Field Notes from Climate Justice Activists at the U.N. Climate Conference (COP25) - Climate Justice Alliance
Climate justice activists from the It Takes Roots Delegation in front of a COP25 sign. From left to right: Cynthia Mellon (Climate Justice Alliance), Jésus Vasquez (Organización Boricuá), Nyiesha Mallett (UPROSE), Carlos Torrealba (Jobs with Justice Florida), Nancy Huizar (Got Green Seattle), and Mikaela Curry (Kentuckians for the Commonwealth). Photo provided by Mikaela Curry.

“We are the white blood cells in the cancer of capitalism” — Monẽka de Oro, Micronesia Climate Change Alliance

This past December, Climate Justice Alliance members from organizations working in frontline communities across the United States, Puerto Rico, and Guam, came together in Santiago, Chile, and in Madrid, Spain, as part of the It Takes Roots delegation (and others) to put pressure on the United Nations’ climate talks and more importantly, to be in community with climate activists around the world.

(It Takes Roots is an alliance made up of Grassroots Global Justice, Climate Justice Alliance, Right to the City Alliance and Indigenous Environmental Network.)

The 25th annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP25), was scheduled to take place in Santiago, Chile, but was moved to Madrid, Spain, as a reaction to the peoples’ uprising and mass mobilizations for social, economic, and human rights. These, of course, were not the reasons given by the president of Chile, but the reality was that if the international community showed up, the Chilean government would have far too much to answer for.

Here are the experiences of delegation members on the ground, in their own words. We report back on the peoples’ movements in Chile (the Cumbre de los Pueblos and the Carpa de Mujeres) and the events in Madrid (COP25 and la Cumbre Social por el Clima).

Santiago, Chile

Blue mural in Santiago, Chile, depicting “aguas libres.”
Mural seen in Santiago with the words “Aguas Libres.” Photo by Hendrik Voss

Marissa Reyes-Díaz (Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico): Since the Pinochet military dictatorship was installed in 1973, there has been a concerted governmental expansion of neoliberalism and with it an aggressive extractivism in Chile, with the privatization not only of land, but even of water. Within an urgent reality of global warming and recognizing that water is a universal right, it seems inconceivable that water is privatized and only those who can afford it get access to it. With the end of the dictatorship in 1990, these violent methods of extraction and privatization did not stop.

Street art that reads, “Santiago será la tumba del neoliberalismo.”
Street art that reads, “Santiago será la tumba del neoliberalismo.” (“Santiago will be the tomb of neoliberalism.”) Photo by Marissa Reyes-Díaz

On October 18, 2019, the people, especially the students, took to the streets to protest the suggested subway fare increase, an unsustainable rise in prices that awakened the people’s call for a change of system and for the death of neoliberalism that is leading them to destruction.

The COP25 scheduled to take place in Chile was moved to Madrid for “security” as a punitive response to the struggle in the streets carried out by the Chilean people. The Cumbre de los Pueblos 2019, a convening of grassroots organizations and community organizers, contrary to the proposal established by COP25, stayed in Chile, in solidarity and support for the Chilean people.

Photo of activist Christian Rodriguez from the Ironbound Community Corporation wearing a green bandana
Community groups in the neighborhood of La Bandera in Santiago, Chile, organized a fair and a march, calling for freedom for the political prisoners from their neighborhood, who have been imprisoned for their participation in the popular uprising. Depicted here is Christian Rodriguez from the Ironbound Community Corporation (Newark, New Jersey), wearing a green bandana made by a Chilean woman artisan. Photo by Marion Gee. Source: It Takes Roots

Jésus Vasquez (Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico): Moving COP25 to Madrid at the last minute took attention away from the uprising and heroic struggles of the Chilean people at a moment when they deserved the most attention.

The fact that it was moved to Spain, a European country, also signifies an obstacle — COP is again held in a country in the Global North, when it should be held in equal rotation. It was in Poland in 2018 and the year before that, it was in Germany, so we can see it’s been a few years in a row where it is concentrated in Europe, specifically, and not the Global South where the problems with climate change are being suffered more because of the decisions of the Global North.

