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Seminole perspective: Indigenous voices needed in battle for climate justice

Durante Blais-Billie, far right, stands in solidarity with other Indigenous youth in November as Cheghajimixw Blaney addresses the final People’s Plenary at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo Pamela EA)

In November, I had the privilege to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, referred to as COP26, as part of a delegation of queer, trans, two-spirit, Black and Indigenous youth. My delegation, titled Weaving our Paths, was a group of 12 people from all across Turtle Island representing various communities. Our collective goals included ensuring queer, trans, two-spirit, Black and Indigenous youth leaders had agency, space and a platform to make an impact within the global stage of the climate talks. We also sought to show how our communities-lived experiences have proven that climate change and colonial exploitation are interconnected, as well as demand that climate justice include Indigenous land stewardship and Indigenous sovereignty.

This year was my first time attending the UN Climate Change Conference and my first time leaving the country since the global pandemic began. Though the health precautions required to attend were not surprising, the pandemic deeply affected my initial impression of COP26, as it also shaped who had access to the conference. Inequities such as unequal vaccine distribution in the Global South restricted many of the communities most impacted by climate change from attending. At the same time, COP26 was well attended by the corporations responsible for high emissions and lobbyist groups representing extractive industries such as fossil fuel. The UN deciding to move forward with the conference without accessibility for the communities at the frontlines of climate change spoke volumes to me about what COP prioritized.

Going into COP26, one of the biggest areas of concern for Indigenous communities and organizers was Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. This article upholds carbon markets that are controlled by a centralized, elite group as a solution to global climate change. Article 6 allows corporations to offset their pollution through market transactions. These transactions are regulated in a way which often benefits economic growth over actual emission reduction. Not only does this article fail to truly address the root of the climate crisis, but it allows corporations to continue to exploit Indigenous communities by finding ways to, in the eyes of the UN, make up for the destruction of our homes and ancestral lands. The climate solutions proposed by Article 6 reward obtaining carbon credits even if, by getting them, corporations ultimately displace and harm Indigenous communities.

Unfortunately, the negotiations of COP26 did little to actually address the exploitative nature of Article 6. This means flawed nature-based solutions can continue, such as offsetting the destruction of natural forests with tree plantations. This policy deeply affects Indigenous people all over by setting a global precedence for how climate change is addressed by world leaders.

Durante Blais-Billie at the COP26 action hub. (Photo Te Maia Wiki)

Similar types of ineffective nature-based solutions and their effects on Native people have long been familiar to our Seminole community. Article 6 of the Paris Agreement mirrors our own local struggles, as corporations who have historically exploited the Everglades now parade their man-made marshes as the solution to the loss of our homelands. A direct comparison is Florida Power and Light’s Mitigation Bank, a privately owned and essentially man-made water bank which FPL uses to sell mitigation credits to companies harming natural wetlands so they may claim they’re offsetting the destruction of land and water. This allows the corporations to benefit from false climate solutions without ever needing a real commitment to ending their impact on the wetlands.

While the outcomes of COP26’s negotiations are discouraging, I believe there is still much to be gained by both keeping an eye on the climate summit and speaking up. A huge part of understanding how to protect ourselves against these tactics of false climate solutions is learning how to spot deceptive language such as “carbon neutral” or “nature-based solutions.” We can also claim space for ourselves at these world conferences so we may shift their platform of global attention toward the communities actually protecting biodiversity rather than the corporations that pretend they don’t harm it.

What struck me the most while attending COP26 is just how much Indigenous voices are needed at this global level. As a Seminole, I know that thousands of community-specific Indigenous practices and Indigenous knowledge systems are the long proven way to ensure the health of the world. I believe COP26 ignores Indigenous land stewardship as a path forward. Instead, COP negotiators assume the way to combat climate change is to create new colonial one-size-fits-all structures to maintain ever growing extraction levels. COP26, like false climate solutions, is designed to impact the narrative around climate change rather than actually find a solution.

However, even in choosing to engage with COP through this perspective, we can still have an impact by attending. Though I personally do not believe COP is a system that can actually solve climate change, I think there is much to gain from Indigenous people having a presence at this global level. Indigenous people should be there, not just to participate in the UN’s agenda, but to recenter our own systems and knowledge in the eyes of the world.

This being said, I am still hopeful that there is a path forward for our people. Within and outside of the conference, I met amazing people looking to create long-lasting networks of solidarity with other communities affected by climate change and colonial exploitation. I saw so much potential for not just the healing of our lands and water, but the liberation of our knowledge and people. I believe a powerful next step forward for our tribe in fighting the climate crisis is connecting with other Indigenous communities, not just here in the Southeast but globally, so that we may understand how to support one another and work together to create ways to collectively approach climate change and uphold our tribal sovereignty.

Durante Blais-Billie, whose two-year reign as Miss Florida Seminole recently ended, is a former assistant director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. She has worked with the Future Indigenous Leaders of South Florida, collaborated with History Fort Lauderdale as a co-curator for an art exhibit and is an advocate for the Indigenous LGBTQ community. She earned a master’s degree in art history and management from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She recently returned to Scotland for COP26.