My view: Taking colonialism out of climate change
A lot of well-meaning people working to curb climate change are relying on very old models of getting things done across the globe. Specifically: colonialist models.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the United Nations climate summit, which took place this month in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. News reports say indigenous voices are being ignored.
This was anticipated. In an open letter to the U.N. before the summit, the Business & Human Rights Resources Centre and Indigenous People's Rights International wrote an open letter: "Human rights and climate action are increasingly indivisible and the need to transition to cleaner energies has never been more urgent. Yet this transition will be set up to fail if it focuses solely on being fast, and not on also being fair."
In our work at the Portland-based Green Empowerment, we've partnered with indigenous communities worldwide for 25 years to bring village solutions to challenges like climate change. As we advance clean energy access, we also focus on strengthening Indigenous peoples' land rights and protecting Indigenous-managed forests.
International reports have repeatedly stated the need to bring equity into the climate change discussion, especially as rural and indigenous communities in low- and middle-income countries are most impacted by climate effects. The 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated it this way: "The consideration of ethics and equity can help address the uneven distribution of adverse impacts associated with 1.5°C and higher levels of global warming, in all societies."
Green Empowerment is showing how to do that work. We only come if a village invites us. Then, a majority of village members must vote in favor of partnering with us. Local partners lead implementation. We are there to support.
We call it decolonizing development.
This approach is not only more equitable, it's also more resilient through global disruptions — like pandemics. We were already meeting remotely with partners in Uganda, Nicaragua and more. We used WhatsApp to share messages and documents. We didn't need to pull staff out of countries where we had projects because they are local. They live where they work.
In Uganda, we provided the financing, materials and training needed for electrification of a rural clinic in a remote area, providing 24-hour electricity to a facility serving over 40,000 people a year. In Malaysia, we are members of a consortium, advancing a rural electrification plan that centers indigenous communities and considers land rights and conservation key elements to the clean energy transition.
Leaders at COP27 know this work is crucial to effectively curbing the impacts of climate change, and some are acting. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, recently announced $11 million in grants to support indigenous and regenerative agricultural practices. But we need more — more politicians, funders, business leaders and activists to center indigenous voices and solutions. This can and should happen at all levels — from listening to indigenous leaders at the U.N. summit, to supporting local tribes in the Pacific Northwest on climate resiliency.
Indigenous people know what communities need. We provide the tools and funding.
Andrea Johnson is the executive director of Green Empowerment, a Portland-based nonprofit with board and staff locally and worldwide working for 25 years to bring clean water and renewable energy to last-mile communities. She lives in Southwest Portland.
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