A Crisis Felt Around the World

2016 was a dark year for anyone paying attention to the gathering storm of climate change and social breakdown, and the change of calendar year does not mean a change of direction.

Perhaps most worryingly, the prospects of averting a fully-blown climate catastrophe are narrowing. According to some counts, we may only have a little over a year of emissions-as-usual left before we lock in 1.5°C warming — beyond which lies global chaos. Only slightly higher chances exist for staying below 2°C warming, as concentrations of carbon dioxide have surpassed 405 ppm.

Photo Credit: Timo Lieber. Check out his beautiful but troubling work in the Arctic here

At the earth’s poles unseen changes are already unravelling. Human beings have never experienced a world with so little sea ice in the North Pole. The thawing of permafrost in the Arctic is also allowing methane to leak into the atmosphere and buildings to sink into the ground. Mark Serreze, a leading geographer specialising in the Arctic wrote: “I have concluded that what has happened over the last year goes beyond even the extreme.” On the South Pole, growing ice cracks have forced the British Antarctic base to shut down.

In spite of the need to end fossil fuel extraction, oil majors have announced a spree of new acquisitions and exploration, while the World Bank continues to intensively fund fossil fuel infrastructure. In spite of the need to stop deforestation and restore ecosystems, the world’s remaining intact forest is being lost at an alarming rate, with 7% of it cleared since 2000 and with record forest loss in Brazil, Russia and Canada.

The human toll is hard to fathom — last year air pollution killed over five million people — and the costs are disproportionately borne by the world’s most vulnerable. Meanwhile, the eight richest men in the world have as much money as the 3.6 billion poorest people.

But even in the darkest hour, hope looms on the horizon. Across the Arctic Circle, Indigenous Peoples are coming together to resist climate change and threats to their culture. A major mobilization on climate change has been called for April 29th in Washington as the climate movements seek to be part of a new wave of collaborative, intersectional resistance.

Photo Credit: Wonkette. The Women’s March in DC attracted hundreds of thousands of people, but received some critique from Black and Indigenous Women for a lack of intersectionality in the organising structure.

But as the resistance grows, we must also work to make sure that the solutions we pose to the climate crisis do not end up entrenching existing injustices. For example, investigations by the Washington Post into the supply chains of lithium-iron batteries, a crucial component of electric cars and renewable technology, revealed major human rights violations and environmental pollution taking place in Congo, Bolivia, and China.

Similarly, as the oil industry faces a major crisis, with record-low profit margins, and some energy companies drop coal assets, we should support the key demand from labour movements that the rapid transition out of a high-carbon economy ensure justice and security for affected workers and communities.

AFRICA

As a continent, Africa is disproportionately impacted by climate change. 2016 saw many African countries suffer crippling droughts and these have persisted into 2017, with much of Eastern Africa currently experiencing severe drought, leading to dire food shortages. The UN has already warned of a possible famine this year in Somalia as a result. In Madagascar, many families are already in slow starvation with over one million people in need of emergency food assistance.

Photo Credit: Somali Land Monitor. The drought has left millions hungry and killed large percentages of livestock.

To make matters worse, inflation in Uganda is expected to rise along with the price of staple foods. Under such circumstances, Kenyan mothers have been forced to boil wild tubers — which are toxic — for hours on end, simply to give their children the hope of some relief from their hunger. Some herdsmen have run out of hope as the drought kills their livestock: there are harrowing reports of suicides which echo the widespread practice of destitute Indian farmers. The situation looks to be getting worse as industrial agriculture and tourist resorts use valuable water resources, leading to a mass die-off of livestock and wildlife.

Although the people and the land thirst for water, when the rains come they actually lead to further hunger. In Zimbabwe heavy downpours followed the worst drought in 25 years, washing out nutrients from soils meant for growing the staple crop maize and the cash crop tobacco. In general a coping mechanism is to restore wetlands and reduce deforestation, but countries like Uganda and Senegal are struggling to do so. Instead, the acquisition of lands for oil development and carbon trading schemes further threatens the food supply of local populations.

Photo credit: Zim News. Floods in Zimbabwe have killed many crops, leading to increased hunger.

Leading the fight against land grabs are women. In Senegal, women are developing apps, changing the law, and reclaiming farm land, while in Mali a new law may see 10% of government land allocated to women farmers. Nigerian communities using legal avenues to claim compensation for damages by ExxonMobil were awarded $32 million, but unfortunately such victories take place against a backdrop of impunity; Royal Dutch Shell, despite being ordered by courts to undertake clean-up operations in the aftermath of the Bodo oil spill, has yet to begin.

