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Climate Justice and Indigenous Resistance

The following Op-Ed was written by our International Volunteers Coordinator for VIVXVaclav Masek. It was published in Guatemala’s daily El Periódico on May 21, 2022. He wrote some additional context about the opinion article for the Skylight community:

“I wrote this during my time at the Silver Sun Residency in Woodstock, New York. I spent two weeks upstate with an interdisciplinary team of activists and filmmakers, building networks of solidarity across the hemisphere to decrease the dangers of defending their territories. Only collective work will allow us to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges of climate change. You can support the community of El Estor, whom I mention in the article, by donating to the Maya Defense Fund who are helping to cover their daily living and legal expenses while they take their case to the Guatemalan courts.”

Vaclav is pictured above (third from left in striped shirt) with our VIVX leadership team at the Silver Sun Residency. Also pictured are fellows from the Woodstock Film Festival’s Filmmaker’s Residency / Incubator program.

“Climate Justice and Indigenous Resistance”

By Vaclav Masek, originally published in Guatemala’s El Periódico

The diagnosis of the health of the planet is dire. The scientific community has identified climate change as the “defining problem of our time.” They concluded that the goals to achieve sustainability “cannot be met with current trajectories.” Furthermore, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has referred to humanity’s “war against nature” as “meaningless and suicidal.”

There are two horrible realities of the climate crisis. The first is that those on the front lines are not responsible for rising global temperatures. It is a fact that rich nations contribute disproportionately to global warming. The other is that while communities in the Global South are on the front line of defense against the climate crisis, they are not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Many activists find themselves struggling not even to be heard. People most at risk live in slums and work outdoors or in poorly ventilated buildings. In other words, the working classes outside the advanced industrialized democracies are already the hardest hit.

The term “climate justice” emerges to explain how those least responsible for climate change—the most vulnerable, disadvantaged, and marginalized—tend to suffer its most severe impacts. There are few groups to whom this applies more than indigenous peoples, who have been described as the poorest and therefore the most threatened segment of the world’s population in terms of social, economic, and environmental vulnerability. Clearly an ethical challenge, climate change is undermining the potential for the fair distribution of the goods necessary for life, endangering the prospects of living generations, and imposing serious risks on groups that have not contributed to the causes of climate change and sparking deep disagreement over lifestyles that involve high greenhouse gas emissions.

Official responses to the crisis are severely inadequate so far. Although the development of carbon-free infrastructure and technologies, such as solar panels and electric batteries, requires mining materials such as copper, lithium, cobalt, and nickel, this does not mean that mining is a solution to climate change. In fact, the damage that extractivism inflicts on humans, animals, and nature compels us to evaluate conflicting visions and paths towards rapid decarbonization. The choice seems clear: continue to trust a political and economic elite that exercises uncontested control over our planetary future through large-scale mining without respect for the rights of local communities, fair working conditions, socioeconomic equality, and integrity of ecosystems. Or, we can undertake a just energy transition that addresses the privatization of energy consumption, ends neoliberal austerity, cancels debt as a form of climate-based reparation, and respects the rights of local communities and nature. We can choose between unofficial defenders of a flawed system that pushes us to the precipice of utopian visions of the future proposed by diverse communities and indigenous peoples.

The success of indigenous practices speaks for itself. Currently, they represent 5 percent of the world’s population but protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. In Guatemala, the Indigenous resistance against extractivism —the Kaqchikel in the department of Guatemala; the Xinka in Santa Rosa; the Ixil in Quiche; the K’iche’ in Totonicapán; the Q’eqchi in Izabal and Alta Verapaz—draw a picture of the ecological revolutionaries of an unprecedented climatic age. These Indigenous groups engage in militancy through non-violent praxis, situating themselves both in relation to the land and to people, and connecting technologies without presuming the superiority of the most “modern” ones. This is a political project appropriate to the ongoing catastrophe but considered not only as a space of ruin and victimhood, but as a territory of survival and resistance.

How do we suture the metabolic fissures caused by extractivism? When fighting directly against the Fénix mine in El Estor, Izabal, for example, one is also relearning how to live on the land sustainably, live in community, value a collectivity over individuality, and distribute wealth and resources more justly among all. Symbolic actions and victories must lead to substantive changes in policy. In the specific case of El Estor, it is time to comply with the Guatemalan Constitutional Court order from April 27, which mandated the multinational mining company to carry out a ‘free, prior, and informed’ community consultation in good faith, to assert the voices of the people whose struggles frame the global movement fighting against climate change.

Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is a an award-winning filmmaker and co-founder/Creative Director of Skylight Pictures, a company dedicated to creating feature length documentary films and digital media tools that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice by implementing multi-year outreach campaigns designed to engage, educate and activate social change.

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