July 30, 2012

After Rio+20: Grassroots at Rio, the role of international conferences, and returning home to local struggles

Marisol Becerra and Crystal Lameman from the Frontline Fellowship program spoke with Caroline Selle and I about their experience at Rio+20. With UN conferences largely failing to produce real solutions, Marisol and Crystal told us about their thoughts on the role of these gatherings in solving the climate crisis.They spoke about the changes they saw on the grassroots level outside the formal negotiations and filled us in on their work at home and in their communities.

We Are Power Shift: What was your major takeaway from the summit?

Crystal: The one thing that I think really sticks with me through this entire process has been how important it is to have delegation, collaborate together and to work together, and how there needs to be a unification of the different organizations. I had a really positive experience with the GGJ and IEN collaboration, the work that they did together throughout that entire week. I think the main takeaway that I received was that the word solidarity, really thoroughly...it was everything encompassing the definition of that word.

Marisol: For me the biggest takeaway was that despite the politics and that we didn’t have concrete timelines to achieve the goals proposed is the fact that big conferences like Rio+20 really bring together a lot of people that otherwise would not come together in the same place. And they come together because they have a common goal and a common vision, which is to have a sustainable world. Regardless of what is written on paper, what matters most is the actions and I think that by seeing the grassroots actively involved in the process, that to me is really big, and only seems to increase as we step forward.

WAP: What role do you think international conferences play in addressing the climate crisis?

Marisol: The role that these conferences play are mostly on the policy level, however I think that the majority of the change actually happens in the grassroots. I think the conferences can help establish a goal and actually meet it, and come with concrete actions. But what are the consequences for countries if they do not meet those goals? There really isn’t anything to sanction not meeting your goals. And I think that we lack that leads us to just creating policies that look nice on paper but no one really follows up on them. Perhaps exploring the possibility of having an international environmental court would be an option. To make sure that there’s accountability. To make sure that we can take countries that are not doing their job to court. Those processes are long, but I think they are necessary, because there are a lot of injustices happening all over the world.

Crystal: Just like Marisol was saying, when it comes to policy, and implementation, the push to implement these policies that are brought forth on issues like climate change…that’s the most frustrating part about it. I think that at a grassroots level a conference like this gives people like the people of Brazil an opportunity to bring forth the issues that they deal with. One of the things that I got to witness was the writing, and the signing and the delivery of the Kari-Oca Declaration on indigenous rights. And in that document it said a lot about climate change and how that’s affecting our one true mother and what needs to be focused on. But at the same time like Marisol said these are things that look nice on paper. It’s getting the UN to acknowledge and indoctrine these types of documents and make them a part of the processes on a global level that we follow. But I think too at the same time when it comes to the conferences themselves, like I was saying, the involvement of grassroots people and their ability to bring out the issues of things like climate change, and voice those concerns and have everybody hear them. So do I think on a certain level these are very important? Yes, absolutely, absolutely. The conferences are important they play a huge role in making the world aware of issues like climate change.

WAP: So a lot of the positive coverage of Rio+20 focused on what happened outside of the formal negotiations and what happened in groups and the coalitions between groups...we were wondering if you think this is the path toward meaningful action in climate change and related things, or was that media kind spinning things?

Crystal: That’s where I saw all the change happening. All of the action was happening, all of the social media stuff. My opinion is that it was all happening at the grassroots level, at the people’s summit, at the march we had. 80,000 people I think is what they said. It was huge. It was massive. And that was grassroots people bringing all the issues to the streets. The march of the 500 indigenous people in the Kari-Oca to declaration, you know, that was another action and them having been blocked by the military and the government. Having that put out in the open. The different actions that happened around that entire week...I think there were things happening everyday.

Marisol: Yea, I completely agree with you Crystal. Most of the action was happening outside of the negotiations, that’s where you could see people really coming together, standing in solidarity and actually getting work done. I think that will have a more long lasting effect than what actually came out of the negotiation center. In regards to the media, I was very disappointed that Rio+20 didn’t’ get a lot of coverage in the U.S…and so that to me really shows the gap that exists…but then at the same time the media here in the U.S. is very much dominated, at least the mainstream media. And that’s where grassroots comes in because we already have the tools that we can use to share our experiences. To blog, to take videos, to take photos of what we see.

