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Fossil fuel interests reach tentacles into Summit

(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