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Feature - Issue #6

Systems Change

Words by Kavita Naidu

Colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism are at the root of the intersecting crises of climate breakdown, authoritarianism and Covid-19 in the global south, writes climate justice and human rights advocate Kavita Naidu. We need to understand the interests of power, privilege and wealth in order to resist and change the system.

Peoples of the global south - in particular the Indigenous, tribal, rural and poor women in all of their diversity - have been deliberately disadvantaged and made vulnerable by a devastating legacy of colonialism. Centuries of dispossession, slavery and genocide have left the global south least prepared to withstand the worst impacts of the climate crisis. I am a third generation Fijian of Indian heritage whose ancestors were brought as indentured labourers - a euphemism for slaves - to Fiji over 200 hundred years ago by the British. I grew up in an idyllic island steeped in rich culture and natural beauty. Yet, the British Raj left behind deep racism and a history of coup d’états that we are still struggling with today.

In recent years, Fiji and other Pacific islands face disproportionate climate impacts with an onslaught of typhoons, floods, heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels, warmer and acidifying oceans, and diminishing agricultural lands and fisheries; as well as unseasonal, extreme and unpredictable weather conditions. These have triggered food and water insecurity, competition over land and resources, increasing violence against women, the destruction of livelihoods and the uprooting of communities. Then, as Covid-19 hit, the islands lost their primary source of income - tourism, which is leading to deepening inequalities further impoverishing this region.

The global south is facing critical levels of climate stress, where the vulnerable and marginalised are denied a voice and barely offered basic human rights, such access to education, health, safe and secure employment, security, food, water, and self-determination. The Covid-19 outbreak and the accompanying democratic crises in Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong, Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India demonstrate the stark reality that the systems we rely on are failing. Across parts of Africa and Latin America, the situation is no different. The intersecting crises of climate, Covid-19 and democracy are unfolding as forests are disappearing, oceans are dying, rivers and lakes are dammed and polluted; and waste is a global trade sustained by the EU and the US. We know the greatest unseen threat is the impending collapse of biodiversity, heralding an unthinkable future for all humanity.

HONDURAS Berta Cáceres, 44, was shot dead in her home on the night of 2 March 2016. She was an environmental activist and Indigenous leader who was killed less than a year after she won the Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded to grassroots environmental activists, for a successful campaign against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam on the River Gualcarque in western Honduras. The Indigenous Lenca people fear the dam will cause the Gualcarque, which is sacred to them, to dry up. Seven men received convictions for Berta’s murder at the subsequent trial.

‘In this era of digital surveillance and heavily controlled media, widespread crackdowns and attacks on critics, environment defenders, human rights activists, lawyers and journalists, goes unreported and unbelieved.’

The root cause of these multiple crises is a patriarchal, colonial and racist system driven by a hyper-capitalist economy funding expanding militarism, authoritarianism, and toxic ideologies: these range from fascism to climate breakdown denialism to Islamophobia to anti-immigration rhetoric, to control over women’s autonomy. The journalist and activist Naomi Klein, writing for investigative online publication The Intercept, suggests that some Silicon Valley tech companies are complicit in the harassment by Indian Police of climate activists, profiting from chaos, politics and consumerism.

In this era of digital surveillance and heavily controlled media, widespread crackdowns and attacks on critics, environment defenders, human rights activists, lawyers and journalists, goes unreported and unbelieved. Over the past 15 years, there has been an exponential increase in the violence, criminalisation and targeted assassinations of environment defenders in the global south, and it is likely that the actual deaths are much higher. The governments of the global south collude openly with foreign-owned global north corporations and the military to quell by all means necessary, any who stand against the profit and “development” agenda for “economic growth” and “a post-pandemic recovery”.

Instead of confronting climate injustices and banning fossil fuel, preventing corporate capture, reducing emissions, providing climate finance and centring human rights and Indigenous knowledge in sustainable climate solutions, the system is again rigged to promote so-called “green capitalism” and “green growth” and a colonial “Green New Deal” or the “Great Reset”. These are only designed to benefit the global north. Despite talk of the transition to cleaner energy, green jobs, electric cars, and so on, the truth is that these will be sourced, manufactured and stolen from the global south through the same capitalist system. In China, everything from Covid-19 protective masks to everyday products are made using the forced labour of Uyghurs enslaved in detention camps. The US Congress is currently deliberating strengthening the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act to take unethically-sourced commodities off the market and not be complicit in slave labour.

PHILIPPINESAn active campaigner, aiding the farming and rural communities of Negros Island, 39-year-old paralegal Zara Alvarez was shot six times in the city of Bacolod on 17 August 2020. She was education director for human rights organisation Karapatan and was the 13th member of the organisation to be assassinated since 2016, when president Rodrigo Duterte came to power.

‘The solutions to the climate and Covid-19 crises lie in the radical transformation of the oppressive colonial, patriarchal and neoliberal system realigning power away from rich nations.’

In this entrenched neoliberal economic system propped by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), an unjust international trade and investment regime with its strangling conditions of Structural Adjustment Programmes, Investor-State Dispute Settlements, Free Trade Agreements, and so on, forces the global south not only to provide labour and resources, but also pushes it into greater debt by privatisation, deregulation and trade liberalisation. This in turn erodes labour rights and environmental safeguards; and weakens public services and increases tax and unemployment in a region facing a catastrophic combined climate and Covid-19 crisis. These systems protect the global north’s continued exploitation and accumulation of wealth, and are the key drivers of the intersecting crises we face. They reinforce the dominance and power of the global north against the global south, where most countries cannot even begin to tackle the combined climate and Covid-19 crisis while simultaneously being drained dry by modern slavery.