The system tries to frame us as if we are activists that want to protect nature– and Casey Camp-Horinek, an Indigenous elder from IEN said, “We are nature reacting, we are part of nature, we are not separated from nature.”

— Jésus Vasquez, Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico

Marissa: The Cumbre de los Pueblos seeks to mobilize and build a global social force in order to develop an alternative to the neoliberal production and consumption model that can overcome the social and ecological crisis that puts the future of life on the planet at imminent risk.

During the summit, there was also the Women’s Tent (Carpa de las Mujeres) with three central axes: (1) Feminist justice, (2) Bodies, territories and structural violence, and (3) Feminist economy and food sovereignty.

Among the central conversations was the crisis of extractivism, especially around water and the importance of having access to water, both in itself and in relation to entire water cycles.

Jésus: I heard a few things from Indigenous comrades that stuck with me. The system tries to frame us as if we are activists that want to protect nature– and Casey Camp-Horinek, an Indigenous elder from IEN said, “We are nature reacting, we are part of nature, we are not separated from nature.”

Inside the Carpas de las Mujeres (the feminist tent) at the Cumbre de los Pueblos.
Inside the Carpas de las Mujeres (the feminist tent) at the Cumbre de los Pueblos. Photo by Marissa Reyes-Daz

Piper Carter, (East Michigan Environmental Action Council): I spent most of my time inside the feminist tent. There were some good conversations about peoples’ solutions for ecology of the planet and food sovereignty and how folks are confronting patriarchy across the Americas.

I met women in the movement for water and learned about the role of women in the climate movement and that most of their fight is centered on opposing neoliberalism, extractivism, and structural violence. I also learned how folks are taking care of water and there’s lots of sacred practices around taking care of water that I thought were super powerful.

I spent time learning from immigrant communities about their experiences, some Black folks from Colombia, and Black folks from Haiti, mostly building with them about how it is for them to live in the city and also be in this movement. I learned that in general they are challenged by the unions, because the unions want them to support their struggle, but it is difficult for them because they do not have documents to be in the country and so companies exploit them, pay them less, and treat them horribly, and they are afraid to join anything, because they do not know who they can trust and they face a lot of racism from everywhere.

I also talked to folks that were from Chile of different ethnic origins to have a better understanding about what climate justice means in their region and where they’re from. I got a chance to learn about how folks are responding to structural violence and the impact of extractivism.

Street art in Santiago, Chile.
Street art in Santiago, Chile. Photo by Hendrik Voss.

We saw so much Street Art everywhere. All over the place on almost every wall. I thought that was super powerful and they have a saying “the walls are talking.” Their culture is really infused with political art in visual art, dance, music, I mean just everywhere, at every turn. Whether someone’s making it or art that’s already there, you’re going to see some political art somewhere.

Our hosts, the World March of Women, did an incredible job taking care of us, teaching us, making us feel welcome and comfortable, and helping us understand the struggles in Chile as well as Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other challenges in South America.

Madrid, Spain

Jésus: We had a strategy to be in both spaces so that we could talk about real solutions like agroecology, just transition, just recovery and combat false solutions like carbon markets, climate smart agriculture, the so-called, nature-based solutions (before REDD+), among others. People who were in Madrid made sure that their struggles and real solutions were visibilized at COP25, the Cumbre Social, and on the diverse actions coordinated with allies. We organized so that African-descent communities, Indigenous communities, Latino communities, LGBTQ communities, and others from different parts of the world had space inside the U.N., but also in the Cumbre Social held at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid.

“It’s heartbreaking how they have commodified nature — the land, water, and air that is necessary to sustain life, and that should be accessible to all life forms.”

— Nyiesha Mallett, UPROSE

Nancy Huizar (Got Green Seattle): COP is the climate conference held by the United Nations. The agenda for COP25 this year was to sort out the details regarding Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Currently, in this piece of the agreement are market mechanisms that will continue to allow polluters to pollute under the guise of carbon offsets, geoengineering, and other corporate-backed false solutions. The most recent negotiations removed human rights language in Article 6. Shell Oil has publicly boasted about writing article 6.

