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The twin crises no one can avoid—or allow to continue

by Darren Walker | Ford Foundation
Tuesday, 11 September 2018 07:15 GMT

Indigenous people from the Munduruku tribe attend a demonstration in front of the Justice Palace, requesting demarcation of indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest, in Brasilia, Brazil November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The same economic forces that worsen climate change also deepen inequality for poor and rural communities

Too often we talk about climate change and inequality as though they were separate issues. When we talk about climate change, our conversations tend to focus on the earth’s systems—rising temperatures and sea levels and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—and the megastorms they produce, like hurricanes and even the wildfires still raging in California.

When we talk about inequality, our focus is typically on social and economic concerns like poverty, jobs, and the cost of living.

But whether we debate particles of carbon per million, or the widening gap between rich and poor and inequalities based on race, gender, physical ability, citizenship and migration status, these global crises are actually the same conversation. To make progress, we must see them as inextricably linked.

The same economic forces that deplete natural resources and worsen climate change also deepen inequality for poor and rural communities worldwide. And the same systemic flaws that drive inequality—prejudice, discrimination, lack of political influence and disregard for human rights—leave these communities without the influence to protect the resources that we all need to slow climate change. 

Consider indigenous people around the world. Having faced generations of discrimination from colonial and post-colonial governments, these communities have been continually excluded from decision-making that impacts their lives and livelihoods. 

Even though indigenous people and rural communities have customary claims to two-thirds of the world’s land, they have ownership rights to only 10 percent. This disparity pits these communities against those who would ravage the land for profit, including illegal loggers, drug dealers, predatory corporations, and even government agencies driving massive infrastructure projects with little regard for human impact.

Meanwhile, those who defend the land put their families and lives at risk. According to Global Witness, in 2017 alone, 207 environmental defenders were killed while advocating for land and community survival across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

These ongoing attacks on forests and their defenders have implications for all of us. New trees, plants, soils and other natural resources on these lands soak up tremendous amounts of carbon and thus serve as a storehouse for greenhouse gas emissions. When these forests are cut down, enormous amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere, and this essential bulwark against global climate change is lost.

To think that we might address climate change without addressing the inequalities that perpetuate it is a grave mistake—almost as bad as denying that these problems exist in the first place. Fortunately, the communities most affected can also be the source of meaningful solutions.

Consider the Yurok Tribe in northern California, who are working on the front lines to make deadly forest fires a thing of the past. Yurok experts are training tribal members and state and local fire agencies to conduct controlled burns that remove undergrowth and make space for more fire-resistant trees to grow in its place.

Along with such customary practices, new technologies are helping indigenous communities protect their lands and their rights. With the help of organizations like Digital Democracy, indigenous people throughout the Amazon can map their lands and provide evidence when governments and companies engage in illegal activities.

In these ways and others, indigenous people are doing their part, managing their lands as a legacy of their ancestors and for the benefit of future generations. Now it’s time for all of us to help, to fight for the rights of these communities, and to see the connections between how we treat people and how we treat the planet.

Going forward, we must be mindful of those on the front lines of both crises. We must honor the experiences of indigenous people, of poor people, of women and girls who live in these communities, and learn to combine traditional practices with new technologies and tools.

We cannot afford to pay attention only to the most visible effects of global climate change, like the unprecedented fires. No matter our role in society, all of us have a stake in fighting the twin crises of climate change and inequality. To do that, we must listen to, lift up, and defend those most affected. 

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.