Indigenous women on the frontlines of climate change at COP26

December 01, 2021 Nia Tero Season 1 Episode 13
Indigenous women on the frontlines of climate change at COP26
Show Notes Transcript

At COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, world leaders gathered to discuss the future of the planet, the need to address climate change, and the actions required to do that, but not all of the important activity was occurring in official meetings. Meet several Indigenous women who gathered, marched, and supported one another both inside and outside of the conference rooms in Glasgow. We talk with journalist, filmmaker, and 2021 Ford Global Fellow Andrea Ixchíu Hernández (Maya-K’iche’, Guatemala); Indigenous and women's rights organizer Rosa Marina Flores Cruz (Afro-Zapotec, Mexico); Coordinator for the Pacific Network on Globalisation Maureen Penjueli (Rotuman, Fiji);  Executive Director of the Indigenous Information Network Lucy Malenkei (Maasai, Kenya); and Erandy Madena (Purhépecha, Mexico). Find out what is at stake in climate talks for Indigenous peoples and why women are often found at the forefront of Indigenous climate change work. 

Host/story editor: Jessica Ramirez. Producers: Jenny Asarnow and Tracy Rector. 

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

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[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: Hi all I'm Jessica Ramirez. Your host for Seedcast, coming to you from Coast Salish territory. Here at Seedcast, we tell stories from around the world about Indigenous ways of being. We do so with the purpose of amplifying Indigenous voices. So you can respond to the calls to action that will uplift the work [00:00:29] of Indigenous-led guardianship.


Theme Song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling. We are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united. We are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay… 


Jessica: [00:00:58] You've probably heard about the climate talks that happened in Glasgow, Scotland. Officially, they're known as the United Nations Conference of Parties, but in the news, you might have heard it referenced as COP26 or the climate talks. But either way, Indigenous peoples had a very big presence there.


[00:01:20] People like [Jennifer] “Jing” and [Victoria] Vicky Corpuz – who you've heard in previous episodes of Seedcast – speaking in forums with world leaders, demanding that Indigenous peoples are front and center in policy discussions about climate change. 


And then there were Indigenous activists who didn't have a ticket to what was called the “Blue Zone”, where official talks were happening, but they traveled to Glasgow [00:01:47] anyway. They slept on floors and showed up in the streets to make their voices heard. 


Indigenous peoples leadership is crucial for addressing climate change because their territories hold more than a third of the planet's most carbon dense natural forests and around 40% of the world's intact ecosystems. But they only have formal land tenure to 10% of their territories.


[00:02:21] And land tenure, it basically means who can officially use what resources. 


The results of COP26 were mixed before a lot of Indigenous peoples who showed up it wasn't about this one conference anyway, or any one particular moment. It was about the work day in and day out. The labor of people hoping that we can move forward on this Earth together.


[00:02:51] That labor is often led by Indigenous women. They are frontline responders to the crisis we are all facing on earth. And today we're going to hear from a few of these Indigenous women who showed up to COP26 and they came from all over the world. In interviews recorded by our executive producer, Tracy Rector –


[00:03:16] Yes, Tracy got to travel to Scotland! 


We began at an event called Cura da Terra, where around 50 women from the Global South gathered together.


Andrea Ixchíu Hernández: [00:03:31] My name is Andrea Ixchíu Hernández. I am a Maya-K’iche’, from highlands Totonicapán in Guatemala. 


Jessica: Andrea was one of the organizers of this event. 


Andrea: I am here because we are organizing spaces for Indigenous women to find each other, to strategize together, to heal together. We are organizing in a space that it's called Cura da Terra, because we receive a call that was coming from our sisters in Brazil, that was calling Indigenous women to be part of the cure. In times of climate crisis, [00:04:03] in times of pandemic, ecocide and genocide, we saw that the women that are defending the life, the water, the Earth are part of the cure and that we need to reunite and build better futures. 


Rosa Marina Flores Cruz: Um, my name is Rosa Marina Flores Cruz. I'm Afro-Zapotec, from the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. I'm part of the delegation of Indigenous women, defenders that it calls, um, Defenders of the Earth.


[00:04:35] And we are part of the network Indigenous Futures. We need that strength from the other women, um, around the world who are also, uh, grounded in the, in the Earth. And that is what we call the Cura de la Terra. And that's why we are here. 


Jessica: Rosa and many of the other women were heeding a call from Brazilian Indigenous leaders to be present in Glasgow. [00:05:06] She didn't have access to the negotiations in official meetings with policy makers. But she's still traveled across the world, along with many other Indigenous peoples to make their voices heard. 

Rosa: We are here in the COP because we are trying to bring the feelings, um, and the struggles, uh, that are in our, in our lands and in our territories. We are part of different movements and organizations of Indigenous people, um, that are working for strength.


