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“The REDD train is going pretty fast and it’s left us at the station”: Interview with Tom B.K. Goldtooth

Interview with Tom B.K. GoldtoothInterview with Tom B.K. Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, co-chair and co-founder of the Environmental Justice Climate Change initiative and co-chair of the Honor The Earth campaign in the U.S.
December 2008, Poznan

REDD-Monitor: Please explain why you came to this climate conference in Poznan.

Tom Goldtooth: This COP has been very important for our network to participate in. The Indigenous Environmental Network, which is part of the Durban Group for Climate Justice, has a strong opposition to any carbon market solutions related to global warming, including forest carbon offsets. Throughout the years we have consulted with spiritual elders and knowledge keepers of our traditional indigenous ways about the concepts of trading air, privatising and selling the atmosphere, and they have said this is a corruption of the sacred. We don’t think these market regimes are viable solutions. There are just so many unanswered questions about whether or not the economics or the western science is right in these proposals. The risks are too high for Indigenous Peoples to start embracing any programmes like this. There are a lot of grey areas. We have heard Indigenous Peoples from forested areas of the global South tell us they get the feeling that these REDD initiatives are being tested out in their backyard with no guarantee that these regimes would recognise their Indigenous rights and rights to the land and forests.

So, it was a priority on our network’s agenda to support the voices of people of the forested areas who are resisting the forest carbon offset developments within the REDD initiatives. The voluntary fund or fund-based approaches of REDD will only be a tiny percentage of REDD and from what I understand will not be economically competitive. The carbon offset-market will be the dominant component of REDD. It is mainly the REDD discussions that has caused many of our Indigenous Peoples to have a critical mind of these market mechanisms being forced upon our communities. That is why our indigenous network is here at the UNFCCC in Poznan, to provide this voice of resistance. The REDD discussion has been very divisive for Indigenous Peoples.

Another UN body that we participate in is the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and for three years in a row, we have made interventions about the dangers of these carbon trading regimes. One example was an intervention at the Permanent Forum that the World Bank’s Carbon Prototype Funds should not be supported. We’ve been flagging this within the Permanent Forum and getting broad support from our indigenous communities who were previously pretty much unaware of these initiatives.

Our network’s expertise is in environmental justice, environmental protection, environmental policy, energy, mineral extraction, climate, water, toxics, biodiversity and we’ve been doing this since 1990. We’re invited into a lot of indigenous meetings, locally, national and internationally, mainly because of our expertise in these issues. Domestically in the U.S., we don’t get any federal funding and we don’t apply for federal funding, all our funding is from private foundations and individual donations. We are a grassroots group with indigenous affiliates from throughout North America and we network with indigenous groups from throughout the world.

So coming to the COP here in Poznan was part of our strategy to help support our indigenous brothers and sisters in forested areas in the Global South, who are really getting pressured and surrounded by the brokers of REDD. They’re not only pressured to support REDD by the NGO brokers such as The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund, but also pressured by their own respective governments with support by the World Bank.

We’ve been keeping watch of these REDD consultations and outreach meetings with Indigenous Peoples taking place throughout the world. The word “consultation” is a very serious term that often has been exploited when it comes to our communities – North and South. Under the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, which is framed within the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, our communities have a right to be fully informed and understand what REDD is and all its components. In the history of our worldwide indigenous movements, consultations have been more about manipulation. Definitely this has been the situation with World Bank consultations. I personally talked to some of the people who’ve been to these meetings, both consultations and trainings, and I asked them how did they talk about carbon trading, forest offsets and carbon rights? How did they talk about the carbon market funding and trading of carbon credits, did they explain where the money comes from? And many of them have said, “No, that was never explained, other than that there’s big benefits, that the World Bank was making these investments, that we will get money.”

On one hand, some Indigenous Peoples feel proud that their traditional knowledge is going to be recognised and they can even get paid for it. But when you ask them about presentations surrounding putting a market value on your trees, a market value on biodiversity, many have said to me, no, they didn’t hear anything about that. Were property rights talked about? They told me no, the promoters of REDD never really talked about property rights to the forests, but yes, they often said any concerns we have will all be worked out in the process of developing methodologies for implementation of the programme.

