Climate workshop stresses sustainability, indigenous knowledge

By Jodi Rave - Special to Today

PRIOR LAKE, Minn. – American Indian stalwarts of environmental justice recently met at a national workshop to write a milestone climate change declaration, clearly outlining a course on how to save the planet using indigenous science and knowledge.

Representatives from the White House also participated in the Native Peoples Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop II, a four-day event sponsored by NASA on the homelands of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Minnesota.

“In this Declaration, we invite humanity to join with us to improve our collective human behavior so that we may develop a more sustainable world – a world where the inextricable relationship of biological, and environmental diversity, and cultural diversity is affirmed and protected,” according to the declaration committee members.

The Mystic Lake Declaration was written by the descendents of indigenous peoples of North America who spent the last 14,000 years, and longer, living in a “green economy,” existing in harmony with nature. The declaration will be taken to a key United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen, set to begin in two weeks. More than 190 countries will attend the event where world leaders aim to create a global climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire in 2012.

The declaration was created by tribal college representatives, grassroots organizers and longtime environmentalists, such as Billy Frank Jr., Tom Goldtooth and Winona LaDuke. In all, more than 300 people from across the United States participated in the Native Peoples workshop, which ended Nov. 21 at the Mystic Lake Casino and Conference Center.

The climate change workshop comes at a time when scientists are warning people that global warming is happening much faster than most people realize. Indigenous people around the world, those most dependent upon the natural environment for daily sustenance, are rapidly experiencing the negative impacts of global warming. Conference co-chair Dan Wildcat of Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center refers to global warming as “global burning.”

Robert Zoellick, World Bank chief, said it was critical for indigenous people to be included in climate change talks because they were among groups most affected by global warming, according to AFP, a worldwide news agency.

As the Mystic Lake Declaration was being drafted, representatives from the White House set up a “listening post” at the workshop to hear community leaders talk about how the global climate crisis is affecting their communities. Karen Metchis, senior climate advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency and Maria Blair, White House Council on Environmental Quality, deputy associate director for climate change, will include information from the workshop in a national climate change report due in fall 2010.

Meanwhile, drafters of the Mystic Lake Declaration are calling for “a moratorium on all new exploration for oil, gas, coal and uranium as a first step towards the full phase-out of fossil fuels, without nuclear power, with a just transition to sustainable jobs, energy and environment. We take this position and make this recommendation based on our concern over the disproportionate social, cultural, spiritual, environmental and climate impacts on indigenous peoples, who are the first and the worst affected by the disruption of intact habitats, and the least responsible for such impacts.”

The moratorium calls for stringent and binding emission reduction targets, including reducing carbon emissions for developed countries by no less than 40 percent, preferably 49 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 95 percent by 2050.

During the four days that the Mystic Lake Declaration was being written, workshop participants contributed to the final document through panel discussions and written comments. A core committee worked on the statement from sunrise to late at night.

Declaration participants agreed to “assume our role in supporting a just transition into a green economy, freeing ourselves from dependence on a carbon-based fossil fuel economy. This transition will be based upon development of an indigenous agricultural economy comprised of traditional food systems, sustainable buildings and infrastructure, clean energy and energy efficiency, and natural resource management systems based upon indigenous science and traditional knowledge.”

The group also stepped forward to challenge climate mitigation solutions that falsely claim to save the environment, including “nuclear energy, large-scale dams, geo-engineering techniques, clean coal technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, bio-fuels, tree plantations, and international market-based mechanisms such as carbon trading and offsets.”

The only real offsets “are those renewable energy developments that actually displace fossil fuel-generated energy. We recommend the United States sign on to the Kyoto Protocol and to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

The group agreed the United States and other industrialized countries are too addicted to the high consumption of energy, a path that cannot be sustained by the Earth.

Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, will distribute the Mystic Lake Declaration at the United Nations climate talks. He will attend the conference with a 25-member delegation of American Indians representing a wide swath across the United States. “One of our goals is to elevate the visibility of Native people,” said Goldtooth. The declaration will “strengthen our voice.”

A common theme that surfaced during the workshop addressed the need to support and include tribal colleges in the ongoing dialogue about global warming. The colleges have scientists, traditional leaders and are a repository for tribal languages where tens of thousands of years of land conservation knowledge survive.

“The languages of indigenous peoples and nations are the repository of thousands of years of ecological knowledge and wisdom,” said Steven Newcomb, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land.” The U.S. government should put as much effort into revitalizing indigenous languages as they put into destroying them, he said.

Wildcat was among the declaration drafters who stressed the need to support and acknowledge the role of tribal colleges in the development of green economies: “We must end the chronic underfunding of our Native educational institutions and ensure adequate funding sources are maintained. We recognize the important role of our Native K-12 schools and tribal colleges and universities that serve as education and training centers.”

The declaration group agreed tribal colleges and students promise to play an important role in adapting to and addressing climate change, clean renewable energy technologies and in building sustainable communities.

Anthony Socci, senior advisor in EPA’s Office of International Affairs, said student work on climate change and adaptation stood out as highlights of the Native Peoples Native Homelands workshop.

“I was also impressed with the weaving of the cultural knowledge into their research,” Socci said. “It impressed me more so because the tribal college students, unlike the land grant colleges, don’t have the same kind of support. They are largely underfunded as a result. It is a remarkable achievement. It makes the work of those doing the teaching look pretty heroic.”
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