Indigenous Leaders at COP22 Stand in Solidarity with Standing Rock

Written by Devi Lockwood

Roberto Borrero bowed his head in song. His voice, low and calm, reverberated through the Indigenous Pavilion at COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco––an island of calm in an otherwise chaotic conference tent where solar panel producers and airline expos compete with conference attendees for space and volume.

Borrero accompanied himself on a small circular drum. The opening song was from Borrero’s indigenous nation: the Taino of the Caribbean island region. He sang, he said, to “acknowledge the energies and the spirits of change.” The room overflowed into the sterile tent space beyond.

In the pavilion, indigenous representatives from seven regions gathered to condemn the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Many wore feathers, beads, embroidered skirts, and other outward signifiers of their indigenous identity.

Reading aloud from a joint statement issued by the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC), the leaders stated: “[We] stand in solidarity with the brothers and sisters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and all Water Protectors in opposition to this project.”

“The Dakota Access pipeline is being built on the un-ceded treaty lands of the Standing Rock Sioux,” the IIPFCC announced, “without their free, prior and informed consent.”  This construction, they argued, goes against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in that it does not respect the Standing Rock Sioux’s treaty rights, sovereignty, or their right to self-determination. Additionally, the pipeline is being constructed through sacred areas and ancestral burial grounds––all this before even considering the threats to water and climate that the pipeline poses.

The sacred was very much present in the room. Manari Kaji Ushigua Santi, President of the Sapara Nation of the Ecuadorian Amazon, spoke of the need for indigenous spirituality in the face of the climate crisis.

“My message for the partners who are in this resistance against gas companies that want to pass through their sacred river,” Santi said, “is to activate the strength and energy of the earth and the sky. We have to ask for the strength of the spirits to continue moving forward in our resistance.”

“For us,” Santi continued, “money doesn’t have life. Money is a dead piece of paper, an invention of human beings. We are proposing to defend and connect ourselves once more to the spiritual world.”

Jannie Staffansson, representative of the Saami Council’s Arctic and Environment unit, echoed Santi’s concerns about indigenous tribal sovereignty: “We all hear the call and we all share the same struggles,” she said. “We are doing everything we can in all the events and forums that we are taking part of, to support you.”

Staffansson, a citizen of Norway, denounced the fact that the state-owned Norwegian Oil Fund is invested heavily in the Dakota Access Pipeline Project. “Norway should be cautious about violating indigenous peoples’ rights,” Staffansson said. “The whole world knows what is happening in Standing Rock. Norway is trying to make profit out of those violations. We need to divest from this bad fossil fuel industry.”

After the event, Brendan Campbell, a nēhiyaw Cree youth from mōniyawi-sākihikan Montreal Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, voiced frustration with the U.N.’s erasure of indigenous knowledge and sovereignty from the majority of negotiations and deliberations.

Campbell articulated that COP22 is: “in some ways a microcosm of the larger capitalist oppressive international structure, a result of colonization and border imperialism.”  “It is my hope,” he continued, “that this international alliance of indigenous land defenders can be a reality, and that this loss in the United States is the beginning of a global environmental consciousness.”

The potential for a major oil spill from the Dakota Access pipeline is immediate. The pipeline is scheduled to cross underneath the Missouri River, the main source for drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and for millions of people who live downstream. Sunoco Logistics, the operating company of the pipeline, has experienced over 200 oil spills in 6 years. The US has had in total over 3300 leaks since 2010, polluting rivers, ground waters, land, and air. Human lives, health, and livelihoods are at stake.

The IIPFCC called upon the U.S. to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and to enter into serious consultations with the Standing Rock Sioux, and other tribes affected by this project, respecting the right of the Tribes to free, prior, and informed consent.

Borrero, himself a U.N. Consultant for the International Indian Treaty Council, helped to facilitate a member of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ recent visit to Standing Rock to observe the situation first-hand. Within the next two weeks, a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues is expected to visit the Standing Rock Reservation and the camps that Water Protectors have created.

Borrero argues for increased indigenous presence in U.N. processes. “We need to have our own people here to follow these processes, negotiations, and implementation strategies and plans, and have a seat at the table,” he said. “If we don’t have [a seat], we have to demand one.”

Santi further articulated the need for indigenous voices in the COP22 negotiation space:  “We don’t want people to exploit natural resources. Each resource–– petroleum, gold, uranium, copper––all of those have life. They are elements that help us balance with the sky and with the earth, so that the earth sustains itself,” Santi said. “What happens if we exploit all those resources? The world starts to dance.”

“Scientists nor those coming here [to COP22] nor a god with a miracle can resolve [climate change]. We have to resolve the problem ourselves. We have to take decisions now,” Santi added. “Don’t wait.”

In this COP22 of action, the time is now more than ever for indigenous voices to be heard and incorporated into the negotiations.