Art credit: Ricardo Levin Morales
On this past Friday, April 22nd, people around the globe celebrated World Earth Day for the 46th year in a row since it began in 1970. Climate change and other environmental issues are currently at the forefront of politics in the United States with the upcoming presidential election; many conservative candidates have expressed sentiments of doubt that climate change is a pressing problem to address, and some have even gone so far as to assert that it isn’t real. However, groups like the National Wildlife Federation say otherwise with facts like the following: the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide is at its highest level in the past 650,000 years, 25 to 30 percent of animal species are currently at risk of extinction, and the deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate. Our future appears grim when we consider those numbers, and it does not appear that we as the general human population intend on slowing our consumption of natural resources any time soon.
Environmental destruction will eventually affect each and every one of us as it continues, but when we discuss its consequences we frequently neglect to acknowledge those who currently face poverty, displacement, and even death because of the rapid depletion of natural resources. Corporate greed and the accompanying lack of consideration and respect for the environment have disastrous effects for indigenous populations around the world, and it is past time that those populations are included in our discussions.
A contemporary example of environmental damage can be found in what happened after the North American Free Trade Agreement (or NAFTA) was signed by the United States, Canada, and Mexico in January, 1994. The intention of the agreement was to increase wealth and trade competition between the three nations, and while both of those goals may have indeed been achieved to a certain extent, the effect that it had on the environment is largely overlooked. Mexico has had a history of indigenous people being robbed of their land by various entities including both their own government and the United States, and NAFTA continued that pattern of inequality. Previous to the agreement, certain areas of land explicitly belonged to farmers (largely of indigenous descent). Because of NAFTA, prices for corn (Mexico’s primary crop) in the United States fell drastically and many farmers’ lives and economic security were thus endangered when they were forced to migrate into more urban areas in search of better jobs. Mexican farmers have protested the destruction of their land, but their criticisms have been ignored and the depletion of their terrain continues to this day without acknowledgement by those who benefit most: the United States. Many of these Mexican citizens consider the land to be sacred and have mobilized to defend long-standing traditions that cultivate the utmost respect for natural resources. When nations like the United States disrupt those traditions, they undoubtedly are perpetuating a colonial history defined by its disrespect for those who were there before them. Mexico is certainly not the first nation in which governments have failed to pay any mind to the value of land; we can consider the relationship between white colonists and Native Americans, which continues to produce a dynamic that is undoubtedly fraught. Based on this example, it would appear that globalization creates relationships between nations that are riddled with disparities — ones in which the historically powerful continue to prosper from unchecked harm to others.
There exists an equally dangerous situation for environmental activists in South and Central America. Indigenous leaders are currently faced with the threat of being killed for speaking out against the destruction of their homes due to deforestation by recognizable brands/corporations such as McDonald’s, Walmart, Target, and many, many more. Peru and Brazil are among the most severely affected countries, primarily because of the fact that many of the aforementioned corporations do not to adhere to any regulations that have previously been put into place. In places like Peru where diseases such as cholera continue to threaten much of the population, corporate refusal to comply with environmental regulation also results in the contamination of water supply, making it very difficult to eradicate diseases that require clean water for a cure.
When it comes to indigenous resistance against corporate interference with their land, the leaders of their groups are denied a platform at conferences and other gatherings where their voices might be heard. Any of their protests against environmental destruction are diminished, rejected, and silenced. When so many people remain unaware of the consequences of corporate intervention and globalization, it becomes very difficult to see the nearly endless ways in which iconic brands in our lives are explicitly part of the problem. Pressure to be conscious of the environment is disproportionately placed upon those who are not largely responsible for its degradation; while it is certainly valuable to do things like recycling whenever possible, utilizing methods of transport such as biking, walking, and public transit, and etc., it is also incredibly harmful to be unaware of ways in which environmental justice is necessitated by the devastating habits of corporations whose capabilities exist on a significantly grander scale. Accountability for climate change and violation of indigenous rights absolutely must be placed upon those entities that have ignored the wellbeing of both the environment and human beings for decade after decade.
When we discuss climate change, it is essential that we not only consider the health of the planet, but also the dangerous situations that indigenous people face every day because of the destruction of their homes and their resistance to corporations and agreements that continue to perpetuate standards of colonial oppression. Everyone undoubtedly has a responsibility to care for the earth, but small-scale individual consciousness is not enough to change a dynamic in which lives are lost in favor of gaining wealth and power.