[00:05:39] The Indigenous communities where we came from, uh, we are facing lots of different kinds of projects, mega projects of dispossession, megaprojects of green capitalism, megaprojects of fossil fuels and mining. It’s like, we have to, to make resistance about everything that it came from this colonial and economical system.


[00:06:04] And for us to came here to the COP was, was really difficult, was a really difficult decision. Because we knew we knew from, from the beginning that they were not going to want to listen to us because we are here to say uncomfortable things. We are here to say that some companies that are putting money in the COP, they are, uh, dispossessing lands in our territories.


[00:06:34] We are here to say that, uh, they are saying that they are going to give money to the Indigenous people, but we, we say that we don't need their money. We need [them] just top to killing us. So that's why we are here.


Jessica: [00:06:56] Inside the conference, there were people who have been in meetings like this for decades. 


Maureen Penjueli: We need to get really clear with political leaders about what's at stake. Um, so I think you will see there's been lots of protests inside the conference and that's necessary. 


Jessica: Maureen Penjueli has been actively defending environmental and human rights for over 20 years, but this was her first COP. 


[00:07:27] She was inside the conference and in the negotiations with the same determination as the activists outside.


Maureen: I am from a little island called Rotuma, which is probably the most northern island in the Fiji group. On the island there’s less than 2000 people. Um, we still speak our language, which is Rotuman. And our greeting is to say [speaks in Rotuman], which is simply a greeting about life.


[00:08:01] When you first meet people, it's the joy of seeing them. So you greet with life. 


Tracy Rector: Thank you. I appreciate that teaching. Um, you know, when you decided to come to COP, what were your hopes for being here? 


Maureen: I think being from the Pacific, one of my biggest hopes was really to see how oceans would feature in the COP process. It's still missing.


[00:08:34] So I think that's a, quite tragic at this point in time, in terms of the fight against climate change. Island communities from the Pacific, like elsewhere in the world, um, are frontiers. So we are the first to understand what climate impacts looks like and feels like. Saltwater incursions into freshwater lenses.


[00:09:03] Um, the erosion of places and spaces where people can live. Which people don't seem to understand that there’s climate migration. There will be climate refugees. And so the presence of Pacific people here has been largely being to bear witness to the climate crisis as frontline people who experience it in ways that perhaps those in richer nations don't see.


[00:09:34] Um, and really just share the experiences about what it means when we say climate crisis, it’s about an ex—it's an existential crisis for our people. 


Jessica: Maureen spoke with Tracy at the conference as it was drawing to a close. And, well, she described the mood inside the negotiations as depressing.


Maureen: Increasingly they're saying we should lower our expectations of what will come out from COP26.


[00:10:02] It's almost a betrayal again. You know, this idea that there is scientifically established, there is a moral, uh, impedement that the world has to fix this issue. But whether the political will is there, that remains to be seen. The disproportionate burden that, um, countries from the South – poor countries, developing countries, island countries, nations have to shoulder to really make this mean something, you know?


[00:10:41] Um, I think we are running out of time and people keep saying it, but it has to demonstrate through the kinds of actions and the decisions that come out. 


Jessica: One thing that did come out of the conference was a pledge from governments and NGOs, other non-profits including Nia Tero, to give 1.7 billion U.S. dollars to Indigenous peoples and local communities globally

[00:11:10] in their fight for land tenure. 


Maureen sees the potential, but she has heard a lot of talk over the years. A pledge of significant resources seemed like it could be a step in the right direction, but she had questions about who would distribute the money and when local communities would see it. 


Maureen: I think it'll come down to the agency of Indigenous people to really define, control, and figure out what it means [00:11:44] um, for access to those funds. 


Because a lot of Indigenous communities relationship with these kinds of funds, over-promising, Indigenous peoples are not, they're not fragmented by money. They're very aware of what it can do, but also aware of what bad things it can do. So, you know, the elders are cautioning, still cautioning. You know, so defining the principles, um, the values that will underpin it, these are very critical [00:12:20] in terms of the money and making the money serve the principles and values of Indigenous people, not the other way around. 


Jessica: I spoke to my colleague Chris Filardi about this. He's Nia Tero’s Chief Program Officer. And he said that those who made the financial pledges are working to design and implement principles and accountability in partnership with Indigenous peoples.


[00:12:47] Which he says would be a welcome and important shift. 


Maureen? She said she wants to see people around the world continue to mobilize to hold governments and NGOs to account and not get distracted by the big money. 


Maureen: I think the world forgets that what values Indigenous people perform every day as a public [00:13:11] good. You know, protecting territories, protecting sources of life, whether they are mountains or rivers or great forests or the great ocean. They do it every day as a matter of guardians, stewards to these territories and their contribution to the global community. My view is that $1.7 billion doesn't match what Indigenous people do to keep this planet living.


Jessica: [00:13:51] Indigenous peoples came to COP from all over the world and were building solidarity with each other. 


Lucy Malenkei: I look at my constituency, Indigenous peoples and local communities, and wonder all this being discussed, how will it reach our Indigenous communities? 


