Extractives and natural resources – Mexico

Shifting the axis – the need to ensure Indigenous concerns as the new standard of leadership in climate talks

Alicia Kromer, Jeanne Deniau, Rosa Marina Cruz

The fate of Indigenous peoples, particularly in Latin America, has been decided externally since the start of colonialism. European settlers forced their languages and Catholicism on Indigenous communities, while imposing an economy based on the exploitation and exportation of raw materials to European countries that continues to the present. The naming of the continent as ‘Latin America’ does not reflect its vibrant linguistic and cultural diversity. 

Now, the same issue arises when it comes to climate change: key policies are often defined by white people (mainly men) from the global north, and not by Indigenous peoples and the global south. This hits at the heart of the problem – those who hold more power and remain relatively unaffected make decisions for those who hold less power and face the most severe impacts. Therefore, with the climate crisis we enter a new era of environmental injustice and racism. In seeking to address the problem, however, Indigenous frontline defenders show a possible way forward. 

Seismic shifts in weather patterns, destruction of marine life, deforestation, aggressive extractive industrial projects, unsustainable consumption and skyrocketing pollution of land, sea and air are all threatening human life and the planet. As the climate crisis intensifies, the energy transition towards renewable resources and away from fossil fuels remains the mandatory course of action. Green energy, however, must still adhere to all conditions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and prioritize the needs of Indigenous and other marginalized communities in pursuit of zero carbon emissions. Sadly, this is not often the case: the energy transition championed at global climate events such as the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change still privileges the white global north male contingent to take the lead in the discussion.  

The axis must shift to feature representatives of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities of the global south as the new standard of leadership, including the many young activists who are increasingly spotlighting these issues and calling for global change. Rosa Marina Cruz is one of these voices. An Afro- Indian Zapotec woman originally from Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico, since 2011 she has been part of the Assembly of Indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus in Defence of Land and Territory, an organization that defends communal and Indigenous ways of life in the face of dispossession by transnational wind power mega-projects. She works on local and international projects on environmental education, Indigenous rights, strengthening community authorities, rural feminism and community autonomy. She has worked with the Yansa Foundation in the Yucatan Peninsula, accompanying the development of community projects for the generation of renewable energy based on a collective vision of the defence of territory and community energy sovereignty. 

Describing her attendance at COP 26, Cruz says ‘Estás pero no estás’ (‘You’re there but you’re not really there’)

Rosa Marina Cruz

In November 2021, during COP26, Cruz helped to lead a delegation of nine young Indigenous activists in the campaign ‘Defenders of the Earth’. After a long process of fundraising and preparation, the Indigenous delegation travelled from Central and South America to Scotland in the fall of 2021.They went with the simple message: ‘Indigenous peoples should have a loud and prominent voice in the Global Climate Crisis.’ Cruz shared that Indigenous peoples should be leading the decision-making process occurring at such events, because not only are Indigenous peoples most affected by climate change, but they uniquely hold the keys to solving climate change. ‘Eighty per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is in the hands of Indigenous peoples’, says Cruz. ‘Finding substitutes for fossil fuel is not sufficient; rather, Indigenous ways of life are the alternative, such as traditional medicine, spirituality, and use of food systems and resources in harmony with the ecosystems,’ as opposed to ‘intensive capitalist production and false notions of destructive progress’. 

The solution to the climate crisis is profound in its simplicity: the reduction of destructive consumerism and an emphasis on Indigenous ways of being. Cruz and her delegation of Defenders of the Earth observed that within the COP26 they had little impact and limited power to participate in key negotiations since they only had an observer role. The language barrier also made it difficult for them to intervene. As Cruz describes, ‘Estás pero no estás’ (‘You’re there but you’re not really there’). Cruz reflects that this reinforces the social inequalities surrounding climate change: ‘Those affected by the environment are mostly Indigenous, racialized and displaced people, with much more difficult living conditions.’ 

While inside the venue, the delegation was disappointed by the lack of representation, outside COP26 Cruz shared that the Indigenous delegation had a strong and fierce presence. The team took part – alongside climate activist Greta Thunberg and representatives of many other environmental and human rights organizations – in robust marches, protests and the People’s Summit for Climate Justice (an alternative meeting to COP26 that brought together environmental campaigners from all over the world). The delegation joined with fellow protesters blocking the entrance to COP26 and gained a strong media presence, ensuring that the message of denouncing the monopoly of the global north’s elite over climate change policy was loudly and clearly conveyed. They spoke out against the ageing and destructive economic model of extractive industries and its causal role in the climate crisis, privileging economic growth over the health of the planet. Just as European settlers imposed their culture, language and religion on Indigenous peoples five centuries ago, the global north is now engaging in a form of environmental colonialism through the expansion of aggressive modern capitalism. 

‘The intersection of colonialism with capitalist expansion has caused and continues to fuel the climate crisis’, says Cruz. ‘They want to impose those models of life and consumption which are alien to us on all territories as if we were all the same. They are trying to bring us closer to the way of life of the big cities, which is highly destructive to the ecosystem.’ 

At a time when fighting climate change has never been more urgent, the growing presence of Indigenous peoples’ representatives at COP events marks a significant step, since they are ‘living alternatives to the climate crisis’, according to Cruz. The reversal of the climate crisis is a long road that includes overcoming capitalism, racism and colonialism in all its new forms. To accomplish this, we must centre the discussion on those most impacted and, in so doing, create a fighting chance for reversal. Until power from the global north is shared with Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities of the global youth in the global climate discussion, there will be no end to the frightening effects of environmental damage for ourselves and future generations. However, if this axis shifts, the descendants of those who lived on ancestral lands long before the colonizers arrived may lead humanity to live as it once did: in harmony with ourselves and our home.

Photo: Rosa Marina Cruz, fourth from left, pictured with fellow activists at the Youth March for Climate as part of COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom. Courtesy of Red de Futuros Indígenas