Indigenous groups call for drilling limits to fight climate change

The UN is holding the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples during the General Assembly

Patricia Gualinga stood on Pier 25 next to the Hudson River, her face painted in fine geometric designs, her long black hair hanging past her waist, looking out at the shadows cast by the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan over the water. An indigenous Kichwa woman from the Sarayaku community deep in the Ecuadorean Amazon, Gualinga traveled more than 3,000 miles to push the world’s leaders to take an active stance on climate change. 

Hundreds of indigenous leaders from communities around the globe have converged on New York for the first high-level World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, being held Monday and Tuesday during the United Nations General Assembly. Gualinga said she went both to represent Saryaku and to share the community’s victory; through a decades-long court battle in the Costa Rica–based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the approximately 1,200 residents of Sarayaku succeeded in 2012 in blocking oil exploration in there. Now Gualinga and her community want to help other groups prevent similar drilling initiatives in a bid to prevent climate change.

“We have a proposal that’s based on scientists’ reports that say that 50 percent of known petroleum reserves around the world need to stay underground to avoid raising the earth’s temperature even more,” she said, referring to a figure from the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Investment Outlook. “So what are we waiting for? You can begin with us. We have been resisting for years, we don’t want petroleum exploration, and we don’t want more contamination of our lands.”

The Paris-based International Energy Agency, an autonomous organization that advises states on oil policies, had gone further in its estimate, stating, “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal” of mitigating global warming.

Gualinga said indigenous communities like hers are uniquely poised to help the world achieve that goal.

“You don’t have to look for where you are going to begin. We are already here fighting to preserve the jungle. We are present, we have been present, and we want to support the world and humanity. We in Sarayaku are betting on life, not death,” she said.

But she acknowledged it is an uphill battle. A plan unveiled at the 2010 General Assembly, called the Yasuni ITT initiative, proposed that Ecuador would leave 846 million barrels of oil in the ground in a U.N.-declared biosphere in the Ecuadorean Amazon if foreign governments helped pay to protect the Amazon. But the proposal failed, with Ecuador saying it did not receive sufficient support from rich countries. Drilling permits have since been issued, and extraction could begin as soon as 2016.

Gualinga shared her story with indigenous peoples from across the United States and Canada during a water ceremony on Saturday organized by the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network. She had taken a small ceramic bowl, made out of clay in Sarayaku and painted by women in the community using their hair, to share with the local indigenous people from the Lenape Nation who received them on the banks of the Hudson.

Dozens of delegations — from as far as Hawaii, Arizona, Nebraska and Alberta in Canada — introduced themselves in their native languages, and some sang native songs. Like Gualinga, each arrived with a gift from their communities and a story of how they had put themselves on the front lines of the battle against climate change, from resisting the Keystone XL pipeline to demanding industry clean up contaminated water.

Indigenous leaders also showed up with water from their home communities for the ceremony. The water was combined, blessed, drunk by participants and then poured into the Hudson River.

Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network of Dakota and Dine heritage, said that any solution to climate change must begin with indigenous people.

“The communities that we work with have subsistence lifestyles. They live off the land. We are the first ones affected by dirty energy, and so we are the first ones affected by climate change and the first ones first to suffer because of that,” he said.

“One of the main things that we, the indigenous community, are calling for is system change, not climate change. There needs to be an entire re-evaluation of our relationship to Mother Earth. As indigenous people, we have a time-tested relationship with Mother Earth, so we are just hoping that the other world will catch on to that and reassess how it sees itself in relation to the water, the four-leggeds, the winged, all aspects of life,” Goldtooth added.

Chief Caleen Sisk traveled from Northern California to represent her Winnemem Wintu tribe at the U.N. on Monday. She said she is hopeful but realistic about what can be accomplished without rethinking the capitalistic economic model that has led to climate change.

“At the U.N., I think that the more indigenous people can be seen and maybe be heard — although sometimes, in my experience, they only want to look at us — the better. But my biggest hope is that the states will open up their eyes and ears and start listening and hearing. Because right now, we are on a path to self-destruction,” she said.

Some indigenous groups have boycotted the conference for putting too much power in the hands of states over the indigenous groups.

“This is, in theory, a higher-level gathering because it is happening during the General Assembly, so theoretically you are going to get higher-level government officials and heads of state participating, and that’s the hope,” said Andrew Miller, advocacy director of Amazon Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, General Assembly President Sam Kutesa and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein were among those expected to deliver opening remarks at the conference.

“At the same time, there has been some criticism of this conference, and there are some indigenous groups that are boycotting for number of reasons. But mainly they are boycotting because they feel that the member states determine the limits of what is going to happen and what is not going to happen,” Miller said.

“It remains to be seen what the states are going to do with the declaration that comes out of the conference,” he added. “Needless to say, recognizing the limits of the U.N., it is still an important space for indigenous people and their rights, among many other spaces, to be pushing within.”

Gualinga said she is hopeful that sharing her community’s story of success in doing what scientists say is necessary to combat climate change around the world will inspire other communities to take big steps as well.

“We believe that the petroleum is there to balance the earth. And it needs to be where it is. It doesn’t have to be removed. Our people believe that petroleum is the blood of our ancestors deep in the earth, and the earth is our mother. So you are taking the blood from the mother and you are creating a total imbalance. Petroleum is powerful, but when it’s outside of the ground, it produces a lot of ambition, a lot of contamination, a lot of death.” 

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