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myth3The smell of burning sage wafted through the air in a quiet corner of Central Park. Chirping birds and a soft Native American sunrise chant were the only sounds. This was how the indigenous people’s movement, led by Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), began its day at the People’s Climate March

The special connection to the Earth was evident. Native peoples in every country of the world are often that place’s earliest victims of climate change, and in anticipation of this week’s UN Climate Summit, they have banded together for the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous People (WCIP).

Goldtooth explains to the circle of people gathered around the ceremony grounds how colonialism, oil drilling and deforestation are just some of the documented ways indigenous people have lost their lands or been forced from their homes and resettled elsewhere. A Dakota from Minnesota, Goldtooth tells Planet Experts he wants world leaders to ask themselves, “Who are the people that have developed a systematic way to live in balance with the world around them?”

He adds, “By protecting indigenous rights, you’re protecting Mother Earth and human rights.” That appears to be a theme in the two days of high-level plenary sessions at the UNGA as well.

The argument for indigenous rights can be emotionally charged, with stories of forced resettlement and re-education in so many countries. Chiara, a 28-year-old member of the Denedeh of the Northwest Territories of Canada, held back tears as she explained that “we have the power to re-humanize indigenous people” through climate action and divestment from fossil fuels.

mythili1She says the historic treaties between the U.S. and Canada with their respective native peoples are nation-to-nation treaties, not to be violated in accordance with international law. “We are supposed to have the right to harvest and hunt…to practice our traditions,” says Chiara. Instead, she says, fossil fuel companies have taken over once-sacred lands to develop resources, deforest and mine.

She wants to ask national leaders and corporate executives at the UN, “What happens when our homes are contaminated? Where do we go when we become [environmental] refugees?”

Jihan Gearon, Executive Director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition in Arizona, has a different approach to regaining the rights of her Navajo people. Gearon says that the reservation has nearly 70 percent unemployment at the moment. She wants to develop “local living economies” in order to mitigate the negative effects the fossil fuel economy has had on her people.

One of the nascent industries in her area is the weaving of textiles, clothing and rugs. But weaving depends on the availability of wool. Gearon is working on a “wool process improvement project” in order to make people in the community more self-sufficient in raising, shearing, processing and selling wool and wool items, but a lack of resources has made the project difficult.

myth2Though they have land the size of West Virgina, Gearon says that much of it is woefully undeveloped and not suitable for grazing. Electricity and fossil fuel companies degraded the land in order to build cities like Phoenix and Tuscon. Now, Gearon is in New York to push for a divestment from fossil fuels and a redistribution of revenue from companies using resources located on these lands.

There has been a lot of talk this week of developing countries holding the developed world accountable for its environmental and agro-economic damage. Yet many of the indigenous people attending the march are part of the developed world. Though they live in countries like the United States, Canada and Australia, they still suffer from degraded land and resources.

As Dallas Goldtooth explains, Climate Week has given the WCIP the opportunity to speak up for this neglected corner of the developed world – not only for environmental reform but also for social justice.

Images Courtesy of Mythili Sampathkumar © 2014

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