Divide and Conquer

Divide and Conquer

Interview with Tom Goldtooth, Part II
Tom Goldtooth at the Indigenous Climate Justice Symposium, November 5, 2015. Image: YouTube
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June 9, 2016

“Divide and conquer” is a tried and true strategy in the toolbox of colonization. In the early 1800s, President Andrew Jackson accorded individual land rights to Native Americans as a tactic to break up communal land holding and create discord by pitting individual indigenous land holders against non-land holders. The strategy has  served  British colonization (indeed, Noam Chomsky claims that 90% of forces that the British used to control India were Indians), union busting in the United States throughout the 19th century, and even now  Donald Trump is making use of it to build up his social profile.

This same strategy has been used in tandem with the United Nations REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) Programme. It began in 2008 as “an effort to create financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.” The program website goes on to say that REDD alone cannot adequately combat climate change, and that it must coexist with significant emissions reductions. It has 64 partner countries in Africa, the Asia Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The website claims that the program provides numerous social and economic benefits as well as environmental advantages. In addition to the United Nations, the World Bank is a big proponent.

However, there is a large-scale, global alliance against REDD. Activists contend that REDD is a way for polluters to buy their way out of reducing emissions. They refer to REDD as “CO2lonialism of the Forests,” because northern corporations continue to pollute in exchange for not cutting down forests in the south. REDD therefore commodifies and privatizes forests, and encourages land grabs from Indigenous Peoples in order to allow corporations to claim these lands for their carbon offsets. Activists document numerous REDD projects gone wrong – that is, instances that have violated indigenous rights, resulting in “militarization, evictions, fraud, disputes, conflicts, corruption, coercion, conmen, crime, plantations and 30-100 year contracts, deals with oil companies and other climate criminals.” Beyond the well-documented violations of indigenous rights around the world, activists also argue that REDD allows current models of international trade and mass production and consumption to continue, thus distracting the conversation away from the real need: emissions reductions and securement of rights for Indigenous Peoples – both land rights and human rights.

This contentious program has led to great debate within indigenous communities, and as Tom Goldtooth explains in this edition of our interview, REDD’s divisive nature has provided NGOs and powerful organizations an opportunity to “divide and conquer.”

How do powerful players exclude indigenous people from the climate change debates?

The way that happens is that they define the debate. So what are the issues that we are faced with? We had a strong position back [in the late 1990s] with the Albuquerque Declaration. Most of us were united back then as indigenous peoples from the world, because there was no funding then to go and participate at the UN. At most, there were ten people at the indigenous caucus [during the years] 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003. And then forests were included in mitigation under carbon markets, and all of a sudden, indigenous peoples organizations from the global south from forested regions were supported to attend the UN climate negotiations. And that’s when I started to see a divide. A move away from real solutions to mitigation.

A rights based approach has always been one of the foundations. However, in 2007, with the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there’s a provision in there on the “right to develop.” So we started to see some language coming out from our brothers and sisters from the global south that from my heart did not come from the indigenous peoples. It came from large NGOs that were invested in pushing carbon markets, [such as] Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, and Nature Conservancy. They were the main ones pushing REDD and they were actually funding indigenous delegations. I was in serious debates with them [at the time] that this was a false solution.

Cover of the "No Redd" papers by Carbon Trade Watch, Global Justice Ecology Project, Indigenous Environmental Network, Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, and Timberwatch Coalition.

Cover of the “No Redd” papers by Carbon Trade Watch, Global Justice Ecology Project, Indigenous Environmental Network, Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, and Timberwatch Coalition.

So yes, we have something in common that we agree upon, and that’s human rights. But when it comes to false solutions, those are riddled with human rights issues, and that’s what we’ve been fighting for: human rights in mitigation and in adaptation. Readers need to know what happens to indigenous peoples around a divide and conquer scenario, as a system of colonization.

How does this “divide and conquer” strategy play out within the indigenous community?

You’re dealing with the power of the industrialized countries and you’re dealing with their money. They want good Indians. They want good Indians to sit down with them and accept their money. That’s always been a tool of colonization, of the colonizers, whether it’s the north or the south. You negotiate under their terms. When the Tom Goldtooths get involved and don’t want to play, then we get labeled as the “bad Indians.” What happens is that the good Indians get awarded with big grants from the World Bank. All these [indigenous] organizations [that support REDD] get big checks from the World Bank for REDD. When there’s big money on the table, indigenous peoples, who even know in their heart that REDD has problems with it, they’re torn because they need to take the money; it’s a tool of colonization. Organizations like ours [IEN] challenge the heart of capitalism and colonizations.

When you were educating members of COP21 on indigenous peoples issues, what level of experts were you meeting with? Were they receptive to your contributions?

