Parallel to COP21, the International Rights of Nature Tribunal convened in Paris. The ‘climate crimes’ it heard were deeply connected to other systemic injustices: patriarchy, racism and capitalism.
The US state of Texas is home to some of the world’s largest petrochemical, shipping and freight industries. Unsurprisingly, Texas is also the worst culprit when it comes to carbon emissions (it is, in fact, worse than most nation states). Texas has been directly impacted by climate change through severe storms, flooding and hurricanes, as well as droughts and subsequent wildfires. Yet the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, denies this is linked to man-made global warming.
International Rights of Nature Tribunal. Photo: Ché Ramsden
The third International Rights of Nature Tribunal took place in Paris on the 4th and 5th December at the same time as COP21, and heard cases from around the world dealing with the violation of the Rights of Mother Earth. There, Yudith Nieto from Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) testified to the effects of petrochemical pollution on the Manchester community in Houston, Texas. Direct industrial pollution is compounded by heavy traffic going to the ports. Carcinogenic chemicals in the air make local children 56% more likely to develop leukaemia than children living just 10 miles to the south. There is also alarming prevalence of respiratory and skin issues, as well as other cancers.
Nieto calls this “environmental racism” as “low-income communities of colour,” for whom Manchester is home, have to live with pollution and associated disease. This was a recurring theme at the tribunal – the systematic violation of nature goes hand in hand with the injustices of racism, patriarchy and capitalism.
Racism, patriarchy and capitalism, like colonialism, all express a certain violent masculinity. These systems exert and maintain power through direct and indirect violence, including ‘divide and rule’ tactics. This creates systemic injustice based on artificial divisions such as race, gender and wealth. When examining violations against the rights of nature, it is unsurprising that similar patterns emerge. As Pat Mooney, from ETC Group, responded to the tribunal, when asked about the main perpetrators of crimes against nature, “Pachamama would be doing just fine if it weren’t for all the macho papas!”
Pachamama and ‘macho papas’
Pachamama (Mother Earth) is an indigenous Andean goddess who Bélen Paéz of Fundación Pachamama explained, at the Tribunal, as “a sacred element, a vital element” – a life-giving and life-sustaining deity. Paéz described the cultural integrity of indigenous people in the Andes as having at its core a link between Pachamama and human beings: cultural integrity involves “maintaining the balance between nature and people’s dreams.”
All living things, in order to survive, depend on other organisms (the largest of these can be characterised as Pachamama, or Mother Earth). This means that all organisms connect with each other – within and across species – in an intricate web, whose threads detail and balance each and every link while forming a careful whole. As Tribunal judge Tom Goldtooth and Shannon Biggs write in their preface for ‘Rights of Nature & Mother Earth: Sowing seeds of resistance, love and change’, ‘humanity and all nature are one.’
Given how reliant we are on our habitat for survival, nature also defines our capacity for humanity. At its deepest level, therefore, violations against nature fracture the relationships human beings have with other organisms. This includes other humans, as well as the earth herself.
Recognise the crime of ecocide poster in Paris. Photo: Ché Ramsden
Every case presented to the Tribunal showed how violence against nature intersects with violence against people. ‘Macho papas’ – like the 90 companies responsible for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions – practice a systematic violence against nature which begins with the extraction of resources from the ground. Casey Camp-Horinek from the Ponca Nation in Oklahoma, USA was in tears when she spoke to the Tribunal about fracking-induced earthquakes in Oklahoma. “We know first hand that when you begin to grind into the bones of Mother Earth that she begins to shake and shiver.”
Fragmentation and disconnection
In her testimony to the Tribunal, on the depletion of marine life, Lisa Mead of Earth Law Alliance spoke about our “fragmented worldview”: “even though we give the oceans and the seas different names, in fact they are all one body of water” – the literal fluidity of the ocean means that pollution in one area quickly spreads and diseases the entire body.
If we return to the concept of Pachamama and the interconnected web of the earth’s organisms, we can see that any fragmentation of the earth can constitute violence. Artificial borders between countries and constructions like race and gender allow ‘macho papas’ to access resources, wealth and power. This quickly breaks parts of the careful web of organisms, altering its balance, structure, appearance and ability to withstand further breakages before it will collapse completely. As the Tribunal heard, this makes life precarious:
Eriel Deranger from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of Alberta, Canada testified that, for thousands of years, her people have had a connection to nature: for thousands of years “it has provided us with the food that we eat, the clothes that we wear, and it has allowed us to maintain our cultural integrity.” Now the Alberta Tar Sands project is polluting their immediate environment: “we can’t find fish, and the ones we do find are poisoned and dirty [with tumours and cancers].” She described the polluting chemicals which now flow through the water as “eroding not just the ecosystem, but the cultural integrity and survival of the indigenous communities who live downstream.”
In another hearing, Vandana Shiva presented the case of Indian farmers who used Monsanto’s genetically-modified Bt cotton crop. The crop was designed to produce toxins harmful to common pests, including bollworms and moth and butterfly larvae. However, Shiva described a 300% increase in “what were not pests becoming pests,” with farmers needing to use 20 times as much pesticide as before at heavy financial, environmental and human costs. There have been 300,000 suicides of farmers since 1995, with the highest incidence in areas where Bt cotton is planted. And two years after planting Bt crops, 22% of beneficial soil organisms, which had previously been found naturally in the soil, had disappeared. Commented one farmer, “we have cancer; the earth now has cancer.”
Going back to the situation in Texas, the pollution in Manchester makes it difficult to grow food, so the community is forced out of self-sufficiency, making any ‘choice’ about unhealthy but cheap alternatives an illusion. Bryan Parras of TEJAS, who grew up in Houston and whose parents are from west Texas, also articulated the ‘generational trauma’ in the way people in the area view nature. “Not only are we impacting people’s biology and chemistry, but also their psychology. From the East Side of Houston to Galvaston Bay, there’s a glorification of industry which impacts the way young children see the planet: as a commodity, something to be used and abused.”
In these cases, activists are multiply criminalised in ways which tell of patriarchal and racist power dynamics as well as climate injustice. Melina Laboucan-Massimo has written for 50.50 about the ways in which the previous Canadian government legislated against both Indigenous people and environmental activists. Shiva spoke of the fact that genetically-modified organisms are protected by law and thus privileged above famers’ needs; and farmers who save seeds can be convicted of “agriterrorism.” Parras explained that there are a large number of undocumented migrants in Manchester; “they are already criminalised and suffer police brutality; [so] then, trying to organise on these environmental issues, it becomes doubly, triply difficult.”
Defending the defenders
Every Tribunal judge commented on the need to include the rights of environment defenders in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. The inclusion of vulnerable people in legislation – ratified or unratified – is an indication of how human beings are valued, and an important first step in ensuring that action is taken to reflect this value. Indeed, on the first day of the Tribunal, on the other side of Paris, Indigenous people protested outside COP21 to demand that Indigenous people’s rights are included in Article 2 of the COP21 agreement.
But Tribunal judge Ruth Nyambura asked, “how can we demand rights from states which have been built to destroy?” Indigenous communities know too well that modern nation states have been created through genocide. While state and international law might offer nominal protection, it is unsurprising that these systems do not offer real justice. As Nyambura put it, “parliaments and courts are valuable sites of struggles, but we need to imagine new ways [of claiming rights] because these structures have been created to privilege the already privileged.”
The face of climate denialism, of course, epitomises this privilege – see Governor of Texas Rick Perry, or indeed Adam Ramsay’s description of the small roomful of rich white men who held a COP21 climate denialism fringe event. Their macho bravado, which ignores not only science but the lived experiences of their fellow human beings around the world, is as destructive as it is absurd. Ramiro Ávila, the Tribunal’s Prosecutor for the Earth, put it this way: “climate change will only change with socio-political-economic justice.”
Nyambura reminded us that, aside from criminalisation, “there are other ways of stopping people speaking out,” including the education systems that “make us passive.” This is something TEJAS is fighting against, and their methods include youth organising, educational programmes and inter-generational activities.
The Tribunal itself offers an alternative structure for sharing, listening to, and understanding the pain caused by climate change – to affected communities and to the earth itself. The alliances between activists and defenders are strengthened through the process, which does not recognise borders and division. The Tribunal process not only acknowledges, but privileges, lived experiences above man-made power systems. Listening to the extraordinary testimony at the Tribunal, you get the sense that this is far more important than anything going on inside COP21.