As the voices of children singing in unison filled our ears, against the backdrop of a chief surrounded by his community members in the Brazilian Amazon, a profound sense of connection – with one another and with all forms of life on the planet – was palpable. Even if the workshop Grassroots International had organized for the 2020 fall retreat of the Environmental Grantmakers Association had predictably moved online in the context of COVID-19, this was not your typical virtual gathering. The chief was Chief Ninawá, leader of the Inu Bake (painted jaguar) clan and President of the Federation of the Huni Kui People of the State of Acre, Brazil (FEPHAC), who opened the workshop with a song sung by his community “to send energy directly from our forests, from our territory.” The discussion to follow – around the theme of Carbon Pricing: Solution or Greenwashing? – was lively and at times deeply moving, as movement leaders shared their critiques of carbon pricing as a purported climate solution, based on the firsthand experiences of communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Violating the sacred, perpetuating pollution
The sentiments shared by Chief Ninawá, which grounded those of us present in the sheer magnitude of what was at stake in the matters being discussed, were reinforced by Tom Goldtooth of Indigenous Environmental Network, headquartered in Minnesota deep in Anishinaabe territory. Tom explained that carbon pricing in its many forms (so-called cap and trade schemes, carbon farming, blue carbon, forest-based carbon offset programs like REDD+, etc.), “for us as Indigenous peoples, are all part of the privatization of air and a violation of our Indigenous cosmologies. As our ancestor Chief Seattle said, ‘How can you buy or sell the air?’ …The global carbon market is the World Trade Organization of the sky.”
“The global carbon market is the World Trade Organization of the sky.”
Beyond representing the antithesis of Indigenous worldviews in their market-based orientation and commodification of life, carbon schemes are a false solution when it comes to curbing climate change because they allow polluters to keep polluting with impunity through funding ostensibly environmentally-friendly projects. As Tom helpfully broke down for us:
The seriousness of carbon pricing is that it does not cut emissions at their source but instead allows for continued fossil fuel use… this adds up to inaction and distraction and corporate power grabbing. And right now with many voluntary offset programs, there’s documentation of land grabbing and human rights violations. This is beyond greenwashing.
Tom added that “What we’re seeing now as Indigenous peoples and people of color, not only in the North but in the Global South is expansion of fossil fuel investments developments.” Examples in the US include the Keystone XL Pipeline and the push to open up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, both on sacred Indigenous lands. This is among the reasons why, despite a major roll-out of carbon pricing schemes emerging from the Paris climate agreement, global investment in fossil fuels has gone up by 2.7 trillion dollars since the agreement was signed.
“Solutions” that are anything but…
Not only is carbon pricing dangerous for its perpetuation of the fossil fuel industry, explained Chief Ninawá, but the “solutions” funded through carbon pricing can be equally damaging. This has been the experience of the Huni Kui People with REDD+ forest projects in their territories.
While REDD+ schemes are hypothetically intended to conserve forestland, in many cases they are cutting off Indigenous communities from the very forestland that they have long been stewarding. Beyond being counterproductive from a conservation point of view, the consequences can be deadly for the communities whose sources of food, water, medicines and livelihoods suddenly become privatized and inaccessible. Right now in Brazil, carbon pricing initiatives, oil and mining concessions to multinationals, forest fires, the COVID-19 pandemic and militarization of Indigenous lands under the Bolsonaro regime are combining into an all-out attack on the very existence of Indigenous peoples, making solidarity essential:
I invite everyone – let’s make a great world alliance for the recuperation of respect for humanity and for the sacred beings of the Amazon and other biomes… Let’s say no to the false mechanisms. Nature is a sacred being, not for the market.
Still surrounded by the lively community gathering, with children inquisitively peering at the camera as he spoke, Chief Ninawá added, “From our territory, we are taking care of our environment so our children are healthy. Let’s all do our part. This partnership depends on the solidarity of all of you.” He also stressed that Indigenous communities have no shortage of solutions, even if these go ignored by the powers that be. This is thus not simply about being against schemes like REDD+, but more importantly, about being united in what we are for: “We are in favor of life. We are for the wellbeing of everyone and all things sacred.”
“We are in favor of life. We are for the wellbeing of everyone and all things sacred.”
Different contexts, shared struggle and resistance
The interconnections among struggles of frontline communities facing environmental injustices across diverse settings became clear as Jill Mangaliman of Seattle-based Got Green shared their perspective based on the lived experience of “waking up to pollution everyday” in the community where they grew up. This is a reality replicated many times over in BIPOC communities, leading to higher rates of illnesses, lower life expectancies and lower levels of overall resilience to crises.
Just as a deadly combination of factors is threatening Indigenous communities of the Amazon, Jill explained how industrial pollution, COVID-19, and the wildfires raging through the Pacific Northwest have similarly exacerbated public health risks for already vulnerable working-class communities of color. “We live in a world where your zip code can define how long you live,” they summed up.
“We live in a world where your zip code can define how long you live.”
Jill explained that frontline communities in the Seattle area oppose carbon pricing based on lessons learned from California, where communities facing environmental injustices saw increased pollution, not less, under carbon pricing “because companies can just trade and buy offsets instead of reducing their pollution at the source.” Furthermore: “Companies pass on the costs to communities because they’ll do anything to protect their profits. Washington already has the most regressive tax structures in the country, but we’re also home to one of the wealthiest income earners and biggest police budgets, as well as major subsidies for corporations. So it’s not a lack of resources, but a lack of priorities.”
Just as Chief Ninawá underscored the importance of being clear in what we are for as well as against, Jill concluded with the message that:
We support real solutions such as getting these polluting industries to actually reduce emissions at the source and transition away from fossil fuels…We support fighting for a Green New Deal that is driven by and centers the needs of frontline communities…We want to build community-controlled resilience hubs, create living wage jobs and healthy local food systems, and we want to prevent displacement. That’s how we reduce pollution locally – keeping our communities whole and together and more resilient.
The critical role of solidarity philanthropy
The fact that this workshop was held at a gathering of the Environmental Grantmakers Association was significant because funders have a decisive role to play in shifting the balance away from false solutions and toward real ones. As moderator Sonja Swift, board member of Colorado Plateau Foundation and Program Advisor of the Swift Foundation, drove home:
Philanthropy has played a serious role in promoting and supporting false solutions. We call on philanthropy to support real solutions that center territorial sovereignty, social justice and common sense and that are led by the people responsible to and knowledgeable of their homelands and communities.
Grassroots International’s Director of Grantmaking and Advocacy, Sara Mersha, noted that, “Many communities decide to sign agreements around carbon pricing mechanisms or other so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ solely because they need the funds that come with them.” This point drove home the harsh realities that many frontline communities across the globe find themselves in, pushing them to make decisions and concessions that should never have to be made. At the same time, despite a major dearth of resources against mounting needs, some communities, particularly those organized and articulated with social movements, are resisting. Chief Ninawá’s community in Acre is one such example, as they have chosen not to sign any carbon pricing agreements, foregoing the resources that come with them. Indeed, all of the workshop speakers represented communities challenging the status quo, often at a great cost.
Getting to the heart of Grassroots International’s commitment to solidarity philanthropy, Sara added: “We feel a responsibility as funders to find ways to support those communities in courageous resistance, and would love to strategize with other funders around how we can do this together.” It is hoped that this workshop and the outputs generated by it will help to drive further momentum toward this essential need.
“We feel a responsibility as funders to find ways to support those communities in courageous resistance…”