What would the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University have to say about the Amazon fires?
Quite a lot, sort of. The person comfortably ensconced in that chair is Naomi Klein, negative Naomi for short. Bad happenings are meat and drink to her. Her headline reads: "The Amazon is on fire — indigenous rights can help put it out". A strange claim indeed. So we read on hoping to find what the mechanism for that might be. Despite her headline, however, she says almost nothing about the fires. It is all about Mr Bolsonaro and Western civilization generally -- plus a plea for more locking up of land occupied by indigenous people.
Why does native land matter? Only in her last paragraph do we get a clue. She says: "colonialism is setting the world on fire. Taking leadership from the people who have been resisting its violence for centuries, while protecting non-extractive ways of life, is our best hope of putting out the flames."
So "colonialism" has started the fires and fires don't burn native lands? So at the very end we get the actual proposition underlying her article: Fires don't burn native lands. That is simply not true. The fact, of course, is that fire does not ask permission for where it goes so native land is burning too. It always has. Much of the land that is NOT burning is that part taken over by the "colonialists" -- who have cleared the forest and planted crops. Reality is the reverse of Naomi's fairy-tale world.
I can't call Naomi a liar. Her claim is too patently absurd for that. As usual, her article is a spray of hate and nothing more.
Put simply, a great deal of the coal, oil, and gas that we must leave in the ground if we want a habitable climate lies under land to which indigenous people have an ancestral and legal claim. The willingness by governments around the globe to violate those international protected rights with impunity is a central reason why our planet is in a climate emergency.
This is not just about Bolsonaro. Recall that one of Trump’s first acts as president was to sign executive orders pushing through the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, two fossil fuel projects fiercely opposed by indigenous people in their path. And now there’s Trump’s new obsession with purchasing Greenland, an indigenous-controlled territory alluring to his administration mainly because melting ice linked to climate breakdown is freeing up trade routes and newly accessible stores of fossil fuels. From within his own colonial mindset, Trump feels it’s his right grab the island, much like everything else he feels entitled to grab.
The violation of indigenous rights, in other words, is central to the violation of our collective right to a liveable planet. The flip side of this is that a revolution in respect for indigenous rights and knowledge could be the key to ushering in a new age of ecological equilibrium. Not only would it mean that huge amounts of dangerous carbon would be kept in the ground, it would also vastly increase our chances of drawing down carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in well cared-for forests, wetlands, and other dense vegetation.
There is a growing body of scientific research showing that lands under indigenous control are far better protected (and therefore better at storing carbon) than those managed by settler governments and corporations. Of course, indigenous leaders have been telling us about this link between their rights and the planet’s health for centuries, including the late Secwepemc intellectual and organizer Arthur Manuel (particularly in his posthumously published book, “The Reconciliation Manifesto”). Now we are hearing this message directly from the people who make their home in our planet’s burning lungs. “We feel the climate changing and the world needs the forest,” Handerch Wakana Mura, an Amazonian tribal leader, told a reporter.
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change issued a Special Report on Climate Change and Land, which stressed the importance of strengthening indigenous and community land rights as a key climate change solution. A broad coalition of indigenous organizations greeted the findings with a statement that began, “Finally, the world’s top scientists recognize what we have always known . . . We have cared for our lands and forests — and the biodiversity they contain — for generations. With the right support we can continue to do so for generations to come.”
As the various candidates vying to lead the Democratic Party prepare for CNN’s climate crisis town hall on Sept. 4 — a first in any presidential electoral cycle — we are sure to hear about the need for a rebooted Civilian Conservation Corps to expand forested land and rehabilitate wetlands. It will be interesting to hear whether any of the candidates highlight the central role of indigenous rights in the success of that vast undertaking.
Because colonialism is setting the world on fire. Taking leadership from the people who have been resisting its violence for centuries, while protecting non-extractive ways of life, is our best hope of putting out the flames.