Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

The Climate Crisis
“We have to decolonise and radically transform the world!”

Demontration against the climate crisis
Demontration against the climate crisis | Photo (detail): © Rajan Zaveri

The climate crisis is the latest chapter in a story that has been unfolding since the beginning of colonialism, imperialism and extractivism. Indigenous communities protect the key biosystems and carbon sinks of the planet, while living alongside these ecosystems. Now they are faced with increasing violence. Suzanne Dhaliwal speaks about her fight for climate justice.

By Suzanne Dhaliwal

The climate crisis is the latest chapter in a story that has been unfolding since the beginning of colonialism, imperialism and extractivism. The key biosystems and carbon sinks of the planet, such as the Amazon and Boreal forest have been home to Indigenous communities since time immemorial. This relationship and custodianship has allowed these vital ecosystems to flourish with innumerable species and alongside the communities that are now faced with increasing violence as they attempt to protect these ecosystems. These ecosystems have been in transformation for hundreds of years, however the changes that have taken place since colonialism are wreaking havoc, not only in these ecosystems but tipping the entire planetary balance into irreversible chaos.

My work for climate justice begins at the intersection of mental health, Indigenous rights, and extractivism, after witnessing the impacts that mining was having on Indigenous communities and also the key ecosystems, which keep our climate in balance. Over the last two decades I have worked to make the connection between the climate crisis, the devastation to biosystems and the violence of extractivism. This has meant working closely with frontline Indigenous communities resisting some of the most devastating extractivism on the planet, in the Alberta Tar Sands in Canada, the Arctic and Niger Delta. Within a generation, the communities here have witnessed the ecosystems and waterways that have sustained them for hundreds of years turned into wastelands and sites of ecocide now beyond restoration. This extraction has come at the cost of the sovereign rights of Indigenous peoples, which are meant to be enshrined in the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People’s and also in the numerous treaties and legal rights meant to be upheld between states and traditional peoples. 

Protection of Indigenious habitats

Indigenous peoples have born witness to the rapid deforestation of their homes and the planets precious hot spots as a result of extractivism, deforestation and illegal land grabbing. In order to resist this to protect their homes, cultures and the planetary balance, Indigenous communities have been utilizing a variety of modes of story-telling and a plethora of strategies to call for accountability to protect their homes, livelihoods, traditional foods and cultures and ecosystems that provide sustenance for the planet.

In response to the localised devastation of ecosystems, the contamination of waterways and illegal projects conducted on Indigenous lands, communities have sought to raise international awareness of the situation. Often the member states where Indigenous peoples live are in collusion with the extractive economies, corporations and banks driving the illegal and life threatening projects. Therefore, international solidarity and bringing global attention to the situation is vital to bring pressure onto the government and to expose the violation of Indigenous rights.

As the climate talks have been unfolding in Glasgow in November 2021, we are seeing that although the UN acknowledges the central role that Indigenous peoples play in the protection of key ecosystems, in the movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground, they are not centred in the climate agreement process of outcomes. We need to continue to deepen our climate literacy and understand these deeper currents and causes of the climate crisis to ensure that we are focused on protected key ecosystems, the rights of the peoples that protect them and attentive to the web of corporate and financial interests that are unregulated and continue to push us towards climate crisis.

Embracing the reality of the climate crisis

Climate literacy and this deep knowledge of the root causes of the climate crisis calls us to go deeper than the hyperbolic and surface ways in which currently the media deals with the crisis. Although we want to make people feel empowered and enable ways for personal action, it will set us adrift if we do not have deeper journalism and story-telling that connects our current crisis to these land movements and sovereignty struggles. The same can be said of activism, while protesting and mass mobilisations have a role to play, without sustained movements that focus on long standing resistance and contexts we risk gesturing to the mass media and performing on social media platforms without deepening the roots of our actions to the land and land based struggles.

It is crucial that we communicate the reality of the crisis, however we cannot let hyperbolic alarm bells stop us from reflecting and looking at our cultures of activism and the methods we are using and questioning them. We also need to be able to self-reflect on how our movements can replicate the power imbalances of the wider world, there needs to be means of accountability, redistributing resources and ensuring we are centring those on the frontlines of the crisis and far-reaching solutions. This has been something sorely missing from climate movements and has been the reason why I have brought philosophy, art and social sculpture to the core of my activism, to breathe self-reflection, questioning of forms and deep thinking on our movements into spaces.

When we centre people who have been living through extractivism, land grabs and colonial violence, we realise that many of the future scenarios that we fear are already a reality for many people. We see sites of ecocide and those impacted by massive climate catastrophes have also had to respond to some of the worst outbreaks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we have seen the need to develop rapid response networks of mutual aid and humanitarian responses to the impacts of super cyclones all at the same time. It is crucial that our compassion and empathy reach those contexts already impacted and this means we need a more global climate media capacity and sharing of communication. These are all the requirements of a communicative, media-based and creative response to the climate crisis that will need to be resourced and developed from a humanitarian response.

Decolonisation of thinking

In the last few years since the outbreak of the pandemic, I have seen how deeply the need for creative, empathetic and innovative communication is there. A communication not dictated by the current metrics of media, which are focused mainly on celebrity activism, eco-influencers and Western solutions and impacts of the crisis. We need a decolonialised response. Communities have relied on using social media to direct mutual aid and educate and share information on the crisis and we need to ensure that more people not only have access to that information but also have the capacity to produce those messages.

With the Convention on Climate Change agreement coming out of Glasgow in November 2021 we have to remain very vigilant and remember that the biggest cause of the climate crisis is the on-going extraction of fossil fuels. However, there are no mechanisms in the climate agreement to protect territories from unregulated extraction and the violation of Indigenous rights.

We will need to remember that we need a diversity of strategies, like an ecosystem of strategies, to address the climate crisis and we cannot put all of our eggs in one basket. We need to stay close to the land and those who have been alerting us to the changes and devastations to the land that has brought us to crisis. We also cannot solve the climate crisis with the mentality that created it. Therefore, we will all need to go through this transformation of decolonisation, to ensure we protect the land, challenge ourselves to continue to understand the root causes of the crisis and to commit to the deep transformation that undoing colonial violence takes to set us on a healing course for our global community, the climate and planet.