Jessica: Lucy Malenkei is Maasai from Kenya, and the executive director of the Indigenous Information Network. Like Maureen, [00:14:17] she was also inside the official talks in that Blue Zone. And she was one of the very few visible African women in the conference. She was also reacting to the financial pledges and thinking about the Indigenous peoples back home who she works with.


Lucy: We will take the message back and we will tell them, there is this money which has been pledged.


[00:14:42] And the first question they'll ask you, when will the money reach here? You know? So those are some of the things that you still have in your mind, I still have in my mind, thinking how do I, uh, um, you know, explain or how, how does it work after that? And of course they will always say that Indigenous people don't have the capacity.


[00:15:01] Definitely they do because for many years we have built a lot of capacity for Indigenous peoples’ organizations up to the grassroot level.


Jessica: A lot of Lucy's work is about connecting with people in her region, people who herd grazing animals and might move from place to place. And that's the work she was looking forward to doing [00:15:22] when she left Glasgow. 


Lucy: We will never finish reaching out to the communities. Every time you go to the community, there is another community you need to reach out because the population is, is you know, increasing. And that what happens is only they move maybe to another area. And so you need to go there. By the time you go [00:15:45] there, you come next time there is another group there. So it will never end. And so we have to keep on going, you know, going on and helping each other. Yeah. So that's, uh, a message I really say that I'm glad that we are having more and more friends working for Indigenous people globally.


[00:16:14] Back at Cura da Terrra, Tracy had one last question for the women there. 


Tracy: What are your hopes for the future? 


Andrea: My future is that we can still grow as Indigenous communities. That our autonomy, sovereignty respected. That we can grow healthy, with dignity and freedom. So that's what I hope for the future. 


Rosa: Oh, my hopes for the future are that we, we grow, um, together like sisters.


[00:16:49] I hope, I really hope to bring the recognition, uh, that there is a lot of Indigenous people around the world. To bring it to our – to my community, to my organization. When I, when I have the opportunity to come to places like this and then I go back and I told them, oh, I spoke with this Indigenous woman who lives in, in the, you know the Inuit, [00:17:17] for example, that they live in the ice. And, and my compañeras, the women there, they are like what? How they do that? And I then tell them, oh, there is people who lives, uh, between the trees in our really beautiful jungle. And it's like, oh my God, that's amazing! And I try to bring their voices to tell them that, just to keep [00:17:45] keep going their fight, and to keep going their lives. And that there is a lot of people around that is giving them a lot of energy also. So that's, that's my vision of future that all of these connections get stronger and stronger every day. 


Erandy Madena: [Introduces herself in Spanish as Purhépecha from Michoacán, Mexico]


Erandy: [speaking in Spanish]


Andrea [translating for Erandy] [00:18:29] So our hopes are that in places like this, we're talking about how to put the life at the center of our actions. To put the life at the center in our communities. Our hope for the future is also to keep thinking, to remain alive, that our ways of living and existing remain alive in a way that – and in order that we can heal ourselves.


Erandy: [continues speaking in Spanish] 


Andrea [translating for Erandy]: [00:18:52] I’d also like to say that it's important to remind the life at the center of our actions and our territories, to connect us with the land, to remember what is your connection with the land and the territory, and to support all the people that's also struggling to defend their lands and their territories.


Tracy: Gracias.


Erandy: Gracias.


Jessica: [00:19:23] Indigenous women went back to their communities and picked up where they left off, mobilizing back home, because this is what they do. They take care of their people and they want to enact action and change. You see, the work doesn't stop. It didn't stop when this global pandemic hit, it didn't stop when they flew to Scotland.


[00:19:46] And there is certainly no time for rest when all these people arrive home. Because until sovereignty is met and respect for Earth as a whole is given, the work – it just never stopped. The women who gathered, they see themselves as all being connected and they won't stop until we all win this collective fight.

[00:20:13] Indigenous people showed up with a message of urgency to COP26 and they left with the same urgency and a deep desire for more. With hopes that you will support their efforts and join the movement to protect Earth and the Indigenous peoples who have been doing so since time immemorial.


Theme Song by Mia Kami


[00:20:51] Thanks for listening. Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction.


[00:21:15] Their practices are one of our best guides for making Earth livable for humans and other species for generations to come. To learn more about Seedcast and about our work at Nia Tero, please visit our website, and follow Nia Tero on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Have thoughts to share with us, or like what you heard? Email us at


[00:21:45] This episode was produced by our senior producer, Jenny Asarnow and our executive producer, Tracy Rector, with production support from Aaron Oravilla and Chris Filardi. Thanks to Hackeo Cultural for inviting Tracy to the Cura da Terra event. Our consulting producers are Julie Keck and Rachel Lam. Fact checker, [00:22:08] Romin Lee Johnson. Theme song by Mia Kami. I was story editor for this episode. And I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez. And we look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon.


Theme Song by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united. We are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay.