Dominique Godrèche
Indigenous Environmental Network director Tom Goldtooth, second from left, served on a panel in Paris in October, ahead of the December UN Climate talks known as COP21.

'False Solutions' Won't Save Mother Earth: Tom Goldtooth on COP21

Dominique Godrèche

In a lead-up to the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) to be held in Paris-Le Bourget from November 30 through December 11, the Committee in Solidarity With the Indigenous People of the Americas (CSIA) organized a solidarity day, “Native People, Defenders of Mother Earth, the Environment and the Climate,” in Paris on October 10. Panelists included Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) director Tom Goldtooth; Heather Milton Lightening, Dennis Banks, Frank Waln, Nataanii Means and many others. Afterward Goldtooth shared his vision with Indian Country Today Media Network and discussed the most pressing issues, as well as future planned events. On October 30, Goldtooth received the Native activist Tom Goldtooth received the Gandhi Peace Award for his outstanding contributions to world peace.

RELATED: Tom B.K. Goldtooth Awarded Gandhi Peace Award

How was your trip to Paris? Are Native issues viewed differently in Europe than in the U.S.?

Joining forces with CSIA was awesome, and many activist groups came. So the turnout was good, and we had a nice time. Our goal was to network with representatives of the French coalition and Cop 21, to strengthen our indigenous program in Paris. We have established good connections, with opportunities to schedule indigenous projects during the Climate Forum. There is a long history in Paris related to the struggle of Native Americans: Dennis Banks has been familiar with the CSIA since it was started in 1977. We were impressed by the interest in Native Americans, and the indigenous support groups: Leonard Peltier, the AIM [American Indian Movement]. Somehow there are stronger supports than in some urban areas of the United States. So we are coming back in November to participate in the Indigenous Caucus of the United Nations Bourget meeting, and in December, to the Global Alliance discussion on the rights of nature.

Is the participation of Native Americans in official meetings new, and are you more listened to now that you are part of international gatherings like COP21?

It is new. We are usually marginalized by big organizations, especially when we talk about the spirituality of nature. Natives are often left out, and that is why we attend those meetings. It is a continuing struggle! Because if the people do not understand the sacredness of Mother Earth, I do not see how we can develop any global plan to stop the climate crisis. That is why Elders continue to encourage campaigns for the spiritual awareness of Mother Earth. And each venue is different. It was very strong in Cancun, in Lima, or Durban, because indigenous people reside there. We are happy with the Paris visit: The people wanted to know about our experience.

RELATED: Indigenous Peoples Essential to Climate Movement, March Organizers Say

Biggest Climate March in History a Watershed Moment for Indigenous PeoplesAre most Native communities in the U.S. aware of those issues, or do they tend to be influenced by major trends?

There is a revitalization of the ceremonies today; without those foundations, we risk being like dominant societies, with no ethics for Mother Earth. We come from a reality where most of the treaty agreements have been broken, and we still have to fight for our treaty rights. We are familiar with social injustice; how race is an issue, whose communities get protected from environmental devastation, who gets cleaned up first when there is a toxic spill. Our land has been occupied by people who have not understood the sacredness of the land, the water. So we are very aware, as we have been dealing with those issues for centuries.

What will be your message to world leaders about the health of the Earth?

We have to wake up leaders of the U.N. meetings, as well as the people. Our goal is to create a space within the French Cop activities for Indians to advocate, talk about the reality of climate change, and discuss solutions. Leaders need to reevaluate the sacredness of Mother Earth, Father Sky. The modern world is removed from nature. And without that relationship to natural laws, whatever they decide is a danger. The industrialized society, addicted to energy, is consuming too much, treating Mother Earth as an entity without a soul: It is a systems issue, one of them being capitalism. We are pushing for a new economy, respectful of the living cycles of Mother Earth, as we want people to get a better understanding of her spirit.

So we will address this question, on the side of the official negotiations: What is your relation to the sacredness of Mother Earth? It is fundamental to understand the pollution of nature by industrialization and unlimited growth. Without this ethical framework it is difficult to solve the climate crisis; Mother Earth cannot sustain capitalism. It is taking too much from the land, with greenhouse gases, bioaccumulation. What happens when the water dries out? Corporations are already buying sources of water! The solution is a life in balance with nature.

Can the participants in those official meetings hear such messages and be sensitive to the issue of the privatization of nature?

I have been speaking about that throughout the world—in cities, in the countryside—and the more I speak to the grassroots people, the more they understand. Unfortunately, as you go up the chain of command of governments, corporations, they do not want to hear. Their priorities are different.

But will you still address those issues in November?

Coming back with tribal and spiritual leaders, our goal is to lobby the governments so that the texts of the Paris agreement recognize the rights of indigenous people within the language, to come out with an agreement strengthening it; as it is now, the words are weak. Then we want to voice our concerns about the issue of the corporate takeover of the U.N. climate process, leading to false solutions, and the privatization of nature. One of the main solutions for climate change in the Paris draft agreement is focused on carbon markets: the trading of air, trees, soil, and biodiversity, which violates Indigenous views. Before you trade anything, you have to determine property rights. Our spiritual leaders question: How can you sell the air? We reject the basis of the market mechanism, and projects like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries (Redd). Unfortunately Redd is a done deal, and we cannot stop it. It is pushed by corporations and banks, and is going to be implemented in the Paris agreement. So our goal is to organize grassroots campaigns, to inform the people about false solutions. We will talk, rally, march, so that the people know why they are false. Many do not know anything about it.

You mentioned events taking place outside the official meetings?

We will take part inside the United Nations meetings, and outside, on the streets, to challenge the status quo of the climate movement, and the governments, so that they address climate issues with an open mind, and feel the pulse of the people of the world.

What is the position of the tribes regarding those issues?

After 100 years of colonization, the stealing of our land, historical trauma, a government policy of acculturation and assimilation impacting our identity, a capitalist system that does not respect Mother Earth…. The tribes are reevaluating the future they want for their children, and the economic system they wish to embrace; they are now in that indigenous transition toward a more sustainable economy. We have a vision that our seventh generation will look beyond these struggles, so we can make a better future—not only for us, but also for the Americans, and the world.

So what do you expect from Cop 21?

We want more awareness about false solutions, and want the United Nations to take a stand for real ones.

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onedman's picture
Submitted by onedman on
We are seeing a difference. Those young kids in Seattle suing the EPA for a better future for them and the Earth. These children get further than adults, why? Young bright faces full of innocents, how can anyone look them in the eye and say to them "you can't have a healthy place to live"? Our children are our future, they see better, know more and have not been burned by their past experiences. Maybe we ought to turn to them for advice on how to approach such problems. They can and do teach us, if only we would listen. Their knowledge of what is right isn't tainted by bias or bigotry. It's built right into their hearts from the beginning. As we grow older it slips through our minds like sand through fingers.