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Author: chico

People working on water and climate change—water warriors—participated in a workshop organized at the alternate COP 16, known as Dialogo Climatico. At a session titled “Water, Dams and Disasters,” we heard moving testimonies from those affected by toxic pollution in their air and water, and peasants displaced from their farms.

Indigenous Rights and Water

“Indigenous Peoples ‘managed’ lands for thousands of years, and it wasn’t until the colonizers came that the problems began.”

We heard from the Fort Berthold nation from North Dakota first and there was no mincing of words. Speaking to all present, she said, “we were colonized, and we speak the voice of colonizers.” She said this, because she spoke in English and not her Native language. Native languages in the U.S. have been decimated. The modern system has relied on fossil fuel based energy because it is cheap. It is cheap because it has historically been exempt from paying its dues, both to our environment and to humanity. The list is long, black lung, mountaintop removal, company town exploitation, mercury, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, mining accidents, sulfur dioxide, and of course, water pollution. Coal, in particular, needs water—and massive amounts of it—to be transformed into energy we can use. The consequences can never be fully measured. But contrast this with values that have guided Indigenous peoples.

“We believe that coal is like the liver of our Mother Earth, it naturally filters the water.”

The tensions between different knowledge systems are certainly on display in these settings. What is truth to one community is denigrated as myth to another. One does not have to believe in Indigenous beliefs, but if we are to live in a truly democratic society, the right to retain these longstanding ways of knowing must be acknowledged. In so-called “modern” times, “modern” science has become the ultimate validator of truth. But from the perspective of Indigenous people, its contribution tends to come as a Johnny-come-lately compared to Indigenous science. For example, Indigenous people have warned about massive resource extraction for hundreds of years.

“Things are probably going to get worse before they get better. We have good hearts, good minds and good souls. One path leads to destruction, and one leads to renewal.”

Unequal Toxicity

“We have a history of commodification beginning with peoples, bought them across the seas and sold them on the open market. Since then, we have been fighting oppressive regimes of capitalism.”

Next came the recounting of the historical exploitation of African American people and communities by an environmental and human rights advocate from the southern United States. Just as the organization and technology of the modern energy structure has been evolving and innovating to new stages of development, the story of how communities have had to respond to this evolution was presented through the eyes of one such place. The town of Mossville, Louisiana was formed by five families of former slaves in the late 1700s. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway used to travel to Mossvile to fish and muse for his writing precisely because it was known to be a rich biodiverse area. But all of that changed with the modern appetite for energy and things. Years later, Mossville was founded by another group of actors: a set of corporate production facilities. Today, in an area covering 5.5 square miles, 14 industrial facilities are in operation.

“These companies are emitting many of the most toxic chemicals, choking the life of the community— people can no longer fish or grow crops. Their bodies are contaminated and yet their call for safe alternatives is not heard.”

Hydro: The Old Green or the New Green?

In the race to find low-carbon solutions, hydro power continues to be at the top of the alternative list; but then we heard from those on the other side of the dam: Mexico’s Indigenous communities and farmers.

“Our town is going is be flooded by the dam; the place where we have lived, where we have grown our food, where we fish.”

We heard from those who are struggling to have a voice. The rush to economic development, including tourism and expansion of energy through “green” alternatives, has catalyzed investment for massive large-scale projects. But what about the villager whose livelihood is affected and whose community is displaced? He asks for help in understanding how his human right to water and life can go unanswered.

“They’re privatizing water, and selling it to rich companies. Poor farmers will be left without anything. The hills will not be able to be cultivated. We have thermal waterfalls, hot water, springs, but now it’s a tourist area.”

The message being received is that agriculture is not valued, the natural flows of water are without value, sustainable livelihoods are irrelevant, and people are displaced. This to the farmer is what it means to live in a commodified world. Green or clean energy without democracy will fail at its core objective. Democratic clean energy systems are more than technological alternatives, they are alternatives in which political voice is given to everyone.

“We don’t agree with them setting a price on our lands and our waters. Not only people who have money have rights.”

