent; gender equality; respect to cultural heritage; education – and realize the benefits that doing so can bring.
As Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, U.N. special rapporteur on Indigenous rights, pointed out, lands managed by Indigenous peoples with secure rights have lower deforestation rates, higher biodiversity levels and higher carbon storage than lands in government-protected areas.
“We’re defending the world, for every single one of us,” said Geovaldis Gonzalez Jimenez, an Indigenous peasant leader in the Montes de María area of the Colombian Caribbean. But industries such as fossil fuel, large-scale agriculture, mining and others are not only endangering landscapes but also the lives of the people therein. Already this year, there have been 135 murders in Gonzalez Jimenez’s region, he said; the day before the GLF began, a local leader was killed in front of a 9-year-old boy.
“Our identity is being threatened, and we need to avoid it being completely eradicated,” said Diel Mochire Mwenge, who leads the Initiative Programme for the Development of the Pygme in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Here, he has witnessed more than 1 million people evicted from the national parkland where they have long lived, given no benefits from the ecotourism industries brought in to replace them and left struggling to find new income sources.
In Jharkhand, India, activist Gladson Dungdung, whose parents were murdered in 1990 for attending a court case for a local land dispute, says an amendment to India’s Forest Rights Act currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court could see 7.5 million Indigenous peoples evicted from their native forest landscapes, and impact a further 90 million people who depend on these forests’ resources for their survival. The amendment, he said, would also give absolute power to the national forest guard; if a guard were to see someone using the forest for hunting or timber collection, they could legally shoot the person on-sight.
“Indigenous peoples are right on the frontline of the very real and dangerous fight for the world’s forests,” said actor and Indigenous rights activist Alec Baldwin in a video address.
Environmental defenders are the “superheroes of the environmental movement” said Jennifer Morris, president of Conservation International. “Why do we not hear about these leaders until they’ve become martyrs for this cause?”
The examples of intimidation, criminalization, eviction and hardship shared throughout the first day of the GLF spanned issues from recognition of gay marriage by elders of the Native American Navajo community to mercury contamination in the waters of the Cook Islands to equal rights for women. “Gender equality is more than a goal, it’s a precondition for achieving all other goals,” said Ghanaian actress and activist Joselyn Dumas.
But the narrative that participants at the GLF are trying to create around rights is not a negative one, founded on numbers of human and environmental losses. Beauty sells, and the first day demonstrated that opening eyes to the power of rights requires giving the stage to the traditions, stories, ancient knowledge, sounds, sights and soul deeply enfolded in rights.
We must “change the narrative from fear and doom to hope and action,” said Hilary Tam, strategy director for London-based global change agency Futerra, which developed the Good Life Goals, an individual action–focused rendition of the SDGs. “Optimism in this case is essential, because hope beats fear every time.”
An alter of symbolically colored candles, fruit and flowers ushered in the afternoon with an ancient Mayan ceremony, with Indigenous leaders and representatives from communities as wide reaching as Kenya’s Masaii and Russia’s Taymur calling upon higher powers to bless the GLF with wisdom, well-being and enlightenment. Images of jaguars and tigers were conjured to evoke the feline and feminine energies and expand the minds of participants to the highest levels of consciousness, the leaders said.
Candice Pedersen, who represented the Canadian Arctic’s Inuit peoples in the ceremony, was raised camping with her family for weeks at a time, living off the land through clam digging, berry picking and caribou hunting. Her peoples’ knowledge, she said, stretches long and wide. She recalled how after more than a century of various searches for the two Franklin Expedition ships that sank in 1854 in the Canadian Arctic, they were quickly found in 2014 and 2016 after researchers consulted Inuits for their knowledge of the sinking.
“If we’re not listening – we’re just waiting to speak – we don’t hear,” said Morris.
“Every grain of soil, every plant, every body of water, every wind pattern, and the eternal pathway of the sun and the moon have been tied to the stories of the creation of my people,” said Janene Yazzie, a Native American of the Diné tribe who felt during her Ivy League education that she was being ill-prepared her to pursue the career she wanted in improving the rights of her peoples.
“This is our understanding of our landscapes. It is this inherent and ancestral knowledge that ties our modern struggles to something deeper than achieving equality and inclusiveness in imperfect manmade systems and institutions that do not understand the sacred and inherent value of the universe.”