[Dispatch] | Live Ghosts, by Rebecca Solnit | Harper's Magazine

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Live Ghosts


"Indigenous people from Indonesia to Alaska have come to the Paris climate summit in the hundreds, perhaps even the thousands, to defend their lands and their people from erasure."

Photograph by Darren Aronofsky

Photograph by Darren Aronofsky

Not long ago, Jannie Staffansson’s great-aunt fell through the ice in the Scandinavian Arctic and was never seen again. Unreliable ice is just one effect of climate change in the Arctic, a place where the impact of a warming planet is especially acute. Another is temperature swings that melt and freeze snow, icing over the forage that reindeer—and, in the Western Hemisphere, caribou—normally eat. “They are starving,” Staffansson said in Paris on Saturday. She is a member of the Sami people, an indigenous group of reindeer herders whose way of life she strives to protect. As she made clear, this is an increasingly impossible task.

Indigenous people from Indonesia to Alaska have come to the Paris climate summit in the hundreds, perhaps even the thousands, to defend their lands and their people from erasure. Those who have few ties to places are least likely to notice or care about the threat of climate change. Meanwhile, those whose histories, identities, cultures, and survival are most reliant on the particulars of a location are most likely to understand what’s really at stake. This conference is in part a battle between life and money, a clash between the people who believe in the immutable value of place and the powerful who focus on alienable commodities. While much of the world is fighting for survival, the representatives of a few rich nations and powerful interests are defending their wealth. That’s why they balk at doing what’s required to limit the earth’s temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

People from the Arctic and sub-Saharan Africa, from island nations and mountain villages, are all fighting to keep their cultures, their economies, their environments—and in many cases, themselves—alive. They are fighting to not become ghosts. When I encounter them here, they seem like the opposite of ghosts: their vibrant traditional clothing and the passion and directness with which they speak make the bureaucrats seem like faint, forgettable apparitions. (Even the officials who appear to be on the right side of history tend to speak in vague, abstruse language that can make you forget that what we’re discussing is genocide and annihilation.)     

Indigenous people at the conference are focused on the recognition of their rights, which in a recent draft of the evolving agreement was moved from the main body to the preamble, where it’s considered to be less meaningful. Another concern is the United Nations’s REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, which on its face protects forests, but does so in ways that may wrest control away from those living in them. One spokesman from Kenya’s Sengwer people, Yator Kiptum, recently told Justin Kenrick, a policy advisor from the advocacy group Forest Peoples Programme, that “trying to address climate change by making payments for supposedly locking up carbon in forests in the global south leads to governments and conservation institutions seeking to take control of the forests from the very people who have protected and sustained those forests for millennia.” 

On Tuesday morning, I attended a sunrise canoe launch by the Kichwa people of Sarayaku, a rainforest region in central Ecuador. Along the bank of the Canal Saint-Martin, I met a woman from the Lummi tribe who told me how climate change is affecting her homeland and way of life in coastal Washington State. Elliott Bay, she said, has warmed so much that salmon, which are central to Lummi culture and subsistence, no longer return to their waters. The Lummi had fought for generations to defend their fishing rights, but now their access to the salmon is being sabotaged—not by laws but by the impact of the dominant culture. “We are coming,” another Lummi woman told me, “to make a statement that the earth is alive.”

The Kichwa have been fighting successfully against oil extraction, which threatens to destroy their rainforest as it has done in other parts of Ecuador inhabited by indigenous peoples. The women had delicately drawn patterns across their faces, the men wore headdresses made of iridescent blue feathers, and their canoe was a magnificent dugout, perhaps thirty feet long, with a prow shaped like the narrow head of a hummingbird fish.

“For the first time in history, a canoe from the Sarayaku in Ecuador has arrived in France, the canoe of life,” said José Gualinga, the former president of Sarayaku. “We’re here with a message that we’re still alive and still fighting. We are keeping oil in the ground. We’re keeping our forests alive. People in the most remote places are doing this work.”

Why is it a canoe for life? “Because our first ancestors, the children of the moon, constructed this,” tribal member Mirian Cisneros explained, “and it doesn’t need oil. It is our symbol of resistance.”

It was both a beautiful and a wrenching gesture, an attempt to interject a vision into the negotiations happening in the fortified convention center far away. 

Think of the climate conference agreement-in-the-works as a blueprint for a machine with innumerable parts. Reducing the amount of carbon that goes into the atmosphere, and sequestering some portion of the carbon that’s already there, is an economic and ecological question that impacts nearly everything on earth. Almost all of the conference’s 195 participant nations have submitted their own complex proposals for how they will do it. Now comes the agreement about collective action and international interactions and money. That this many nations might actually agree on something with this many moving parts—fuel and energy consumption, forestry and agriculture, finance and investment—seems miraculous. While many outside the conference assert that an agreement won’t be good enough, insiders hope that the commitments can be ratcheted up as science and technology continue to shift what is feasible—or as growing devastation deepens motivation.

Meanwhile, the entire conference is trying to work around one rogue nation: the United States. Most countries would prefer that a treaty emerges from the conference, but the U.S. Senate is guaranteed to block any binding one, just as it did the Kyoto Protocol. A nonbinding agreement is being negotiated instead. Whatever terms the Obama Administration commits to will likely be undone in a matter of months if a Republican is elected president next year.

The language of U.S. obstructionism denies not only the existence of climate change, but also the value of people, places, and species. It’s a language that describes a dead world. But addressing climate change requires that we understand the interconnectedness of all things. It’s why the Lummi keep declaring that the earth is alive. 

Here in Paris, the vividness of people’s language often correlates to the intensity of the threats against them. “We have no time left for rhetoric,” Enele Sosene Sopoaga, the prime minister of Tuvalu, said Monday. “Any temperature increase beyond 1.5 degrees will spell the total demise of our and other island nations.” Barnabas S. Dlamini, the prime minister of Swaziland, spoke of a drastic drought destroying agriculture and ecosystems in his southeastern African country. Siaosi Sovaleni, Tonga’s deputy prime minister, said that his country’s “development achievement has been destroyed overnight” by climate change. These are people who would rather not become ghosts. They should haunt us and the powerful negotiating this treaty. They are doing their best to do so.

A dozen volunteers, mostly young Lummi men, carried the Kichwa dugout to the canal on Tuesday morning after the informal press conference. José Gualinga sat in the stern with a broad paddle. Three Kichwa women sat in front of him, including Mirian Cisneros, who periodically blew a curved ceramic horn. As the wooden boat with the long fishhead prow and the snake carved on its side glided through the waters, it and its passengers looked permanent, eternal, while the tall buildings of the city behind them looked fleeting and unreal. Speaking the day before on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, Thoriq Ibrahim, Energy Minister for the Maldives, had said, “COP21 will be the last chance the world will ever have.”

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