Home: Feature

Displaced, poisoned, jailed: Climate change survivors confront world leaders

Climate chaos is destroying these people’s communities. They travelled to COP27 to demand justice for loss and damage

Amelia Womack
10 November 2022, 5.22pm

Banaba representative Rae Bainteiti, Amalia Vargas from the Chicha Nation in the Northern Andes, and Zé Bajaga Apurina, Amazonia chief of the Aldeia Idecora TI Caititu tribe in Brazil at COP27

|

Amelia Womack (Rae and Zhe) / Amalia Vargas

For the Banaban people, the threat of being displaced from their homes by increasingly frequent cyclones reopens old wounds.

They were forced by British colonial rulers to leave their ancestral homeland 77 years ago after phosphate mining led by the UK, New Zealand and Australia stripped 90% of the surface of their Pacific coral island.

Now their existing homes 1,000 miles away on Rabi Island in Fiji may also become uninhabitable due to the polluting activities of wealthy countries.

Rising sea levels and more frequent and intense cyclones, floods and droughts are causing annual disasters on Rabi. The risk of losing their land once again is a constant threat for Banabans and their representative, Rae Bainteiti, has come to COP27 seeking help from the big emitting countries in the form of a “loss and damage” fund.

Get our free Daily Email

Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.

The need for such a fund has this year made it onto the formal COP agenda for the first time following decades of calls by nations in the Global South for reparations for climate damage inflicted on them.

Delegates are aiming for a decision on loss and damage “no later than 2024”. In the last few days, Austria, Germany and Belgium have joined Scotland and Denmark in committing to this funding.

But Egypt’s foreign minister and COP27 president Sameh Shoukry said in his speech opening the conference that the talks would focus on “cooperation and facilitation” rather than “liability and compensation”.

It is unclear what this means for places like Rabi that are already experiencing loss and damage.

Speaking to openDemocracy in the ‘Innovation Zone’ at COP27, Rae described the realities of the climate emergency for him and his community.

“When we have flooding, our water systems are not treated, so during times of disasters our communities are drinking from untreated water, which is mostly brown… lots of children have to deal with skin diseases and diarrhoea.”

People who live near the coast have to relocate to avoid the “king tide”, while people who live by the rivers need to relocate whenever the river rises. Those who aren’t near roads and other infrastructure need to migrate to caves. Across the island there are no evacuation centres, and the community seeks shelter in school halls and churches. When the flood waters recede they return to rebuild sea walls.

Their lives depend on farming, and increasing temperatures are leading to droughts that destroy crops.

Rae’s grandparents were among the Banabans forced to relocate to Fiji. He knows from them that displacement does not just involve building a new home, but needing to adapt your culture and way of life to a different land.

They “had to learn to retain cultures and link families and stories to land, and many important elements to culture like preserving food in an environment that isn’t similar to their homeland”.

Temperatures have been rising and there have been many winds and storms like they have never had them before. The rainy season is happening at different times

Zé Bajaga Apurina, Amazonia chief of the Aldeia Idecora TI Caititu tribe in Brazil

Zé Bajaga Apurina, an Amazonia chief of the Aldeia Idecora TI Caititu tribe in Brazil, has also come to COP27 to press for a loss and damage fund.

His people used to live nomadic lives, but have had to stop due to new boundaries in the land that they can not cross.

Zé believes that if they could keep moving then they could escape from the floods and fires of climate change. Speaking to us ahead of the conference, he highlighted the impact that climate change is already having on his community.

As well as forest fires, he said, “temperatures have been rising and there have been many winds and storms like they have never had them before.

“The rainy season is happening at different times than they used to and that’s having a lot of impacts in the region. Rainy season is now different so the floods are bigger and the dry season is worse. This impacts the reproduction of fish and the daily life of the forests.”

For Zé , loss and damage isn’t just about what happens in the Amazon: what happens in the forests is part of a bigger connected world. Harm to the Amazon harms the rest of the planet. He focuses specifically on the water cycle, which takes water from the Amazon to Brazil and the rest of the world in what he calls “flying rivers”. If these are altered, then the whole world suffers.

What’s more, illegal mining, water pollution and deforestation have caused cancer and lead poisoning in his community. The majority of tribe members also have respiratory problems, many of them undiagnosed, likely caused by breathing in smoke from the slash and burn fires encouraged by outgoing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

When I ask about Lula’s victory in last month’s election, his facial expressions change and you can see his hope for the years ahead. He says that Lula has “shown light at the end of the tunnel” for indigenous people in Brazil and an era of persecution of indigenous leaders will come to an end. Bolsonaro had incentivised the invasion of Zé’s lands, and stripped funding that supported his communities. Lula has pledged to reverse this, and has promised to protect the forest, meaning that the Aldeia Idecora people can start to live their lives more freely and continue to live their lives connected to nature.

Arrested for protecting their land

Instead of focusing on loss and damage compensation, Amalia Vargas from the Chicha Nation in the Northern Andes is at COP to demand an end to the polluting activities destroying her land and the planet.

She says that you can’t “fix” these problems: you have to stop the activities that cause them.

She paints a picture of the vast and interconnected issues in the Chicha nation in the Argentinian Andes. Beyond extreme weather and rising temperatures, mining companies have taken over her traditional territory and are exploiting the land and communities in the surrounding area. This exploitation has contaminated the population’s water supply meaning that the Chicha community can no longer drink their water or eat their meat for fear of contamination. On top of that, women who are trying to continue their traditional ways of life are experiencing verbal and physical abuse from the police while moving their sheep and llamas in the mountains.

Amalia told me a harrowing story of a woman who was arrested for protesting to protect her land. “One of the prisoners was seven months pregnant. She had the baby inside jail. They didn’t have anything against [her] then except protecting the land. They brought her to Buenos Aires and imprisoned her there.”

Discrimination by police when making arrests such as these led to the resignation of Argentina's minister of women, gender and diversity, Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, who said they were “serious violations to the human rights of the women detained”. As Amalia put it: “The police have certain gender equality rules, but they don’t apply to indigenous women.”

Pollution in the Argentinian Andes has had catastrophic effects on people’s health. Babies have birth defects, nearly 80% of people in one community have tested positive for lead, and cancer has affected and killed some of Amalia’s closest friends and family members.

Amalia blames the capitalist system for continuing this oppression, as money and profit are being prioritised over their communities and culture. For her, the proposal of loss and damage isn’t the solution. Instead, she wants an end to polluting activity and exploitation of the earth.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

We've got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you're interested in, there's a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData