'This fight is now an emergency'
Ivette Ulloa Caniu is a geographer and environmental consultant from the Mapuche Indigenous community who will be part of Chile’s delegation to COP28 with support from the GEF and the Climate Reality Project. In an interview, she described how a large earthquake opened her eyes to connections between people and the planet, and shared how she links together ancestral knowledge with social justice principles in her work on climate change.
What sparked your interest in the environment?
In a strange way my professional path began with an earthquake. In February 2010, there was a large earthquake off the coast of Chile and we had to evacuate because of the resulting tsunami that caused a lot of damage along the coast. My family knew what to do, but many others did not. That situation haunted me for many years. I asked myself, how could that level of public vulnerability be possible in one of the most seismic countries in the world?
For this reason, I knew at an early age that I wanted to study the Earth, but not only that – also the people. Geography was the perfect career for me. I got involved in studying and learning the reasons why our planet is so polluted and damaged, and why we are so exposed to catastrophic consequences from natural phenomena. I also wanted to know how to reduce the risks for people living in places that were vulnerable to those events.
I gave a series of talks at my high school and my university about how the Mapuche people take care of nature and seek a perfect balance for their Mother Earth, or as we call her Ñuke Mapu. Sharing knowledge is a very important part of that. If we really want to fight against climate change, it should not become a class struggle, where whoever has more money and power makes the decisions without consulting the others. The planet belongs to everyone and so does the responsibility to take care of it.
Another important factor was my community’s experience of being relocated when a power generation company opened a thermoelectric plant where we lived, despite our protests. This happened when I was 7 years old. We were moved to a new neighborhood far from our sacred trees and my mother’s roses, in a place where there is no space to plant anything. I experienced this as a kind of environmental condemnation. It taught me how damaging unchecked industry can be both to nature and peoples’ health.
What message do you have for today’s political or business leaders?
My message would be to demand more action in the fight against climate change. It’s time to invest in renewable energy, to change the textile and livestock industries to reduce pollution, and above all to know that this fight is now an emergency. We have places and ecosystems that are being devastated at this minute, including in the countries that contribute the least to greenhouse gases, such as islands. (This is also true in Chile, which experienced aggressive fires and floods this year.) If we don't demand more, the Paris Agreement goals will never be achieved.
Young people like me cannot feel comfortable with the idea of change in 30 or 50 years in the future – as the UN Secretary-General has said we are in the stage of “global boiling” and frankly I do not know how much more we can endure.
Why is it important to you to be in the negotiating room at COP28?
For me, this chance to part of the Chilean delegation to Dubai is more than important, it is transcendental. I think this may be a moment of giant change in my life.
I will have the opportunity to contribute my voice as a young Chilean woman who has fought for Indigenous communities to be seen and heard. I will also have the opportunity to learn and experience first-hand the discussions that we young and Indigenous people have previously not been able to join.
I am particularly interested to witness the Global Stocktake that will be the great event of COP28. We will have the opportunity to know if our actions have been sufficient to curb climate change and if our progress has been competent. It will basically be like finding out the grades of an important exam.
What other issues will you be focused on in the climate negotiations?
One topic I will focus on is the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform. This will be the moment for me to speak out and demand that the ancestral knowledge of Indigenous Peoples be integrated in worldwide efforts to face climate change. There is also a need to emphasize the unique role Indigenous Peoples play as agents for sustainability – we represent 6 percent of the global population and protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. In my country, we have 10 different Indigenous Peoples and we are very interested in contributing to the design and success of this platform.
I also care a lot about the Global Goal on Adaptation. We need to be specific about what we can do to safeguard ecosystems that have already been damaged as a result of climate change, and to prevent vulnerable people and places who are at risk locally and globally. I am also interested in issues around agriculture and gender – as a more sustainable future will require changes to guarantee food security, and as women have a critical role to play ensuring their countries’ and communities’ climate plans are well-designed and executed.
What are your other interests? How do you spend your free time?
I volunteer at an organization called Potencia STEM, which seeks to empower girls through education so they can choose careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, and also promotes gender equality more broadly. I’m also a member of a Mapuche association working on preserving aspects of culture such as the Mapudungun language, cosmovision, and palin - our ancestral sport. It is a very tiring sport, but I love to play.
Other cultures also fascinate me. I love to read, especially Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. I enjoy watching series and documentaries from Asia. I have learned that my Mapuche culture has many rituals that are similar to those in Mongolia, China, and Japan. Another way I have learned about other places is through language. I learned English on my own (I must thank One Direction for this), I’ve studied Mapudungun, and two years ago I started to study Korean, Chinese, and Japanese.
Finally, I’ve loved dancing since I was very little - I have been in competitions and won dance awards. I dance to folk music, K-pop, reggaeton, hip hop – it’s almost therapy for me. When I dance, I forget everything.