Definitely with us in our network all the red flags go up because these are the same tactics that we’ve seen in the United States and Canada. It’s the same tactics that the mining industry and the pharmaceutical and agricultural seed corporations have used against our people. Basically what’s happening is it’s dividing our indigenous communities. Here in Poznan I attended some of the workshops put on by the NGOs who are pro REDD, who have been doing outreach presentations in these forest communities. I asked them about their presentations and how they presented on the mechanisms of trading air and whether this conflicts with the cosmovision, or spiritual teachings of their communities. In every case they said no, or skirted the question. I am sure this has been the case with World Bank supported consultations on their REDD initiative. It’s really difficult to come back around after someone has approached these communities, to provide another perspective that wasn’t presented. They’re not telling everything. It’s still pretty much one sided.

So that’s why we came to this meeting, to support our indigenous brothers and sisters of the forested regions in these discussions of REDD.

They asked me to come and help them, stand by them, because they are getting tremendous pressure to not speak out against REDD, to be open-minded on it and to participate in it, even though in their hearts they feel it is not right and is manipulative because of the big money being offered. Even here in Poznan, there is divisiveness amongst our indigenous participants with NGOs pulling our people to support REDD. You know, it’s kind of like what Bush does to Americans, creating this political atmosphere making a person feel “you’re either with us or against us”. I just hate that. The manipulation and all that that goes with it, especially when it involves Indigenous Peoples, rips apart our communities and our organisations.

You know, for years, we have been fighting in these rooms of the UNFCCC, demanding mechanisms for Indigenous Peoples to participate and have a strong represented voice. For Indigenous Peoples from the forested areas, it’s really hard for them to find money to get to these meetings. I know an indigenous person that is here and has come from the South, who speaks out against REDD. He told me some of their people are really afraid that they are going to lose funding support if they oppose REDD, or any other forms of Clean Development Mechanisms where carbon trading and offsets are involved. That’s kind of like economic blackmail. People shouldn’t be afraid to speak out.

Indigenous Peoples are not against economic markets, there’s a role for markets, but for our constituents, extending a market-based regime as a mitigation solution to climate change is not an option.

You know there has been consistent resistance by Indigenous Peoples within the COP meetings of the UNFCCC opposing carbon market mechanisms within the Kyoto Protocol. During the early years of the ratification and development for implementing the Kyoto Protocol, there was a push by many countries to allow carbon forests sinks into the Clean Development Mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol. It was at The Hague at the COP 6 in year 2000 where Indigenous Peoples resisted the inclusion of counting emissions reductions from carbon sinks such as forests. The debate over sinks was what sunk any agreements coming out of COP 6. This brief history is important to where we are at this COP 14 in Poznan. The tactics are the same. That next year, at Part 2 of COP 6 in 2001, in Bonn, Germany, political pressure by governments, large NGOs and transnational corporations forced concession and compromise. Previous to Bonn, many NGOs were aligned with the concerns of indigenous Peoples protesting so-called climate mitigation solutions such as carbon sink plantations and the carbon market with concerns these could create projects that could result in negative and adverse effects on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. That year is when non-Indigenous support from NGOs caved. At Bonn in 2001, the 3rd International Forum of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities on Climate Change, in their words “strongly opposed UNFCCC measures to mitigate climate change based on a mercantilist and utilitarian vision of the forests, seas, territories and resources of our indigenous peoples”. They felt these mechanisms conflicted and negated their traditional cultural practices and spiritual values. To this day, our network stands with these mandates from our Indigenous leaders that tell us the sky and our forests are sacred, they are not commodities.

