‘Defending life:’ Indigenous way of life imperative to solving climate crisis

“The future is a land to be protected.” Illustration by Futuros Indígenas, used with permission.

Earth Day on April 22 spurred debates about how to tackle our global ecological crisis. Global Voices spoke with Miryam Vargas, a Nahuatl journalist from Choluteca, Mexico, to help us understand what we can learn from Indigenous communities.

Vargas reports on environmental issues and has worked alongside her native community for more than a decade. She believes the key to climate and environmental emergency is found in Indigenous and rural communities, not in Western, urban, or “green capitalist” solutions. Vargas also wants to switch off the narratives of fatalism – “that we are all doomed.”

She is part of Futuros Indígenas (“Indigenous Futures”), a network of Indigenous journalists in Mexico who work to reframe the climate emergency on their terms. They tackle obsolete narratives about Indigenous people, development, and gloom.

In Futuros Indígenas, we have reflected on the fact that this [fatalism] does not represent what we experience in our communities. [Also] we are not the ones responsible for this crisis. We call on people to become aware that the climate crisis is due to very specific corporations. There are corporations that are taking over the natural resources of the entire planet.

For example, just 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, and more than half of all world emissions can be traced to just 25 private and state-owned corporations. The effects of inaction about climate change are dire for humankind and the rest of the species. Climate change is not only about fossil fuels — it also comprises damage to biodiverse ecosystems, deforestation, overconsumption of natural resources (including in the technological and fashion industries), industrial agriculture, and more.

By contrast, Indigenous people protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and are therefore crucial in mitigating the effects of climate change. For example, the Amazon rainforest makes more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. Vargas says:

In this change of narrative, we want to talk above all about the Indigenous and rural communities, re-center them and re-center how we are building life, how we are healing the territory and spaces, even where there have been extractive projects.

Vargas wants people to acknowledge that Indigenous ways of living are an example to follow if we want to solve the climate crisis and live in harmony with the environment.

We take back these narratives with hopeful words that bring back the courage that sometimes disappears with everything that has been happening. That we have a hopeful future, that we are succeeding every time we continue sowing, every time we continue protecting life, every time we continue organizing ourselves as peoples, and also every time we continue existing, that we are here.

What gives her encouragement is joy through traditions, art, and language. Language, in particular, is central to her community’s identity and forms an integral part of their fight to protect the earth’s ecosystems.

In several communities, we are even bringing native languages into the narrative change [about the climate]. This way, we are weaving ourselves even stronger because we speak deeply of our cosmovision as native peoples and deeply of what hurts us and of what makes us feel closer to the earth.

Defending life

Central in her line of thought is the defense of life (la defensa de la vida), particularly against what she calls “death practices in the land.” For her, centering the conversation on life means thinking in terms of coexisting with all kinds of biodiversity in a determined space.

When we talk about defending life, it’s about defending the living conditions [of biodiversity] in order to continue to exist, to continue to have a way to exist.

Yet, she argues that some developmental projects bypass biodiversity concerns. “There's no more water, no more earth, the air is contaminated. What's left of water or soil makes people ill,” she says.

Mines — used to extract and sell metals for technological appliances and infrastructure worldwide — pollute waterways, deforest, and ultimately harm the health of local populations, displace them, and contribute to social conflicts. Indigenous and rural communities in Latin America frequently protest the installation of mines, dams, and other large infrastructural projects, frequently putting their lives on the line. After denouncing the adverse effects of a gas pipeline, a thermoelectric plant, and an aqueduct on her community, anonymous attackers raided Vargas’ home twice in April 2022. 

“It is impressive to see how these rich lands, this other wealth, this other way of living, are seen as if they were a blank page ready to receive developments,” Vargas says.

Most of the industrial and agricultural produce in rural areas goes to urban centers. So, to reduce the negative impact of development, Vargas argues for city dwellers to reduce their consumption. She says:

As [rural] communities we can no longer live, literally, we can no longer drink water, we can no longer breathe, they are extracting everything that is generating our living conditions to take it to these places where they are generating lifestyles that absorb everything that could be useful for millions of people.

No need for solutions from the West

Most Western and Gulf countries consume many more resources than the planet can replenish. “These lifestyles are not functional,” Vargas says. “In our communities, in our lifestyle, we have been able to achieve a balance until now, and we must go back to it.”

For this reason, she does not believe that the solutions to the climate emergency will be found in the West and in cities, but rather, in rural and Indigenous communities.

The solutions to the crisis are not over there, in the global North or in the corporations, but in those of us who live here closer to the land, those of us who are growing corn and beans, and with these practices, we are healing the land from the industry, from the practices that have come to deteriorate all of our territory.

That is not to say that Indigenous communities in Mexico do not relate with other people from across the globe — far from it.

At the COP-26 conference in Glasgow last year, Vargas and her colleagues were bolstered by an international community of people with whom she could imagine other possible futures for the earth.

The discourse of nationalism will not be able to separate us, we are peoples who have been woven and united in all aspects. When we meet, we have many rituals that coincide in many senses and also, well, we take care of the land.

She concludes:

So, that is why we say, we are Indigenous futures. When everyone asks how we are going to get out of this crisis, we say, ‘here is the solution!’. We do not have to go far to look for it, we exist as living alternatives, we are building and transforming alternatives.

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