Nyiesha Mallett (Uprose, Brooklyn): COP is a space where bad business negotiations between irresponsible and powerful people take place. The people on the frontlines with the solutions are set to the side to sit on panels and preach to the choir, when they should be at the table with the decision makers.

The companies who cause the problems are the same ones pushing for false solutions that will allow them to offset their emissions while continuing to pollute, and they are the ones who get to sit at the table. This is why we need not to fix Article 6, but get rid of it entirely. Article 6 allows them Set continue profiting off of extraction, when we need to be seeking a Just Transition. It allows these companies to continue to extract from Indigenous communities and make money off of the exploitation of our resources.

It’s heartbreaking how they have commodified nature — the land, water, and air that is necessary to sustain life, and that should be accessible to all life forms.

Mikaela Curry (Kentuckians for the Commonwealth): This was my first experience attending a COP, and in so many ways the UNFCCC felt like a painful microcosm of our world, from even just the layout of the conference space where the event was hosted — NGOs were separated from the government pavilions, and even in a massive event center that had an abundance of space, the rooms allotted to NGO groups for offices were small and cramped.

Many of the government pavilions were open and expansive, often beautifully decorated and crowded with people, hosting talks and providing information, while the area for the United States remained completely closed off — just a long, blue cubicle-type wall with a door that remained shut. Meanwhile most of the conversations in these government pavilions were dominated by greenwashing, false solutions, and representatives from corporations and fossil fuel industries.

Four activists standing outside of the Canadian embassy building in Madrid, Spain, with signs on their backs “Reject Teck”
Activists outside of the Canadian embassy in Madrid, Spain, protesting the expansion of tar sands by Teck Resources. Photo by Mikaela Curry.

We engaged within the UNFCCC space, at la Cumbre Social por el Clima, and in direct actions at the Canadian embassy (against the expansion of the Canadian tar sands by Teck Resources #rejectteck) and the US embassy (to bring awareness to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women #mmiw), as well as demonstrating alongside hundreds of thousands of people in the mass climate march through the streets of Madrid.

I participated in an approved action within the UN space on No Carbon Markets Day (December 5). We had a group of people representing corporations, governments, and bankers who are visibly plotting amongst themselves for how to maximize their profits, and we had people representing nature, forests, oceans, sky, etc. Then, between these groups were the protectors, chanting “the Sky is not for sale” in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Ultimately the protectors rejected the false solutions being offered by the intermediary NGOs and pushed them and the banks and corporations out of the action space while allowing those representing nature to move forward. This artistic visualization of this role we are taking, the work we need to be doing, and of the need for sky and forest protectors to stand up against financial incentives and false solutions is important.

Activist Moneka de Oro opening her backback for two police officers at COP25.
The police at COP25 searching Moneka’s bag. Photo by Mikaela

We all were wearing buttons that said “Sky Protectors” and had lots of extra buttons to offer to people gathered around the action. However, the UN security stopped us, confiscating bags of buttons from members of our delegation. As Monẽka de Oro (Chamorro activist from Micronesia Climate Change Alliance) and I were preparing to leave the area at the end of the action, the UN security searched her bookbag and took all of the buttons she had, and they pointed at the No REDD sticker I had on my cheek and told me I had to take it off. Later in the day, other members of our delegation were confronted by security over their buttons when trying to enter the “unofficial” green zone area. From my understanding, these materials were viewed as “political” and therefore not allowed within the space. This arbitrary, police-enforced idea of what is political and allowed when it’s all obviously political, is just an indication of the way messages are meant to be silenced and controlled when they go against the dominant, capitalistic framework that underscores the COP.

Cynthia Mellon (Climate Justice Alliance): I have participated in many UN meetings and this persecution of opinion and closing down of opportunities for free expression is relatively new. It has become a thing with the climate negotiations and the presence of a great number of business and industry interests, who do not share the Peoples’ views of what is needed for the climate crisis. The aggressive actions by UN security are alarming and need to be called out. People, especially women, worked hard to get the UN space opened up to people’s participation, so it is disturbing to see this getting rolled back. We should be taking action around this.

A group of people in a circle listening to speakers with rally signs in the middle of the circle on the floor
Workshop at Cumbre de los Pueblos on “A Just and Feminist Transition.” Photo by Mikaela Curry.

Mikaela: However, it was especially meaningful that some of the comrades who had been at La Cumbre de la Pueblos in Chile were able to join us in Madrid for the later part of our time there. Having them there and hearing their experiences from Chile was incredibly meaningful and helped to connect the two delegations (along with the It Takes Roots webinar, in which members in Spain and Chile communicated about their experiences).

Mafalda Galdames Castro of the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women of Chile even came directly from traveling to participate and speak on the Just Transition panel facilitated by It Takes Roots at the cumbre on Sunday. The following day, on Monday, during a workshop on “A Just and Feminist Transition” that took place in the convergence space, Mafalda shared about the women’s tent at La Cumbre de los Pueblos and reflected many of the same powerful conversations that Marissa and Piper have expressed. She also pointed out that the space wasn’t well attended by any of the men at the event, and how that is an important thing to be noticing and considering as we think of the role that grassroots feminism is having in our movement spaces.

Indigenous activists carrying a large yellow banner and signs.
People’s March for Climate Change, Indigenous block. Photo by Jennifer Falcon (IEN)

Mikaela: On Friday, December 6th, the It Takes Roots delegation marched with hundreds of thousands of people through the streets of Madrid, Spain at the Climate Strike: Fridays for Future March alongside the Indigenous Contingent.

Members of our delegation worked hard to create large, visible banners to uplift messages like “Respect Indigenous Rights” and “Protect Mother Earth.” The contingent of Indigenous people had been given the front space of the lineup, to lead the march, but during the whole event they had to battle to hold their ground as people encroached, in a variety of intrusive and disrespectful ways.

The three-mile march ended at a plaza where a stage was set up and speeches had been planned. Members from our delegation had been allotted time to speak, along with other Indigenous leaders, and they took the stage together to show their solidarity. However, after only two had spoken, with several more that had been promised the opportunity, the organizers turned the microphones off, silencing them. This was after Greta Thunberg had received a lengthy opportunity to speak, with no rush or silencing when she went over- time. The Indigenous people held the stage, singing together the Women’s Warrior song (written by Martina Pierre), even as the organizers proceeded to turn the lights of the stage off and continued to pressure them to leave the stage.

Carlos Torrealba (Jobs with Justice Florida): The cops shut the lights off, but they kept singing and dancing until they were finally pushed off. It was a pretty f*cked up moment. It goes to show that even a march that is supposedly inclusive still had a lot of disconnect around showing solidarity for communities.

Bringing Everything Home

“It was great making connections with other folks around the country and sharing the labor perspective, as well as learning about their just transition work, and learning the deep analysis about carbon markets and false solutions.“

— Carlos Torrealba, Jobs with Justice Florida

Nancy: The decisions being made at COP25 affect us here locally, and the communities we stand in solidarity with across the United States and around the world. We can strive for climate solutions locally but if we aren’t informed of the national or global impacts, then we could have gaps in the way we carry out our work.

As we fight for decarbonization by 2030 in Seattle, the creation of thousands of unionized green jobs, free public transit, weatherized and sustainable housing for all, and other climate resilience investments that center racial justice, we need to be aware and connect this work to global struggles for climate justice.

Four panelists seated at a long table
Panel: Climate Emergency, Reclaim Power & Ending the Age of Fossil Fuels, organized by Jubilee South Asia Pacific Movement, Inc (APMDD) and Grassroots Global Justice. Photo by Jade Daniels, Grassroots Global Justice.

Mikaela: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak alongside people from coal-impacted communities in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Alaska. I heard firsthand narratives from communities not only experiencing the dumping of coal ash, but places where coal ash was even distributed as a building material and the resulting health crises. As I watched videos of people having to bathe their babies with bottled water because using their groundwater would make them sick, I thought directly of issues facing people in the region of Kentucky where I live, where people struggle to have access to clean, affordable water.

I did my best to lift up stories, struggles and successes from Kentucky, including mountain top removal, regulatory failing, policy violence, and ways that people are standing up and fighting back. I heard about strategies that are being successfully implemented to prevent coal plants from being constructed. Having this opportunity to share struggles and successes from our respective communities just cemented the need I feel for us to connect our global efforts and to consider the role of people’s movements towards rapid energy revolution based on equity, reparations and climate justice. I hope that I can bring this sense of global connection back to my community and find ways to actively build more global solidarity with our local movements.

