Indigenous peoples teach us about climate justice

by Grace Ji-Sun Kim last modified 23 October 2019 03:58 PM

23 October 2019

As the earth undergoes the extreme stress of 21st century living, we are met with the consequential crossroads that will shape the rest of our lives and the future of humanity. How can we make such monumental decisions when this much is at stake? Which way do we go forth, and how shall we live our lives in the years to come? The answer may be as simple as urgency. We need to mobilize now, plan for today, have conversations about what we should do in the present to address the catastrophic climate situation. We are approaching the two-degrees-Celsius danger zone. Scientists warn us that earth’s average global warming must stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius if we want to avoid environmental damage that will, among other things, cause hundreds of thousands of species to go extinct, destruct coastal life from natural disasters, and displace the rapidly growing human population into limited geographies as climate refugees.

World leaders, politicians, educators, and religious figures have been faced with this issue for some time, yet destructive ecological practices—out of convenience and ignorance—have continued to perpetuate. Leaders in all institutions need to reinvigorate their behavior and their message to address the plights of today; they need challenge what we think we may know and prove otherwise by example.

Christians understood themselves as the highest form of God’s creation. In this elevated role, they dominated the earth, creating havoc on the planet. Guided by this belief and ideology, humanity began to take everything we wanted for our own use, often with little regard for the consequences, going beyond need-based use to explicit exploitation with the aim of satisfying  our desire for greater wealth and material attainment. Moving forward, we can look to other organizations that are taking action to fight for climate justice.

Currently, there are notable religious groups actively engaging in attending to this cause, and have begun to centre their work around climate change. One such organization is the World Council of Churches (WCC). Members of the WCC Working Group on Climate Change met in Taiwan, 24-27 June 2019 to strategize for the future and establish the forthcoming work that pursues the slowing of climate change and fortifying methods for climate justice. This is going to be implemented on a domestic and global scale. This was the first time that the working group also met with the WCC’s Indigenous Peoples’ Programme Reference Group to explore how the two groups can work in union to achieve common goals. The reference group seeks to create transcendent community networks, advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights, and raise awareness of indigenous peoples’ spiritualities and theologies. Indigenous peoples have long been stripped of their most basic human rights and liberties, so it is time to fight for the rightful return of their freedom, peace, and security as distinct peoples as they continue to face threats to their survival as communities.

As the meeting proceeded, it became clear that we cannot fight against climate change without the involvement of indigenous peoples. Members of the reference group reminded us that native peoples have been fighting climate change since before the beginning of colonization by European powers. They have valuable experience fighting governments, corporate power, and modern threats that continue to invade and pollute their land and abuse stolen resources to the extreme.

Indigenous groups have long been calling governments, religious groups, and communities to work together to stabilize the climate and attain some justice for their abused land. Furthermore, indigenous groups are the most affected demographic by climate change as the majority of these communities are agricultural, rather than industrial. Climate change has an immediate impact on their livelihood. Climate change causes erosion of land, water pollution, water shortage, air pollution, and the migration of animals. The disruption of any of these distinct factors will change the ecosystems that have lasted for centuries irreparably. Indigenous peoples have been affected the most by colonialism as white settlers and colonizers took away indigenous lands and cultures and carried out genocide of the native peoples. Colonialism has allowed for and encouraged large corporations to expropriate and exploit indigenous land while heavily polluting the surrounding environment, proximally close and distant. Indigenous peoples have been giving us warnings for many years about the nature of this destruction, and it is time that we heed their warnings and take action.

A global point of view must gather many different experiences and arrive at a common voice and approach. Analysts of imperialism need to hear and heed the testimony of indigenous voices.

Indigenous people have a particular understanding of climate justice because it is an integral way of spiritual being that is widely ignored or trivialized by the rest of the world. Indigenous peoples cannot divorce the present day land from the land of their ancestors, as their ancestors’ spirits roam the land with its peoples, conversing with them and guiding them. Indigenous people remind us that the spirit exists within all things, and that the spirit reminds us that animal populations often embody a spiritual aspect, making their preservation equitable in value to that of human lives.

Indigenous groups remind us of the interconnectedness of spirit and nature. Christianity rejected this idea in favor of dualism, a divide between spirit and body, or between spirit and the natural world. This divide has had consequences as Christians continued to state that the body/nature was bad, and the spirit is good without ever seeing the interconnectedness of the spirit—the notion that the body/nature and are actually one. We have neglected to see the spirit as part of the natural world. While animism or shamanism had hinted at such an understanding, Christians viewed these ideas as heathen mistakes. This has had negative consequences for the natural world. We have forgotten and denied that the Spirit of God the Creator resides in all of creation and taking care of it needs to be our top priority. We need to incorporate this understanding and move away from dualism. This will help us understand how we can be part of the solution of climate change.

This understanding connects us to land and spirit. It incites us to re-evaluate the rules of the household so that we can respect one another and all of creation; we do this in the hope of living together in a world less pained, in a world of greater peace. It reminds us that there needs to be equity, respect for the land, and a transformation of humanity by the Spirit.  It reminds us that all life is precious, and all faith communities must stand in solidarity with indigenous groups and be at the frontlines of fighting climate change.

Indigenous peoples remind us that spirituality comes from the natural world we live in, a place that encompasses all we need: the water, land, air, and all that lives therein. On behalf of indigenous peoples, we need to heed their call to save the planet. All are vulnerable at this time, but colonialism has made indigenous peoples the most vulnerable, and we need to stand in solidarity with them and fight for the planet’s future.

The two groups, the Working Group on Climate Change and the Indigenous Peoples’ Programme Reference Group of the WCC need to work together to build a stronger community to work for climate justice. The road ahead is not easy, but it is necessary as we need serious groups committed to climate justice. We need to continue to advocate for policies that protect the planet, and be challengers to the powerful institutions and corporations that are destroying our world. Climate justice is not an abstract concept, or an elitist issue, this is the issue— the one that is most pertinent to every living being on our planet; the one that has governance on the earth as we know it; our planet is real, and if you believe this much than you must know that the destruction is as well.

We cannot live oblivious to the indigenous peoples who describe for us the impact of our actions on creation. We cannot turn away from the reality of vanishing species among the animals with whom we share this planet.  We cannot ignore the painful cries coming from the earth being manifested in mega-storms, severe droughts, rising sea levels, melting icebergs, increasing temperatures, and deadly forest fires. We need to heed these warnings and move towards a sustainability, conscious lifestyles, and proactive education that respects God’s creation, uplifts indigenous peoples’ rights, and embraces the life-giving spirit which fills all of creation.

Disclaimer

The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

More information.