It varied. There’s an NGO caucus on the inside, in fact, two major ones: one is actually coordinated by Climate Action Network International, which is comprised of a lot of different NGOs globally, like World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), Conservation International, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc. Some are larger corporate types that have their own agenda, and then there’s small green types like 350.org. We tend to get more responses from the smaller organizations. Organizations like the WWF are a little more distant. Their mandate as a large corporate-type NGO isn’t to really focus on the recognition of indigenous peoples, even though they would be there on certain interventions we do on the inside. They won’t block, resist, for example, a human rights language in the negotiations. But there are some NGOs that block us on specific issues. Our organization has a strong opposition against carbon markets and clean development mechanisms (CDMs). Those market regimes that were brought in under the Kyoto Protocol, and in later years, the inclusion of forests to be brought into the market systems. Conservation International, Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, some of the larger NGOs went out of their way to block us.

How did they block you?

When we tried to do interventions as indigenous organizations, inside the negotiations, they do everything they can to block us. For one thing, a number of years ago they were funding indigenous peoples who support carbon markets, who support REDD. Many of our organizations globally, especially from the global south, are not resourced, don’t have the money to travel to these UN meetings, so they get support from NGOs. So those NGOs are more readily available to bring in indigenous peoples who support their agenda. So when we as an organization, as IEN, scrape together money to bring our own voices of peoples from the global south, sometimes we see those indigenous peoples that those organizations bring in try to block our people that we bring in – literally, they surround them, they say, “what are you doing? Why are you fighting us?” They really just cluster around our indigenous peoples that we bring in and a lot of them know each other and they say “why are you blocking us? We must work together.” So we experience things like that. The large NGOs are able to provide receptions with food and drink and alcohol in the evenings at fancy motels, and they invite representatives of countries and delegations. It’s a situation where we tried to work together as indigenous peoples, but that REDD issue is something that did divide us strongly, and the role of the NGOs is very critical.

Have you found that proponents of REDD are targeting specific indigenous peoples who might be in a position where they have to say yes to REDD? Is there a strategy to take advantage of inequalities among indigenous peoples?

It’s both [good intentions and bad intentions]. There are some NGOs and also some private sector actors and bodies within the UN that have good intentions. They see that this is an avenue that could maybe strengthen their land rights, and then there’s some that … they don’t have the goodness in their heart. It’s about exploitation. There’s a combination.

Photo: Allan Lissner / IEN

Photo: Allan Lissner / IEN

We’ve discussed the divide and conquer strategy and how that’s created some hierarchies in terms of who has access to what at the COP negotiations. Are there other hierarchies that exist? Do we see the same hierarchies between developed versus developing nations replicated among indigenous peoples?

In the mid-1990s, we got involved with the UN’s convention on biological diversity. And then after that, with the UN treaty making initiative on persistent organic pollutants. We came into the UN negotiations with some expertise as American Indians; some of our people have degrees in Environmental Science. Some of the Mohawk people we’ve worked with throughout the years have degrees in toxicology. We’re familiar with the different language that the US uses internationally around these negotiations, so the indigenous peoples [from other countries] at that time, a lot of them were fighting for rights, so they come from a rights based approach, but not from the technicality of these negotiations around these issues, around these environmental issues, toxic issues, for example, ecological management issues, things like that. So we kind of became the experts, the indigenous peoples of the north. But along with that came some stereotypes. Again, part of that divide and conquer is “oh they got money from the north. Their tribes are invested in the contradictions of mining. Some of those tribes are doing oil development,” which is true. Some of the tribes here are doing coal, oil, hydrofracking, now. So they got access to big funding foundations, even federal grants. So part of that is there, but we’ve been able to address that.

There are some larger native indigenous groups that are well funded, and there’s not much money out there, and sometimes that funding comes from larger foundations that have their own agenda, like the Ford Foundation. Ford is invested in capitalism, of course, and Ford has a long history [of furthering corporate and state objectives]; they’re invested in REDD as well, they have their agenda. Larger foundations like that are sourcing out to indigenous peoples to push and support their agenda. Those that are against that form of development, western forms of development, aren’t sourced up. So there are some inequities in that.

Now, NGOs: it’s not just indigenous peoples, I saw it in the climate negotiations. The larger NGOs that are sourced up are pushing a reformist agenda or a status quo agenda, where it’s really a revolving door between the NGO and corporations and the government – WWF is one of those, NRDC [National Resources Defense Council] is one of those, not too much Greenpeace. One of WWF’s lead negotiators on toxics, when I was involved in POPs negotiations (persistent organic pollutants), a few years later was working for the government, was part of the US State Department. And I said, “what’s going on here?” The chemical industry was definitely one of our enemies, preventing a stringent, rigorous treaty to reduce these twelve chemicals. So it’s a revolving door. In the climate negotiation like I mentioned, International Climate Action Network (ICAN) is controlled by the large NGOs. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth try to hang in there. It got to a point in Bali, about ten years back, there were a number of NGOs that decided to form their own NGO group within the organization that would be recognized as well, so that when the chair says, “what is the opinion of the NGOs,” it’s not just ICAN. That was the creation of Climate Justice NOW!. There’s a lot of imbalance within caucuses given the strength of the private sector and technology.


The final part of this interview addresses how states have influenced the climate debate, where they are headed in their future domestic agendas, and how these agendas will continue to influence climate change and indigenous peoples.

Interview with Tom Goldtooth

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