WAP: You were saying some really interesting things about the grassroots, and I think that leads into another question we had, that was: what are you working on locally in your community?

Marisol: Some of the things I’m working on in my community are very much related to sustainable development. But in my case it would be re-development, because in my community in Chicago, Little Village, we have a very large industrial corridor. And a lot of these industries are shutting down or have been shut down and we’re dealing with the issue of how do we redevelop these spaces, but most importantly, cleaning them up, of course, in the proper way. And then, what happens with these spaces? For example, converting an industry space into a green community college where we can train our local people in how to build wind turbines, how to install them, etcetera. We also have a very high demand for jobs and very little jobs in our community. So that would be one way of transitioning into the green economy, but keeping it local. That’s what I’m working on. Making sure that the spaces that are being re-developed, that they take community in mind, because in other places like New York, there have been instances where communities have been re-developed from these industrial sites, and the community that fights for their clean-up and fights for that re-development, doesn’t get what they want, which then leads to gentrification. So then, environmental justice for who? That’s the biggest question, and that’s what I’m really working on. Making sure that the industrial spaces in my community are cleaned up, that we do get what we want, and that we’re able to benefit from a better environment, because that’s what we fought for, and that’s what we will continue fighting for.

WAP: What about you, Crystal?

Crystal: In 2008, my uncle, who’s been the chief of my community for 34 years, took notice of the issues that the Alberta Tar Sands has been having with regards to our inherent rights as treaty-status Indians of Canada to always be able to go to the land to hunt fish and forage- to always be able to sustain ourselves off of the land...They’re now doing the in situ, the underground steam injection, which is something that the eye cannot see. This is wreaking havoc undergound, on top of the open pit mining that’s happening in Fort McMurray which is now the size of England. The government’s proposed action is to expand that four times. We are currently extracting 1.5 million barrels of Tar Sands oil per day. The hope is to move it up to 7 million barrels a day. In this process, where I live, 80% of the in situ happens here. In that process, it takes 4-6 barrels of our fresh water to one barrel of tar sands oil. 90% of that water is not recyclable. That ends up being reused to whatever point that they can reuse it, and whatever is unable to be reused they then put into tailings ponds, they dam it. The wildlife is obviously being affected, the vegetation is being affected. We’ve seen a decline in the caribou, the northern caribou, which is an animal that we’ve subsisted on for hundreds of years.

From there, instead of going directly to the oil companies, because they answer directly to the Canadian government, (and we have every major oil company in the world involved in the tar sands), he sued the Alberta Canadian government. And it’s not the first time a first nation has sued the Canadian government. It’s the first time, however, the Canadian government has been held accountable. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench has never ever granted a First Nation a trial. So in April, my band was granted a trial. The lawsuit was filed at the Provincial level. So because of that, every oil company that falls within our traditional hunting territory is implicated in our court case. I am a grassroots campaigner for the Tar Sands issue as a whole in my area. Meeting with different people, hosting different people that come through my community, and want to see you know, what it is that we’re losing, what it is that’s at stake because of this industry. [More about the legal action. View the documentary about the Beaver Lake Cree Nation lawsuit.] 

Thank you so much to Marisol and Crystal for taking time to share your thoughts on Rio+20 and telling us about your work in your communities!

Marisol Becerra is from Little Village, Chicago, where she is an activist working on re-development of urban spaces into green spaces. She has worked with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, is a Frontline Fellow with Energy Action Coalition Environmental Justice Collective, and she launched Youth Activists Organizing as Today’s Leaders. More about Marisol’s work.

Crystal Lameman is a member of Beaver Lake Cree Nation located 2.5 NE of Edmonton, Alberta. She is a graduate student, a mother of two,  a Frontline Fellow with EAC Environmental Justice Collective, and just came on board with the Indigenous Environmental Network.