Joan Carling is Global Director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International, an organization working to protect human rights and address criminalization and violence against Indigenous Peoples. In an interview following her presentation to CSO Consultations hosted by the GEF, the UN Champion of the Earth awardee shared lessons from her 20 years of activism for a safer and more sustainable planet.
How did you get into this line of work?
I started as an activist when I was in college. I became involved in students’ rights and welfare, as well as broader issues of peace and democracy. This was also the time of Martial Law in the Philippines.
After spending two summer months in the tribal villages in Kalinga, which were affected by the Chico River Dam project, I began to better appreciate how we Indigenous Peoples value our land and resources as a matter of life and death. The fierce resistance of men, women, and youth, working together to stop the dam project was inspiring. In spite of the militarization, violent attacks, arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of Indigenous leaders and frontline defenders, including women, they persisted until the dam project was stopped.
For me, this demonstrated that those in power can easily trample on the rights and well-being of Indigenous Peoples for their own benefit but using national development as a pretext. It also illustrated how Indigenous Peoples value their lands and resources beyond economic terms, and the need to protect this collectively through united actions and inter-tribal solidarity and cooperation. This experience gave birth to the Indigenous Peoples’ movement in the Cordillera region of the Philippines where I live. It also instilled in me the need to confront injustice, and to recognize that everyone has the right to live with dignity, respect and non-discrimination. This remains my motivation as an activist.
What are you currently focused on?
One of the key issues that has emerged from the present global crisis on climate change and biodiversity loss is the need for a rights-based approach and social equity. In many of the Indigenous communities I have visited, life is becoming more difficult with the impacts of climate change. Flooding, droughts, landslides, tsunamis, and rising sea levels are being experienced by Indigenous Peoples in different ecosystems. The results are hunger, loss of livelihood, forced relocation, as well as the disruption of traditional knowledge, social cohesion, and cultural practices. Climate change also has differentiated impacts within communities, for example increased difficulties for Indigenous women caring for their children and the elderly.
Moreover, affected Indigenous communities continue to be discriminated in the delivery and access to needed support. Adding insult to injury, many climate-related actions, such as wind farms, mining for battery inputs, and efforts to conserve biodiversity and forests with a fortress approach have a negative impact on Indigenous Peoples. Land-grabbing and related destruction of livelihoods, food systems, and cultural heritage are among the consequences. Additionally, Indigenous Peoples taking action to defend our land and resources are being charged with criminal offenses. Hundreds of Indigenous Peoples have been unjustly arrested, detained, and accused of criminal offenses tied to climate action, and have hardly any access to justice. These charges have included destruction of private property, trespassing on business property, violation of the regulations of national parks and protected areas, violating national security laws, and even obstructing national development. IPRI recently published a report entitled Protector not prisoners, which evidences how Indigenous Peoples are facing rights violations and criminalization related to environmental protection.
What life lessons has your work taught you?
Over the years, I have visited Indigenous communities in the Philippines, across Asia, and beyond. It is clear to me that Indigenous Peoples want to have peace and harmony in their territories, and to be allowed to practice their own ways of life as a source of pride and dignity. This should be always respected. I also learned that Indigenous Peoples at the grassroots level know best how to address their situation. While they may need some capacity-building support, they possess invaluable knowledge, skills, and values that are indispensable in protecting the environment through sustainable use, management, and conservation of our resources for the future generation.
Indigenous Peoples still hold principles, values, and collective practices such as living in harmony with nature, upholding the common good over personal interest or greed, a sense of fairness and compassion, mutual support and caring for each other, accountable and selfless leadership and governance, among others. These clearly show us a transformative alternative to the prevailing system that has resulted not only in the destruction of the planet, but also the growing economic and political divide between the few rich elites over the vast majority who remain poor, powerless, and marginalized.
Those who are working with or wish to work with Indigenous Peoples also need capacity building to understand Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives, aspirations, cultures, and ways of life. They need to be respectful of cultural diversity and to be culturally sensitive. Indigenous Peoples are not asking for special treatment—respect and humility are virtues everyone should be able to practice, regardless of status in life.
The state of the global environment is concerning. What gives you hope?
What gives me hope is the perseverance of Indigenous Peoples in all corners of the globe to remain on the frontline in protecting the environment with their knowledge and with the values of solidarity, caring, and cooperation. I am also inspired by the actions of the youth, and the growing social movement demanding climate justice. The recent decision at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP27 on the establishment of a funding mechanism for loss and damage also illustrates the sheer determination of developing countries to come together and demand a stronger implementation of the common but differentiated responsibilities of states in combating climate change. Much is yet to be done for rightsholders to be part of decision-making in climate action at all levels, but we can get there with stronger movements and allies from all sectors.
What advice would you give a young person who is worried about the environment?
To get involved and contribute your part – big or small – in protecting the planet. To stand up and come together to fight for their future. To learn more from those on the frontline, including Indigenous Peoples, and use social media to speak the truth and challenge powerful climate deniers. To be part of youth and social movements for climate justice. History has shown the leading role of youth in driving social change, so this is their shining moment to again prove this and give us all hope.