That is why these REDD proposals are largely opposed by many Indigenous Peoples, not all, but most. To be involved with a system that defines something that we hold sacred, and that is the scared element of air, to be part of a neo-colonial system that privatises the atmosphere, to put a money value to it, creates resistance from our heart. These are the same conflicts that have arisen in other international venues such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity where there is struggle with accepting regimes that privatise and want to trade life and buy our traditional intellectual property rights to knowledge. It is a modern world that capitalises everything, that puts a monetary value to life itself, it is about ownership of life, it is about disrespecting life. I call it a corruption of the sacred, that’s what carbon forest offsets within REDD is.

REDD-Monitor: What is your opinion about what’s come out of the negotiations so far? How do you see what’s happening here in Poznan? I’m thinking specifically about what happened two days ago when the word “rights” was removed.

Tom Goldtooth: Our network has been involved a lot in lobbying governments and NGOs that we thought would support our Indigenous Caucus position to insert language into the outcomes here that recognised not only the full participation (I mean that’s what we ended up with, the recognition of the full participation of Indigenous Peoples) but also to try to insert language that would recognise and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples within the UNFCCC. Because that’s the framework for any international body that wants to seriously discuss issues that impact Indigenous Peoples.

The UNFCCC is talking about climate. Many of the issues are related to mitigation around the impacts of climate change and the cause of global warming involving issues like mineral extraction, oil development, nuclear power, water protection, access to water, right to water, food security, you name it we can go down the line. A centrepiece of this whole concern is preventing the biggest land grab of all time within the forested lands of Indigenous Peoples. The debate must be about property rights; customary land rights and land tenureship; and how this is defined within the discussions of REDD and forested lands. The insertion of strict language that recognises the rights of Indigenous People is very important here, because it’s not just about full participation. How can you have full participation if you don’t have rights?

Some of the governments here say that this is a technical conference that talks about the technicalities of mitigating and adapting to climate changes and how to address them and that this is not a body to address a rights-based issue. Some of these governments that are resisting a rights-based approach tell us to take this to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. We disagree with them on that discussion. When we talk about climate policy, we have to talk about Indigenous rights. We must inject human rights into all these issues within mitigation, adaptation and the negotiations beyond the Kyoto Protocol. They all involve our communities, our livelihoods, our right to land, water systems and these rights-based issues just aren’t being addressed.

Related specifically to REDD, let’s be clear that our participation here at the COP wasn’t just to put pressure on UNFCCC to adopt an indigenous rights language, or to just add the “s” on peoples and to say that this would make REDD acceptable. That’s not what we’re saying. It’s much more than that. It’s everything I have been talking about. I am not convinced these forest offsets and other carbon trading regimes are real solutions to mitigate climate change and global warming. Here at Poznan there are no serious and real greenhouse emission targets being negotiated. While we are here, fossil fuel development is expanding throughout the world, especially in the back yards of our Indigenous Peoples, North and South. Back in North America, we have one of the worlds’ most dirty oil called the tar sands being mined from our traditional indigenous lands creating water contamination, health effects and human rights violations. CDM’s, sinks and now REDD are just false mechanisms that prevent the industrialised world from moving away from a fossil fuel economy.

Our fear is that if we put all our cards on the table going for Indigenous rights language, if we don’t get it then we don’t have anything to fall back on. I mean right now, that’s our situation. The REDD train is going pretty fast and it’s left us at the train station. But this doesn’t mean we need to jump onto that train. But maybe we need to be involved on where those train tracks go and where they stop.

Our strategy is to mobilise with the grassroots of the world to create a peoples’ movement, Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous Peoples, workers, peasants, women, youth, small businesses, everyone that wants to listen and take action. The common people need to take back these world discussions on climate change. These negotiations have been kept captive behind closed doors of the big NGOs, the corporations and the world governments. NGOs, governments and corporations have always been revolving doors of employment for many of these people I have met in these UN meetings. One day a person might be working for a NGO, then next year they are working with the government or a corporation, but not for grassroots groups down at community level. That’s why we’re really working with grassroots groups to get involved with this.

REDD-Monitor: It seems to me that there are two things happening. One is that the UN is discussing REDD and, as you point out, it’s not going particularly well. The second thing is that the private sector is going ahead anyway with REDD. It’s not doing it by itself, it’s doing it with EDF, The Nature Conservancy and so on. What’s your opinion about this?

