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Indigenous leader Txai Suruí speaks at COP26 opening ceremony

Youth Leaders Demand Socially-Oriented Solutions to Climate Crisis

With trembling hands, Mitzi Jonelle Tan, 24, stepped in front of cameras and microphones to speak at a COP26 protest in Glasgow (Scotland). The topic of the day was the loss and damage caused by the climate crisis, something the Filipino activist is used to seeing up close. The country faces about 20 typhoons every year — a quarter of the world's total.

While holding a cell phone with her speech in one hand and, in the other, a poster urging to overthrow imperialism, she asks about the fund promised in 2009 by rich countries. Starting in 2020, they were supposed to devote $100 billion a year to help poor countries transfer technologies and minimize climate risks, but this has yet to be fulfilled.

"This is not a solidarity fund or aid that the global North is going to give to the South. This is responsibility," he says. "These are reparations that need to be given, not only for emissions reduction, but also for adaptation and for managing the loss and damage that we have already experienced."

To Folha, Mitzi tells that she grew up with the impacts of the climate crisis, even without realizing that this is what she was seeing.

"Just being afraid of drowning in my own room is already a climate anxiety and a climate trauma that no one should experience. The Philippines, according to the most recent Child Climate Risk Index, is among the 33 countries at extremely high risk for the impacts of the climate crisis, especially for children. And no one should grow up in a world where you are afraid of not having a future."

This COP marks, for example, the eight years since super typhoon Haiyan hit, one of the most devastating ever recorded, which killed more than 7,300 people and displaced another 5 million in her homeland.

Criticizing the massive presence of the Department of Finance and the lack of climate experts in the official Philippine delegation, Mitzi calls this conference "a whirlwind of lies and greenwashing". The term refers to misleading environmental propaganda and has been used by figures like Greta Thunberg to define agreements that look promising but are not actually implemented.

"We have to be very critical when we talk about these agreements, because how are they actually going to happen? What is the plan for this resource to actually reach the native peoples, those who are fighting for the forest?," questions Txai Suruí, 24, a Brazilian indigenous leader. She was criticized by President Jair Bolsonaro for "attacking Brazil" after speaking at the opening of COP26.

Daughter of activists and studying law, she believes that there have been advances at the conference, like the record presence of indigenous people in the Brazilian delegation and the commitments already made by countries, such as the agreement to protect forests. But this is not enough.

"It's not enough for the developed countries to say that they are going to help the indigenous peoples in this fight against climate change and continue to encourage the destruction of the Amazon. Because when it comes to commercial decisions, they don't change and continue to buy meat that comes from inside [protected] indigenous lands."

Txai says there is still a lack of social movements sitting at the negotiating table and participating in the decision-making of the conference.

"We will achieve climate justice when we end social inequalities, because we are talking mainly about people. Those who suffer most from the consequences of the climate crisis are the most vulnerable populations — who are usually in the slums —, black people, indigenous people. So talking about climate change is, yes, talking about the demarcation of indigenous lands. And Brazil is going against this", she says, referring to bills that are being discussed in the National Congress, such as the one that establishes the thesis of a temporal milestone for the demarcation of protected areas.

The struggle of the Paiter-Suruí resonates with Helena Gualinga,19, who denounces oil exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Of the Kichwa Sarayaku people, she agrees with the importance of halting the advance of cattle ranching into the forest, but points out that there are other serious problems in the region.

"We usually forget what the fossil fuel industry is doing for my part of the Amazon. Not just in Ecuador, but in Peru. There is a lot of oil and mining in the Amazon, and this is contaminating the forest."

Oil extraction in the region brings, among other consequences, pollution, deforestation, and the risk of leaks. In April 2020, for example, the rupture of three pipelines spilled 15,000 gallons of oil into the Napo and Coca rivers. In addition, it obviously contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating the global warming impacts already appearing there.

"Weather patterns have completely changed. Heat waves and rainfall are more intense. We have been facing a lot of flooding that didn't usually happen in our part of the Amazon. This has left my community without houses, without crops for months. One of the biggest floods happened a year ago and there are still houses that could not be rebuilt," she says.

Helena says that she has seen her people suffering for so long that she had no option but to do something to try to change this reality. However, she believes that the presence of indigenous youth at the COP is important not only to draw attention to injustices, but also to propose solutions. "We know how to take care of the forest because we have been doing it for a long time."

Marcelo Rocha, 24, turns his attention to the outskirts of the big cities. Born in Mauá (Greater São Paulo, Brazil), he began to dedicate himself to environmental activism after experiencing the problems associated with the future of climate change — lack of water, basic sanitation, and housing — which have long been present in Brazilian favelas.

"It was everything we were already experiencing, we just didn't know how to name it," he says. "Everything that the global North fears already happens to us historically, but we are dehumanized. And, if we are lacking today, where are we going to be in the future of 2030, 2050?"

For him, the racial and climate agendas are rooted in the fabric of society. "The direct link between racism and climate change is to realize that this process of exploiting people is also exploiting nature. Just as they exploited black people, they are also exploiting nature."

Rocha advocates a historical reparation that accounts for all of this, turning numbers and documents into advances that don't leave the most vulnerable communities behind. "It is unison in all youth — black, indigenous, urban, rural — how much we need to think about agreements that relate to people's lives. To come up with policies not only from the environmental point of view, but also from the social one."

This story was originally published in Folha de S.Paulo on November 13, 2021. It was produced as part of the 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organised by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Centre for Peace and Security. 

Banner image: Indigenous leader Txai Suruí was the first indigenous person to speak at a COP opening ceremony / Credit: UNFCCC