Cynthia: Fortunately, we were able to participate in several panels inside the UN space, at the Cumbre Social por el Clima, and at the Indigenous Minga, which was another important people’s space outside of the UN complex. We led workshops on geoengineering — the really scary proposals around manipulating Earth’s systems, which are false solutions promoted by the fossil fuel industry. (All the proposals around carbon capture, which are gaining a hearing in the U.S. Congress, fall into this category.) We also held two pop-ed trainings on carbon pricing, based on the recent toolkit by IEN and CJA: Carbon Pricing: A Popular Education Toolkit for Community Resistance. At these workshops, we met great people from all over that we will be keeping in touch with, while sharing information with members of our own delegation, as we built out our knowledge through discussing local struggles while strengthening our ability to call out false solutions.

I also spent some time in alien territory — going into presentations by Shell and other fossil fuel industry shills. It was awful, but it helped strengthen our resolve and highlighted the need to keep informing people and keep fighting. We cannot give in to that vision of the future.

Mikaela: I was able to participate in an ally-organized action against Shell in the IETA space during the event “Markets for Nature Climate Solutions,” supported by Chevron, Shell, BP, Arbor Day Foundation, BHP, and Woodside Petroleum. When it was the Shell executive’s turn to speak, we all stood up silently, placed our hands over our ears and walked out of the room in silence. Even though these events really highlight the need for us to organize and mobilize around stronger action, I was still glad to be in solidarity with other people witnessing these corrupt conversations.

Two activists, Nyiesha and Carlos, creating protest art in a workshop
Nyiesha teaching Carlos to screen print in the art space at the convergence center to make the bandanas for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women action at the US Embassy. Photo by Mikaela Curry.

Carlos: Being a part of the It Takes Roots delegation in Madrid was great for me because, although the main event of COP itself was pretty useless, I made a lot of connections with folks working on just transitions in labor in Scotland and in Italy. Because the next COP is in Glasgow, Scotland, we are scheming around how to bring in a delegation of specifically just transition labor folks, to make sure working people aren’t left out.

A lot of capital is being pushed into green projects and all that good stuff, but this is sometimes used to bust unions. For example, in Florida, they’re test running a bus line and the bus drivers’ union is worried because what happens when cool green tech comes in is that the people in charge decide bye, we don’t need you anymore. And we need to make sure that working people are at the table where these conversations are had and what they want to do is taken into consideration. Retraining people is not the only solution — sometimes people are in their 50s and don’t want to work anymore; in those cases, letting people retire early is a just transition solution.

It was great making connections with other folks around the country and sharing the labor perspective, as well as learning about their just transition work, and learning the deep analysis about carbon markets and false solutions.

Activists stand in front of a slide presentation about climate emergency, bearing signs for Indigenous sovereignty

Nyiesha: My COP25 experience was one I didn’t recognize I needed. I went to Spain as an 18-year-old, young, Black woman not knowing what COP was or what to expect. I came out with a brand-new perspective, experience, and purpose. Now that I’m back, I can’t help but wonder what that experience would have looked like in Chile, as the Chilean people are really stepping up and taking a stance against neoliberalism.

It was so powerful to see how Indigenous people showed up in the space. Indigenous people’s voices from across the globe were lifted. They showed up and demanded to be heard. I’m grateful that alternative spaces, such as the Cumbre and the Art space were created. They provided a space where the real solutions could be discussed amongst the people who created them.

The best part of this trip was that I had the opportunity to connect with It Takes Roots members, activists, and youth from all over. It was an opportunity for us to sit together and share our stories and the work we do. Storytelling and gathering is important in the work that we do because it is a cultural practice. We have so much to teach each other, and the connections made on this trip created lanes so that knowledge can be shared. My future, and the future of my family and friends should not be thrown to the side or taken for a joke. The best people to implement the solutions are Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color across the world who are being affected. We need to hold those in power accountable for the lives they are stealing.

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