Climate justice is the right of the poor

by Fr. Shay Cullen

Climate justice march | Photo by Greenworks via Wikimedia Commons

When I hike into the hills and mountains of Zambales with the Aeta indigenous farmers, their children, and families, we are usually on a trek with the Preda fair trade team to plant grafted mango saplings, calamansi, or rambutan trees. It is in the mountains where the mangoes are certified organic according to EU standards. It is a great achievement for the indigenous people.

The Aeta people claim the mountains as their ancestral lands. Still, around the world, the rights of the indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands are challenged by mining companies and land grabbers supported by corrupt politicians and officials.

These mountains were once lush rainforests where the ancestors of the Aeta people (once called Negritos, their DNA traced back to Africa) lived and survived in peace as self-sufficient hunters and gatherers. They loved and respected their forests; they cared for the natural world, birds, and animals. The climate was secure, steady, predictable, and trustworthy for the past generations. The Aeta people knew when it would rain and when it would not. They knew where and when to hunt abundant wild boars and chickens, harvest honey, and gather fruits and berries.

They could dig up root crops like cassava and camote (sweet potato) and harvest mangoes and bananas. Having never met a human from outside their small family groups, they were healthy and had developed their own extensive herbal medicinal healing practice. There was discipline and order to life in the forests and rivers where they caught fish and shrimps. Their climate was fair and balanced.

That natural life in harmony with the natural world ended for the indigenous people of the Philippines and indigenous people worldwide with the arrival of foreigners. The first migrants into the Philippines after the Negritos had settled in the islands came from Indonesia about 5,000 years ago. Then the Europeans from Spain came when Magellan landed in March 1521. In 1898, the United States took over the Philippines by force from the Filipinos, who had overcome the Spaniards.

The Aeta indigenous people and the Filipino people suffered the previously unknown diseases brought by the Europeans. From the start of the colonial period came great climate injustice when the rainforests were cut down in 1945 to rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII. Then, severe climate change began in the Philippines. When the rainforest that once covered the entire archipelago was gone, only three percent remains; the climate began to change, and CO2 and global warming have continued to increase dramatically worldwide. Illegal logging continues until the present despite laws banning logging. There is not much left to cut down.

“The great climate injustice is that the poor of the world have to suffer significant losses because of the decisions of the wealthy elite that over-exploit the earth’s natural resources in developing countries for the benefit of the rich and cause 79 percent of the CO2 emissions that are hurting the poor.”

Climate change has brought more intense rainfall and more typhoons. They displace hundreds of thousands of people, and 80 percent of them are women, says the UN Development Program. There are many more droughts in the hot season and floods in the wet season. Damage to fruit trees by infestation by insects has increased, and pesticides now rule the agricultural sector endangering the health of the people, agri-workers, and consumers. Cancers are on the increase, too, as a result.

The great climate injustice is that the poor of the world have to suffer significant losses because of the decisions of the wealthy elite that over-exploit the earth’s natural resources in developing countries for the benefit of the rich and cause 79 percent of the CO2 emissions that are hurting the poor. The annual $400 billion government subsidies given by rich nations to oil companies to invest in oil and gas exploration will be better spent as climate justice compensation payment to the victims of climate change caused by the polluting activities of the rich, industrialized nations. All must see that climate damage is a justice and human rights issue.

Now that global warming is increasing steadily, who will compensate for the loss of the rainforests and the environmental and economic damage to the Filipinos and other people? This damage brought by climate change is a severe injustice and a violation of the rights of the people to a safe and healthy environment and food supply. Climate justice is a far and distant hope and an unreachable reality for indigenous people.

On our mountain trek with the Aeta subsistence farmers, we inspected the trees planted over the past twenty years and found that they had strangely blossomed out of season. They would bear few fruits, a sad result of climate change. We sat in the shade of a big mango tree and listened to sad stories of Juanito.

Then, the once-strong streams from the mountains were drying up in the hot season, and the fish in the rivers were disappearing. The village vegetable gardens had to be irrigated from deep wells and hand pumps. Climate injustice impacts the innocent poor much harder than the guilty rich, and the problem is social, environmental, and political. The developing world’s people must elect officials with strong green credentials and the political will to change to renewable energy sources and phase out their dependency on fossil fuels.

We set to work digging holes and planting the tall grafted saplings. We had hope for the future that the trees and plants would adapt to climate change. Then we hiked back to the village, where the homes were mostly made of grass-roofed huts with bamboo walls. There was no electricity, and water was supplied from a large stainless steel water tank piped in from a mountain stream. It was a project of Preda fair trade and the German people implemented by the villagers.

We ate lunch on clean banana leaves in this community where everything was recycled. These rural people are not responsible for any of the industrial pollution and CO2 causing the climate crisis that is becoming a catastrophe, but they are victims of its effects. The wealthy industrialists and their cronies in the developed world have captured government officials that allow them to continue burning fossil fuels and damaging the environment, causing global warming and damaging the health, lives, crops, and fruit trees of millions of poor people. An excellent climate injustice must be addressed before the climate catastrophe brings us to the irreversible tipping point of doom.

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