It is so convenient for the global north to push climate resilience and a capitalist recovery as the best approach to tackling these crises. The narrative of resilience and adaptation, and most recently of nature-based solutions, while important, is designed to distract us from the real issue of climate mitigation through the reduction of carbon emissions, which - to be blunt - rich nations would rather sabotage than commit to.

Fossil fuels must be banned completely if we are to have any hope of reducing emissions to below 1.5C (34.7F): when will the Paris Agreement take full effect, rather than be discussed every year at COP? The dangerous levels of deforestation, environment degradation and biodiversity loss continue unabated: what global environment commitment is being implemented to secure a fighting chance for our survival? Climate fixes are mainly false solutions, technocratic, market based, and profit driven: where do we find the global north equally footing their contribution to climate finances and providing climate reparations for loss and damage in the developing countries?

COLOMBIAAn Indigenous leader of the Nasa people in south western Colombia, 30-year-old Cristina Bautista was killed alongside four other members of the Nasa Tacueyo Indigenous Reserve on 29 October 2019 in a standoff between Indigenous people and dissident rebels in the area. Two months earlier, on 13 August, she gave a speech denouncing the murders of Indigenous guardians: “If we stay quiet, they kill us, and if we speak, they kill us too. So, we speak.” The gunmen remain at large. The Washington Post reported that in 2020 an estimated 310 activists - Indigenous leaders, community mobilisers and others - were killed in Colombia by armed groups.

‘One could well argue it is all of the above and more, however, our system dictates that decisions made are in the self-interest of those elites holding privilege and power.’

There is an absolute onus of historical responsibility on the global north to recognise a fair redistribution of resources, finances and technology to truly commit to global solidarity with developing countries in addressing these crises. How will any global effort to tackle the climate crisis work if the WTO, IMF, World Bank and financial and technological institutions continue to extract, exploit, dehumanise and commodify labour and natural resources from the global south?

The crises are undeniably upon us and yet our political leaders for over two decades continue to be mired in the semantics of whether it is a legal, political or more recently, a moral or scientific problem? Does it matter? One could well argue it is all of the above and more, however, our system dictates that decisions made are in the self-interest of those elites holding privilege and power.

The solutions to the climate and Covid-19 crises lie in the radical transformation of the oppressive colonial, patriarchal and neoliberal system realigning power away from rich nations. The solution is not blaming population growth and individual eating habits but organising collective action against the systems and infrastructure that have locked us into fossil fuel-dependent transport, food, fashion, technology and energy consumption. There is immense organising power that we as citizens are able to collectively shape.

SOUTH AFRICAEnvironmentalist Fikile Ntshangase, 65, was shot in her home on 22 October 2020. She was involved in a legal dispute over the extension of an open-cast mine near Somkhele, South Africa. Community members have publicly expressed concern about how the mine affects their health and livelihoods, and 19 families have resisted being displaced from their ancestral land for the mine expansion. In this photograph Fikile is attending a meeting of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, carrying a bottle of locally-sourced drinking water that she wanted to have tested.

‘We can build a community that is gender-just and equitable, sustainable, regenerative, care-based, community-owned, and includes the voices of marginalised peoples, grounded in Indigenous and traditional knowledge and the protection of human rights.’

Fighting climate breakdown is not limited to scientists, young people, or activists. One does not have to be an activist to take action. We need to debunk our attitudes that convince us that this is not “our concern” or “our country”. In a system that has fatigued us with mortgages, debts, overwork, social addictions and now a health crisis, we have forgotten to recognise our global community and how intrinsically we are connected to each other as humans. There is not much time left to save our future so we must join together and invest in our present - whether that is by making more informed choices, supporting locally-owned interests, investing in public commons, joining campaigns, stepping up to engage in local or national politics, using art, poetry, dance, creative expression, music, writing, or just speaking on these issues with your own family and friends.

We can build a community that is gender-just and equitable, sustainable, regenerative, care-based, community-owned, and includes the voices of marginalised peoples, grounded in Indigenous and traditional knowledge and the protection of human rights. We can resist and change the system from profit to people and planet.

The thousands of diverse young people and children marching, protesting and making a stand across the world show more courage and leadership than those we voted in. They have clearly understood in their young lifetimes that elite, international, patriarchal and white-privileged spaces have failed their generation completely. Young people have demonstrated true global solidarity across race, colour, creed, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, social status and class far more clearly than any global leader’s forum. The youth climate justice movement speaks truth to power fearlessly. All of us can make time, learn, and do our part to sustain this momentum because what we are fighting for is our very existence and that of our children, for the generations ahead.

BRAZILOn 1 November 2019, 26-year-old Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a Guajajara leader, was killed by illegal loggers in an ambush. He was a member of a group called Guardians of the Forest, set up to deter logging gangs from the area, and was killed while on patrol with them in Araribóia Indigenous territory in Maranhão, Brazil. Very few killings of this nature in Brazil result in convictions and Indigenous leaders fear an escalation. In 2020 Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, unveiled a bill to allow commercial mining on Indigenous territories, stating: “This is a big step forward, but it will face pressure from environmentalists.” Murders of environmental activists and land defenders have doubled in the last 15-years.

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