Tom Goldtooth: I’m really concerned about that. That goes back to this need to take these issues of climate change, global warming and energy policy and bring it to our communities, because people don’t know what’s going on. Even though some people discount the grassroots saying they don’t really care or that its too complicated, I don’t believe this. The common people throughout the world care about these issues, because they are all feeling the effects of this climate change.

I think that our Indigenous Peoples need to continue to educate ourselves around these issues and to speak out. We need to have a place at these COPs to organize, to bring our minds together and to have a formal voice. We need a special fund, with no restrictions to what we say, that would allow for representation and active participation of Indigenous Peoples from every region of the world to take part in these meetings. When we get more of civil society and the public involved, we can then develop ways to hold our governmental leaders accountable. Our grassroots, the public of the world, are the consumers of society and we can create consumer education and corporate shareholder activism to put pressure on the private sector to move to safer, cleaner and alternative renewable energy systems and energy efficiency. Within our industrialised countries like the U.S. we can create grassroots political will to create a new economic paradigm that reduces our level of consumption of energy and our dependence on a unsustainable fossil fuel economy.

REDD-Monitor: Do you see a potential positive side to REDD?

Tom Goldtooth: First of all I think that there should be some other ways to preserve these forests. We need to preserve these forests. The protection of the forested lands of the Global South is important and must be addressed. The best measures for reducing deforestation are demarcating and titling of Indigenous Peoples lands and addressing the underlying causes of deforestation. Global action must be taken to declare and enforce bans on deforestation and illegal logging.

The positive side to REDD is, well, I guess, no, I don’t see a positive side to REDD. I’m just not sold on an idea that using forest as a carbon offset is a solution. It allows the northern industrialised countries to continue to pollute and even increase greenhouse gases. It creates toxic hotspots and energy sacrifice zones such as the tar sands in Canada or the proposed offshore drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of Alaska. It creates the expansion of coal mining and coal-fired power plants within our Indigenous territories in Southwest U.S. creating compounding changes of climate, toxic and health complications for our communities. REDD provides an “out” for industrialised countries like the U.S. from seriously cutting their carbon emissions. REDD in many ways rewards those wanting to develop industrial tree plantations, the loggers and the agrofuel industry.

REDD is really a big issue that’s dividing our people left and right. Again, I don’t see anything good out of it. It’s born in darkness. I hope that it just goes away. But that’s easy to say. It has been said this REDD is a multi-million dollar market and along with other carbon trading regimes, all these market systems in trading carbon credits are projected to be a trillion dollar industry. This is an industry with no checks and balances for accountability to prevent fraud and the cooking of the books, nor assurances that this great experiment would even work in reducing the over flowing carbon pool on our Mother Earth.

Our Indigenous Peoples and local people of forested areas must be afforded the right to make their own decisions. But they need to be provided fair and balanced information on all the aspects of what REDD is and the potential of negative impact, not only to their local environment and their property rights to the forest and the land, but the indirect impact to Indigenous Peoples and local communities in remote locations where toxic hotspots are created as I mentioned earlier. The principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent must still be defined and implemented in countries that are still fighting against the rights of their Indigenous and Aboriginal Peoples. From what I have seen, REDD workshops and consultations in Indigenous communities have not fully informed these communities about all aspects of what REDD is. They haven’t met the standards of Prior, when many of the modalities of REDD have already been developed, with no Indigenous input. Has the introduction of REDD for implementation been Free? No, it has been tarnished with perceptions of manipulation, abuses of trust and unethical persuasion through funding restrictions for anyone that speaks out against REDD. REDD and other carbon offset and trading regimes must not be part of a forced choice scenario.

The humanity of our forest communities must be protected. Carbon rights must not be allowed to trample human rights. Even the UN REDD Programme released a report calling attention to the dangers of REDD marginalising the landless and potentially causing conflict, forced relocation and displacement of forest peoples. For all those people in the world that fight for human rights, we must stand united on these issues and resist programmes such as REDD.

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