COP22: why climate justice must also be a struggle for sovereignty

Morocco (NI) – What would you die for?’ The question isn’t heard often at the UN Climate Negotiations, but it did break into the halls of power on Thursday 17 November. It was posed by indigenous youth delegate Niria Alicia Garcia Torres.’Tell me, what is it you would die for? And what do you stand for?’

These same questions are guiding the hearts of protestors on the treaty lands of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, USA. Members of over 200 tribes and thousands of allies have gathered over the past seven months to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline, facing off militarized police, sound cannons, rubber bullets, pepper spray and attack dogs to defend their lives, land and water from a 1,172-mile oil pipeline, which they call the ‘black snake’.

This is a struggle for sovereignty, for the rights of tribes to determine their own destiny

The pipeline is threatening the Missouri River, surrounding land, and Lakota cultural and burial sites. A group of Standing Rock Lakota youth ran to Washington, DC to deliver a message to President Obama in April. Their act of prayer kicked off camps that have captured the world’s attention, bringing to light issues of indigenous sovereignty and improper consultation after centuries of silence.

The struggle in Dakota is uppermost in delegate’s minds at the COP22 climate summit in Morocco. On Sunday 13 November, the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change released a solidarity statement. First peoples from six continents condemned the pipeline and stood with the Standing Rock Sioux and allies in their resistance.

The common sentiment here among indigenous representatives is that all struggles are connected. Solidarity crystallized around the international day of action ‘#NoDAPL’ (North Dakota Access Pipeline) on Tuesday. Youth delegate Garcia Torres stood with fellow members of the Indigenous Youth Caucus and hundreds of others by the 193 flags of the United Nations.

As protestors shut down banks funding the Dakota Access, the climate-justice community at COP22 took a moment’s pause from negotiations in Marrakesh to honour the courage of those on the frontlines.

Later, at sunset, a circle of nearly 200 people joined hands to encircle a smaller group of indigenous leaders. Prayer began with the soft words of Elder Francois Paulette of Dene Nation, thanking the Amazigh ancestors on whose ground we stood, calling in the four directions and permission of Mother Earth.

Sage invited in each participant as Kayla DeVault, SustainUS delegate from Navajo Nation, walked the inner circumference, carrying a smudge stick. In a stark departure from conventional protest actions at the UN, several ‘no camera’ signs surrounded the circle, and each passer-by who lifted a phone for a selfie was firmly stopped.

‘You are welcome to join us, but please don’t take photos. This is a ceremonial space,’ they were told.

Just 300 kilometres south of the conference centre another indigenous community faces a fight to Standing Rock. The Amazigh Ait Atta people of Imider have occupied the land around a valve to an industrial well that has drained their water for a Managem silver mine – run by a corporation owned by the King – for the last six years.

Five years on,’ said Moroccan activist Nadir Bouhmouch as he joined the prayer circle, ‘the tents of our protest camp have become permanent clay and stone dwellings as we continue to stand, sleep, eat and sing in the way of a mining corporation that has polluted our water and soil.

‘We should say that we hope your camp will flourish like ours, but it seems it already has,’ he added. ‘We wish you victory.’

The struggle at Standing Rock is a shining light in a dark time for climate action in the United States. But we should remember that this fight is not just about climate change, or fossil fuels, or even clean water. This is a struggle for sovereignty, for the rights of tribes to determine their own destiny.

As COP22 draws to a close, one solution to Standing Rock’s struggle would be to see their eight-tipi flag flying among thousands of others at a more inclusive United Nations.

It is also clear that with an incoming President Trump, the possibility of the US abandoning the Paris Agreement entirely, and the third consecutive warmest year on record, climate justice is ever more likely to be in the hands of the people, not the policymakers.

For those digging in for a North Dakota winter, the question of sovereignty, of the sacredness of life, runs much deeper than politics and negotiations. It boils down to two simple questions: ‘Do we stand for life? Would we die for?’

This report prepared by Morgan Curtis for the New Internationalist.