ASIA & PACIFIC

Following the shocking news last year that much of Great Barrier Reef is bleached beyond recovery, this month new research claims that almost 75% of Japan’s biggest coral reef has died from bleaching.

In India, climate change is depleting groundwater storage and the states of Jammu and Kashmir are bearing the brunt of the most prolonged drought in years. In Thailand, powerful floods submerged entire villages, taking the lives of 25 people while in the Philippines, torrential rain triggered floods in Cagayan De Oro.

While massive human displacement as a result of climate change is often seen as a future problem, in Mongolia the confluence of climate change and economic factors has already driven hundreds of thousands of people from the country’s steppe. Half a billion people in China are blighted by devastating air pollution and as a result thousands of “smog refugees” are already fleeing. This follows plans from the government to relocate over 1.4 million people away from geological disaster hotspots.

Photo Credit: Guardian. Indigenous activists are gearing up for a major battle against the Carmichael coal supermine, which threatens many communities as well as the dying Great Barrier Reef.

Of course, communities across Asia and the Pacific have been resisting the destruction of their environments and advancing people’s solutions for a long time. January 2017 was no different: civil disobedience plans against the proposed Adani coal mine project in Australia continue to escalate, with Pasifika activists calling out Australian climate change ambassador for his rank hypocrisy; Burmese communities are resisting the expansion of destructive palm oil plantations as over 1.8 million acres of land are conceded to agribusiness companies; and protests continue in Bangladesh against the Rampal coal plant, in the face of strong police repression. A global day of action in solidarity with local communities in the Sundarbans was held January 7th. Pacific Island government leaders also called on Donald Trump to visit their countries to see the impacts of climate change of what he describes as a hoax.

In further proof that people power can win, the Chinese national energy regulator has ordered provinces to stop over 100 coal-fired power projects and in Indonesia the government has recognized Indigenous customary land rights, a major victory for the country’s Indigenous movements. Meanwhile the Chinese solar boom continues, with the equivalent of three football pitches worth of solar panels being installed every hour.

CENTRAL & SOUTH AMERICA

Gargantuan fires have caused one of the worst disasters in Chilean history, swallowing entire villages and costing eleven lives. Vineyards, forests, farmlands and lives have been ravaged by the flames. Temperatures have regularly surpassed 40°C, smashing the country’s all-time heat record by reaching 45°C. In Argentina, similarly beset by forest fires, reports have emerged showing how agribusiness has fuelled a boom in deforestation.

Photo Credit: Kamikia Kisedje. Sonia Guajajara, executive coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous People (APIB) at a protest in Brasilia.

In Brazil’s north, inhabitants of quilombos (autonomous communities descended from freed slaves) are resisting monoculture eucalyptus plantations from taking their land and creating a “green desert”. Elsewhere in the country the Guajajara and Ka’apor peoples are stepping up the fight against illegal logging and mining. Meanwhile, the government has ceased its formal demarcation of land for Indigenous communities, a cause for concern as extensive land-grabbing is contributing to mounting violenceacross Central America.

In some good news from the struggle against top-down “development” projects, Costa Rica’s supreme court has struck down a hydroelectric project over its failure to consult with Indigenous populations, while a Guatemalan court halted the construction of a dam in Alta Verapaz over a similar failure. Similarly, the Colombian government has denied a permit for oil drilling in the area of Putumayo, after concerted opposition from local Indigenous communities, and in Ecuador, the Ministry of the Environment ruled against the Ministry of the Interior, blocking the shutting down of environmental organisation Accion Ecologica. Ecuadorian Indigenous leaders also won a case in Canadian courts to sue Chevron for $12 billion in damages; the company had previously been ordered by Ecuadorian courts to pay $8 billion but refused to comply.

EUROPE

Even Fortress Europe for all its wealth and expertise is not immune to the impacts of climate change: a new study has forecast that glaciers in the Alps and Pyrenees will melt, while drought and crop failure plague the Mediterranean and severe storms and floods batter the Atlantic coast.

In spite of this, the European Parliament voted in favour of advancing an EU-Canada “free” trade agreement, named CETA, which many opponents say will help weaken environmental legislation and facilitate the export of tar sands, allowing the CEOs of fossil fuel corporation to earn even more money, as BP’s Bob Dudley did — making £14 million, roughly double what BP contributes towards climate change solutions. For all their greenwashing, big European banks are still funnelling millions into destructive palm oilprojects, fuelling deforestation.

Photo Credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace. Forests are cleared in Indonesia by multinational palm oil companies, threatening people, ecosystems, biodiversity, and the climate.

Opposition is strong, however, and everywhere the extractivists show up so does the resistance. In England, Robin Hood’s army has returned from medieval times to defend Sherwood Forest against the fracking barons hoping to drill, while protests greeted the annual meeting of Lonmin, the mining company responsible for the Marikana Massacre. Nigerian communities continued their fight against Shell in a London court, hoping to eventually be able to sue for damages arising from oil spills caused by the company.

After a long struggle from villagers and campaigners, Romania’s government is now seeking UNESCO World Heritage status for Rosia Montana, a Carpathian village under threat from gold mining. In yet more examples of government giving in to public pressure, the Irish Parliament voted to divest public money from fossil fuels, German legislators have voted to ban the internal combustion engine by 2030, and Sweden has pledged to phase out greenhouse gas emissions altogether by 2045.

Private institutions are also feeling the pressure. In France, Société Générale has pulled out of financing the controversial TJB2 coal project and Crédit Agricole face pressure to follow suit. The world’s largest museum, the Louvre, has come under pressure for its sponsorship by oil and gas major Total.

Solutions are on their way: a major solar plant is being planned in the Chernobyl disaster’s exclusion zone, and Dutch trains are now running on 100% renewable energy. EU leaders are likely to turn to China to fill the diplomatic void left in international climate change policy after the US either leaves or is quarantined during Trump’s reign.

NORTH AMERICA

In a week that shook the world, Pollutocrat-in-chief Donald Trump took office amid the biggest street protests since the Vietnam war. Among a host of other crimes, he has filled his new cabinet with people who are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, including former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

Already Trump has signed a flurry of executive orders which threaten to send us over the edge into climate chaos, including reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. He is also expected to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. At the same time, the House of Representatives killed an SEC requirement for extractive companies to disclose payments to foreign governments.

Photo Credit: Standing Rock Rising. In Trump’s first week, militarised police moved in to Standing Rock camp as an Executive Order revived both the KXL and DAPL pipelines.

As dystopian as Trump’s regime seems, there has already been a huge surge in organised resistance efforts, with many struggles breaking out of their silos to work across traditional divides, as the Women’s March on January 21st showed. A general strike has been called, with many global solidarity actions also planned. Even scientists are mobilizing against Trump.

Both grassroots direct action and legal action are being directed against the polluters. In Louisiana, resistance is mounting to the Bayou Bridge pipeline, and in Texas, water protectors are locking themselves to pipe-laying equipment building the Trans-Pecos pipeline, while a Massachusetts judge ordered ExxonMobil to hand over 40 years of climate research.

Loss of Comrades

Emilsen Manyoma was stabbed and shot.

2016 was a devastating year of loss for communities leading the resistance against extractive industries. 2017 continued the worrying trend. A new report named Honduras as the most dangerous place to defend the environment. 120 leaders have been killed in Honduras since 2010, with many of the murders being linked to political elites.

Other Latin American countries are not much safer, and this year we have already lost many comrades.

Aldemar Parra Garcia

Afro-Colombian rights defender and peace activist Emilsen Manyoma and her partner Javier Rodallega were found murdered in Buenaventura, Colombia. The activist death toll continues to rise in Colombia where eight people have been killed this year. Among them: Olmedo Pito Garcia, an indigenous Nasa land defender; Aldemar Parra García, a community leader who worked to resist impacts of multinational coal mining in Cesar; Yaneth Alejandra Calvache, Hernán Enrique Agámez Flórez, and José Yimer Cartagena Úsuga, all campesino organisers.

Isidro Baldenegro Lopez won the Goldman Prize in 2005 for his defence of ancient forests.

In Guatemala, Laura Leonor Suarez, an environmentalist and anti-mining campaigner was shot dead in her home and Sebastián Alonso, a 72-year-old activist, was murdered by paramilitaries who attacked a peaceful protest against mining. In Mexico Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, an indigenous activist and winner of the Goldman environmental prize, was shot dead at a relative’s house.

Veronico “Nico” Lapsay Delamente was only 27.

Other regions also pose grave threats to environmental defenders. In Asia, forest defenders are often targeted with impunity, and many beloved activists had already been taken from us in 2016 — some of whom are remembered in the photo exhibit “For Those Who Died Trying.” Veronico Delamente, a Mamanwa tribal leader and anti-mining activist, was gunned down in the Philippines this month, while five indigenous Orang Asli anti-logging activists were attacked and arrested in Malaysia.

Finally, though he died of natural causes, the loss of Arthur Manuel, a tireless defender of Indigenous rights, will be acutely felt in Secwepemc Territory (British Columbia).

Arther Manuel