In closing, everyone reaffirmed the intrinsic connection between water, climate and food security. Any solutions need to support local approaches and connect globally to challenge the institutions that do not value people or ecosystems.

Dr. Cecilia Martinez and Shiney Varghese are blogging from the U.N. climate talks in Cancún, Mexico.

Ben Lilliston

(Editor note: Liza (Guerra) O’Reilly is attending the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change in Anchorage, Alaska, on behalf of IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy. Liza is blogging this week from the Summit. Photos from the summit can be viewed at the Achorage Daily News Web site.)

Some 350 peoples from 80 different Indigenous nations engaged in multilateral discussions today from the seven regions of the world: the Maasai from Tanzania, the Hmong from Vietnam, the Maya from Belize, the Inuit from the Arctic Circumpolar region, the Chukotka from the far east of Russia, the Samoa from the South Pacific, and the Tewa from the Southwest of North America. From these very distinctive and reflectively diverse regions of the planet, and adorned with the finest artisan clothing and regalia, the Indigenous peoples of the world continued into day four of deliberations to address our utmost immediate needs and determine long-term architectural plans created by climate change.

Today the Indigenous Peoples’ Summit welcomed a priest who had arrived with a new word. This not-so-ordinary Catholic and gifted priest, whose power broke loose the tongue of France President Sarkozy by inspiring Sarkozy to repeat the priestly message of love with his fellow brethren at the G-20, was none other than the United Nations General Assembly President, Miguel D’Escoto. Padre D’Escoto, who had stimulated Sarkozy’s tongue to speak of humanity, announced that, at the behest of President Evo Morales of Bolivia, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing April 22, from now into perpetuity, as International Mother Earth Day. (See also Padre announced there was a Madre.)

Who would have thought that a simple priest could help resurrect the consciousness of reasonable men? Here, at the Summit, word spread about the bold move the General Assembly made recognizing the Indigenous feminine energy, spirit and power, where the roots of the UN’s own organic rules of consensus had sprung. The Assembly’s unanimous adoption of a resolution designating April 22 each year as International Mother Earth Day was made to advance the protection of the global climate for present and future generations of mankind.

Following the Padre was David Choquehuanca Céspedes, Bolivian minister of foreign affairs, speaking on behalf of President Morales, who expressed his profound regret that he was unable to attend the summit. Minister Choquehuanca Céspedes, a powerful voice from the snow-capped peaks of the Andean mountain region, called on us to help slow the melting of the white ponchos covering the Andean mountain peaks.

We live on the skirt of Mother Earth, Minister Choquehuna proclaimed. So, if we are all on the skirt of Mother Earth, then we must all be brothers and sisters. We are all–plants, animals, humans, water and air–related. Hmmm, let’s see what happens to Sarkozy’s tongue beforeCopenhagen in December.

Ben Lilliston

(Editor note: Liza (Guerra) O’Reilly is attending the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change in Anchorage, Alaska, on behalf of IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy. Liza is blogging this week from the Summit. Photos from the Summit can be viewed at the Anchorage Daily News Web site.)

I should not have been surprised. Sustainable economic development that would create jobs and long-term economic security as a concrete strategy to adapt and mitigate climate change met its greatest enemy, face to face, when a well-oiled hand prominently extended itself into the last day of discussions at the Summit.

Recall that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the combustion of fossil fuels is one of the greatest contributors of greenhouse gases resulting in climate change. Despite this well-known fact, the fossil fuel Medusa raised its ugly heads against strong language advanced by the Indigenous youth caucus and the majority of the regional caucuses, who called for an immediate moratorium on new fossil fuel development and the phase-out of global fossil fuel use in the yet-to-be released Anchorage Declaration.

On the table was a perverse interpretation of Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN-DRIP). Article 26 provides in relevant part that: “Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.”

One of the Indigenous regional caucuses asserted their right to development, citing Article 26 of UN-DRIP, and initially positioned themselves against any immediate call for a moratorium on new development of fossil fuels, and also a phase-out of global fossil fuel use. Instead, their interests would allow for compromise of softer language recognizing the right to development.

Contrary to what had been reported, many elders from the respective regional caucuses stood in solidarity with the youth and also vehemently opposed any soft language that would accommodate fossil fuel interests.

There is a false argument that appears to pit the right to development against the right to live—that is to say, the right to breathe clean air, to have access to ecologically bio-diverse food and medicines, to have meaningful access to places of spiritual well-being, water, forests and so on. These rights are all-encompassing rights articulated in the UN-DRIP, but must not be negated by a perverse interpretation of the right to develop.

The right to development, and any other right for that matter, must not compromise another individual’s human rights. In the Americas and since 1492, most colonial models imposed upon Indigenous peoples to develop brought much social degradation in all forms. These models were, and continue to be, based on exploitative capitalistic development of Indigenous nations’ natural resources and contradict the public health and welfare of Indigenous peoples. To see the effects of this exploitation, we simply need to reflect on our quality of health today as evidenced by disproportionate rates of diabetes, cancer, mental health trauma, suicide, heart disease, violence against Indigenous women and the stealing of Indigenous children by governments. The discussion must move from a colonial interpretation of a right to development to a right that sustains life. The inherent nature of the UN-DRIP is to sustain life, not to destroy it vis-àvis development.

The Indigenous regional caucus who asserted their right to develop may be interpreted as a call for development that dignifies them, their environment and Mother Earth. Everyone must be enfranchised with the fundamental human right to develop and live well, but not to the disparagement of others. A sustainable development model must be consistent with UN-DRIP and the respective Indigenous Nations’ autonomously identified needs.

According to the IPCC, the regions most affected, such as the Arctic, Caribbean and Amazon, are where most of the Indigenous people live, said Sam Johnston of the Tokyo-based United Nations University, a co-sponsor of the Summit. Those most affected are owed a significant ecological debt of reparations. If a down-payment is made on this debt to the creditors most impacted by climate change, we may consider this a well-overdue first step.

Polluters and their regulators must pay by providing financial and other support mechanisms to Indigenous nations to secure their respective right to develop, economically and otherwise. Nation states, multinational corporations, and other entities that historically exploited and/or unlawfully appropriated Indigenous peoples’ resources owe the ecological debt we speak of when we tell the world that the polluters must pay. Polluters and their regulators are the ones who allowed for the exploitation and appropriation of Indigenous resources that have hurled our Mother Earth into the perilous condition we find ourselves.

I am willing to believe that if the proper resources were made available, and with free, prior and informed consent, the Indigenous regional caucus that sought softer language in the Declaration would not have opposed the call for a moratorium and phase-out of fossil fuel development, and instead, would have chosen to advance payment of the ecological debt owed to them for sustainable development.

That bill from Mother Earth and her Indigenous peoples was sent long ago.

—Ben Lilliston

Rural communities are part of the vanguard of new ideas promoting small-scale sustainable production and use of energy and food. One of the challenges in expanding and scaling up these ideas is getting success stories out there and allowing others to benefit from their experience. At the Midwest Rural Assembly this afternoon, four communities shared their stories.

Cheryl Landgren of Milan, Minnesota described the town’s efforts to launch a Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) in partnership with IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy.Milan is a small farm town with a growing immigrant community. They are hoping to host the country’s first rural, smalltown SEU—a community-led initiative to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. An SEU is designed to be a one-stop shop to secure advantages of the new green economy encompassed in energy efficiency, renewable energy and biomass production. The SEU will identify funding resources, engage in public education, set up a revolving loan fund and invest in energy savings. Milan is in the early stages of developing an SEU, but ultimately it will be community governed and controlle, thereby allowing Milan to control its energy future.

Martin Kleinschmit discussed a three-year test project with 10 Nebraskan farmers focused on carbon sequestration. In this project, farmers grew a number of different crops to store carbon in the soil—emphasizing crops with longer root systems and longer growing seasons. He emphasized that there are more than just climate benefits in building carbon in the soil; these types of crops can help retain water and build the soil for future crop production.

Jacob Limmer gave his unique perspective as the owner of the Cottonwood Bistro in Brookings, S.D. and the operator of nearby Glacier Till Farm. Jacob talked about the challenges of sourcing local foods (usually from multiple farmers with different billing methods), the challenges of farming for local markets and the need to find off-farm work to keep the farm going. He emphasized the need for improving collective local food distribution systems—which would allow buyers to more easily source local foods and provide larger, more consistent buyers for farmers.

And finally, Linda Meschke of Rural Advantage told attendees about efforts in Madelia, Minnesota to use renewable bioindustrial processing to provide a market for new crops (outside of the corn/soybean rotation). The town went through a public process to set priorities for the new facility and agreed to emphasize both community investment, perennial crops and local sourcing (within 25 miles). The project could bring multiple benefits to the community, including: water quality, renewable energy, habitat preservation, greater sustainable agriculture, and keeping wealth within the community.

There are many stories like these being shared at the assembly—where interesting ideas continue to grow.

—Ben Lilliston

The Weather Vein Project is a collaboration led by Aniccha Arts that examines—and reflects upon—the ways in which humans impact the weather. A live, interactive sound sculpture created by Mark Fox called “The Weather Oracle” is now on display at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis and runs through August 23. The exhibit was originally designed to be shown in the entry way of “Cloud Turn“: an interactive dance presentation held in early June.

Cecilia Martinez and Shalini Gupta from IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy have been regular contributors to the We Can Change the Weather blog—an extension of the Aniccha Arts’ Weather Vein Project that supplements the exhibit with news analysis, essays and general thoughts on the role of humans in changing the weather.

More information about the project and contributors is available here.

Andrew Ranallo

As Congress debates a U.S. climate bill this fall, and governments around the world are focused on global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, a new community-based approach to addressing climate change is taking hold.

The Sustainable Energy Utility, or SEU, is turning the traditional role of an energy utility on its head in a growing number of states, cities and communities.

In a new article published in Delaware Lawyer, Dr. John Byrne of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy and IATP’s Dr. Cecilia Martinez write, “The energy utility of the 20th century was invented to rapidly and continuously increase the energy supply. . .The 21st-century energy utility must have a different focus: to help every citizen and every business conserve energy and, when energy is needed, to utilize the energy gifts of our planet—sunlight, vegetation, the winds and the constant temperature of the earth’s mantle just three meters below the surface.”

But aggregating government, private and philanthropic resources, the SEU differs from traditional utilities by focusing on: 1) a transition to carbon-free energy sources; 2) a reorientation from energy as commodity to energy as a service; 3) the transition to distributed energy infrastructure; and 4) the direct involvement of energy users in energy decisions.

The SEU directly tackles two of the most difficult challenges in shifting our energy system: high upfront capital costs to obtain long-term benefits in efficiency and renewable energy; and the shock of significant energy price increases. Acting as a nonprofit, the SEU coordinates innovative approaches like third-party financing, tax-exempt bonds, revolving funds, federal and state incentives and grants, and funding from other public and philanthropic resources to invest in sustainable energy infrastructure with long-term savings that are shared by the community.

The SEU concept has been catching on and it’s remarkably scaleable. The April 2009 issue of the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society reports on applications of the SEU in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia. In the U.S., Delaware has become the first state in the country to create a state-wide SEU.

In Minnesota, IATP is working with the small rural town of Milan in western Minnesota, and a community organization on the west side of St. Paul, to explore the SEU model.

The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP is working with West Side Citizens Organization to put an SEU into action in their neighborhood. The west side of St. Paul is a densely populated community of 16,000 in a former industrial zone, with a large percentage of low-income households and people of color. This SEU will focus on energy efficiency and on-site renewable projects.

In Milan, IATP is working with community leaders to develop the first rural-based SEU in the Midwest. Milan, a town of about 350 people, with an average annual household income of about $30,000, will be a model for rural communities in promoting energy affordability, community focused sustainability and attracting energy service businesses to their town.

New policies at the national and international level will set the framework for our collective efforts to stop climate change, but it will take transformative models like the SEU, working on the ground, in communities around the world, to get us there. You can find out more at IATP’s SEU page.

Ben Lilliston