In September 2019, the UN Environment Programme will honour Champions of the Earth, outstanding environmental leaders from the public and private sectors, and from civil society who have had a transformative positive impact on the environment. Here we meet previous winners of this prestigious award and find out how they still are making a difference in their communities and across the globe.
Joan Carling struggles to find the right words to convey how she feels about the fires raging across the Amazon, the world’s biggest rainforest and a vital piece in the complex ecological puzzle that sustains life on earth.
“It really… it just makes me angry,” the renowned indigenous rights activist said.
Carling, a member of the Kankanaey tribe in the Philippines, has spent more than two decades fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples and it distresses her to see what is happening to people who have long sought to protect nature in the Amazon.
“Even if the numbers are low, they are the ones who protect the Amazon,” she said. “It gives you a sense of helplessness.”
Carling has worked tirelessly to ensure the voices of some of the world’s most marginalized and isolated people are heard. In 2018, she received the UN Environment Programme’s Champion of the Earth lifetime achievement award, which she dedicated to her fellow activists across the world.
“A lot of activists, especially in the Philippines, saw the award as an affirmation that we are doing the right thing,” she said. “The champions of the earth for me are the indigenous peoples in the Amazon, who are standing their ground… It’s the indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world, standing their ground, (and) the faceless people who are struggling to protect the environment for humanity.”
Carling is well aware of the price to be paid for such selfless action. In February 2018, her name was added to a government list designating her a terrorist. She was taken off the list in January this year but the official harassment has continued.
Carling has now joined with other indigenous activists and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, to plan a global campaign to fight against the killing and criminalization of indigenous rights activists and environmental defenders.
More than three defenders were killed across the world every week in 2018, according to the latest report by Global Witness. The latest death toll highlights the ongoing dangers facing those who are defending their environmental and human rights in the mining, logging, and farming sectors as well as other extractive industries.
Despite these dire figures, Carling sees hopeful signs that the voices of indigenous peoples are increasingly being heard, while their pivotal role as stewards of nature is being recognized, as for example in this year’s landmark Global Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
A summary of the report, released in May, said that nature is declining at unprecedented rates, with one million species at risk of extinction and the foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life being eroded. But with transformative change nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably, it said, noting that indigenous peoples and local communities must be involved.
The assessment was based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources and also drew on indigenous and local knowledge.
Among its extensive findings, it noted that at least a quarter of the global land area is traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous peoples, and that nature managed by indigenous peoples and local communities, while under increasing pressure, is generally declining less rapidly than other lands.
The report concluded that regional and global scenarios would benefit from an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also said in a report this year that indigenous peoples have a clear role to play in fighting climate change, provided that their land rights are legally recognized and protected.
“That puts us at the centre of the global debate to find solutions for climate change,” said Carling, who is a member and co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development. But she knows the forces aligned against indigenous peoples are formidable.
“When we assert the land rights of indigenous peoples it doesn’t sit well with vested economic and political interests. We need to strengthen the global movement of people coming together against this kind of unaccountable power,” she said, citing the example of the student movement inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.
The mobilization of youth gives Carling hope but she worries that some global leaders are still dragging their feet, and time is running out.
“Every person on earth is now feeling the impact of climate change and if we continue with the present economic paradigm we will not survive the next 50 years,” she said.
“Leaders must... listen to indigenous peoples now and understand our perspective and how we value mother nature, not in economic terms but for the whole well-being of humanity and the environment. If we are just given the space and listened to, we can shift the direction of where we are going,” she said.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres agrees that decision makers need to do more. Ahead of a pivotal Climate Action Summit on 23 September 2019, he urged global leaders to step up to deal with a “dramatic climate emergency”, saying the world has the tools but political will is lacking.
Carling, who has attended some preparatory meetings for the Summit, hopes to see some urgent changes.
“Nobody is really standing up and saying, ‘this is the moment for us to act together in the spirit of global solidarity and action’. They are still confined to their own national interests. We need to go beyond that because climate change knows no borders, so actions should also be global.”
As some populist leaders, who some feel are showing too little interest in mitigating climate change, rise to power in several countries, Carling says it is time for citizens to tackle the growing divides by starting a dialogue and seeking to understand the other’s fears and concerns.
Change will eventually have to come from the bottom up and take account of the views of indigenous peoples and marginalized groups, Carling says. Decision-making on climate solutions should include those who are heavily affected and transform global economic and political power so it is accountable to the people.
Carling has helped set up the Right Energy Partnership with Indigenous Peoples that aims to ensure that renewable energy projects are fully aligned with the respect and protection of human rights, and provide at least 50 million indigenous peoples with access to renewable energy by 2030.
“A lot of renewable energy, like wind farms and solar farms, are in indigenous territories. However, the energy is not for us... It’s business as usual in terms of land grabbing, lack of equitable benefit-sharing and violation of people’s rights. Indigenous peoples fully support the just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and this should be in line with the protection of human rights and the principles of equity and justice,” she said.
At the heart of Carling’s belief system is the certainty that the people on the ground must be front-and-centre in the race against destructive climate change. And not because it is ethically correct to do so, but because they have the solutions.
“We are not just vulnerable groups; we are actors, contributors and agents of change… If world leaders listen to us, acknowledge the contributions we make, protect our lands and respect our rights, we can go a long way.”
This certainty that the solutions are there for the taking gives Carling hope.
“For me, there is no space to be pessimistic. I always try to see the bright side of things because otherwise, who will take action? That is the spirit of activism. We just have to persist and strengthen our movements for a better world.”