Climate Justice is the Right of the Poor

Climate injustice impacts the innocent poor much harder than the guilty rich and the problem is social, environmental and political, writes Fr Shay Cullen.

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.

The mangoes are certified organic according to EU standards. This is a great achievement for the indigenous people.

The Aeta people claim the mountains as their ancestral lands but around the world the rights of the indigenous peoples to the 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 them 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 and the birds and animals. The climate was secure, steady, predictable and trust-worthy for the past generations.

The Aeta people knew when it would rain, when it would not. They knew where and when they should hunt abundant wild boars and chicken and 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 own small family groups, they were healthy and had developed their own extensive herbal medicinal healing practice. There was discipline and order to the life of 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 came to an end for the indigenous people of the Philippines and indigenous people all over the world with the arrivals 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 rain forests were cut down from 1945 to rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII. Then, serious climate change began for the Philippines.

The illegal logging continues until the present despite laws banning logging. There is not much left to cut down. 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 has continued to increase dramatically world-wide.

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 great losses because of the decisions of the rich 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, industrialised nations. All must see that climate damage is a justice and human rights issue.

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

On our mountain trek with the Aeta subsistence farmers, we inspected the trees all planted during the past twenty years previously 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 the sad stories of Juanito.

“Our rains do not come at the correct time,” he said, speaking in Ilocano and translated by a Preda staff. “Nowadays, we suffer greatly because the blossoms of the mango trees are washed away, it was never like that until recent years,” he said.

What he did understand was how the negative effects of global warming, the damaging climate change was robbing him of his livelihood. He told of the mango fruits that were splitting open from excessive heat. It was unnatural, he said. Then there were the smaller harvests of wild bananas, less wild honey, fewer bees and birds and no mango harvest for three years. They were growing poorer year by year.

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 people of the developing world must elect officials that have strong green credentials and have the political will to change to renewable sources of energy 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. This 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 crises that is becoming a catastrophe, but they are victims of its effects.

The rich 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.

This is a great climate injustice that must be addressed and solved before the climate catastrophe brings us to the irreversible tipping point of doom.

To support Columban missionary Fr Shay Cullen’s work, please visit the Preda Foundation here: www.preda.org

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