By Quin Galvin
Before leaving home to embark on a Solidarity Collective trip to Colombia, “Confronting Climate Change and Building Peace: Environmental Justice in Colombia,” my brain was jam-packed full of expectations of what I might learn. Of course, this trip met and exceeded these expectations but more than that, I was met with a realization that I think a lot of people could greatly benefit from.
Like almost everything else on Planet Earth, people have different ideas about how we can be actors in the struggle for environmental justice. Previously, I have always prickled at the argument that the individual-actions approach was futile - individual actions including recycling, going meatless, using less single-use plastics, etc. My argument was always, “sure it's not getting to the root but it is a way in which everyone can be involved in the process and path towards a healthier way of living on Earth.” I can still get with this, especially as a gateway for education and understanding, but I have come to recognize some flaws. The main flaw in my eyes is that a movement based completely on the actions of individuals puts the responsibility, pressure, and shame on… individuals.
The actors that hold the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis are governments, corporations, and industries that allow extraction and emissions to run rampant; with this in mind, another way to think of this whole situation is within the context of colonization. Eliza Preston Thym of Medium states that the “purpose of colonization was/is to serve as a source of inexpensive labor and natural resources.” I am inclined to agree with this, especially in the way it allows for contextualization outside of the mainstream bound of what is thought of as the Colonial Era. In fact, Colonialism by countless definitions is alive and well and causing climate change - there are numerous articles that link the two phenomenons (like here, here, here, here, and here). Colonialism - in conjunction with empire and capitalism - may be present in ways you didn’t expect.
“Neocolonialism is a huge issue all over the world [...] The extractive projects are connected to Neoliberal policies that rely on extraction in order to develop, it is putting at risk our life and diversity.”
-Enio Martinez, PCPV
Through trips like this one with Solidarity Collective, we can see the obvious impact of colonialism on our neighbors all over the world, typically in those resource-rich countries which saw Colonial Era colonialism back in the (not so distant) day. Colonialism looks very similar today from back then:
Government officials granting agro-industry, mining, drilling, and hydroelectric concessions to big multinational corporations for their own political or economic gain
The widespread cultivation of traditional food crops by agro-industry to foster the capitalization of geographically specific food crops for domestic use and for exportation
The extraction of resources, and then going on to pump the hazardous bi-products of this extraction back into the ecosystem
The destabilization of traditional economic, social, and cultural systems as a way of forcing individuals to become dependent on the capitalistic system for employment, usually with the primary or secondary goal of displacing these families from their ancestral lands, which the government usually lays claim to, then making more concessions to multinational corporations (MNC’s)
From here the cycle continues.
Colonialism is not relegated exclusively to the “Global South,” in fact, it plays a part in every community in our society, including mine and yours:
Eminent domain targeting historically-redlined, low-income communities, typically communities of color to allow for the construction of public and private works projects
Gentrification, a predatory process which allows economic interests to take advantage of low property values, commercializing and capitalizing on residents, against their will, in the name of economic development
Local, state, and federal politicians accepting ridiculously large “donations” by organizational and industrial lobbying interests (also it should be mentioned that lobbying happens regardless of party, and sometimes the biggest lobbying contributors are organizations that we may feel ideologically connected to, that does NOT mean that money and buying power has any place in representational politics)
From here the cycle continues.
But this is not the way it has always been. It will not be this way forever. There are beautiful places with people who are actively rejecting this way of being, and from them we have much to learn.
Before arriving at a Campesino reserve in Miranda, Cauca (pictured above), we passed hectares and hectares of mono-cropped sugarcane planted by an agro-industry MNC. The fields of mono-crops are extremely lucrative to the corporation, but at a devastating price to the environment and local communities who once possessed the land, eradicating biodiversity and land sovereignty. Upon arriving we met Leider Valencia, who gave us a tour where we saw the vast difference in the landscape that was being cultivated by campesinos on the reserve. First, we could see that the land on which this 102 hectare reservation was situated was not the vast, flat farmlands which were dominated by sugarcane monocropping, but rather the significantly more difficult and dangerous terrain found on the side of mountain foothills.
“Powerful business along with State interests seek to depopulate [our land] from its ancestral inhabitants to build mega-projects that would disrupt the natural ecosystem and our socio-economic life.”
- Orlando Castillo, Naya River Community Council
As we walked around we were also struck by the biodiversity and variety of cultivated plants. One plant which we did not see while walking around with Leider was the genetically modified (GM) mass-produced and state-sanctioned corn which has spread its way across our hemisphere. Although the GMO crop yields larger ears of corn, which would in theory garner more income, campesinos reject these seeds and choose instead to save their own seeds for the next year’s harvest.
“Seeds in the hands of Campesinos are life and wisdom. If we lose the seeds, we lose our power. If we can preserve our seeds, we can preserve our power.”
- Enio Martinez, PCPV
We were also welcomed into a legitimately magical community, known as Abriendo Trocha (Opening Paths), in the municipality of La Vega. On this compound of land they produce their own soil, seeds, and crops, as well as their Abriendo Trocha products, which include some of the freshest coffee and panela (raw sugar cane granules) I have ever tasted due in large part to the fact that the entirety of their production takes place on their finca (family farmland). In addition to all of this work, their community also runs a school and theatre troupe which acts to preserve and expand Campesino identity for their children. Sam, our delegation coordinator from SC, told us that although this was the first meeting of the Solidarity Collective and Abriendo Trocha, they welcomed and trusted in this new partnership because they wanted to spread their story of hope for an alternative way of being.
Not only did we see examples of alternative ways of being, we also saw some incredible community-driven forms of resistance to colonialism by the people of Colombia.
Oscar Salazar and the organization to which he belongs, the Proceso Campesino y Popular del Municipio de La Vega (PCPV), is a community of land defenders who have been in the struggle for 30 years whose main issues include the food crisis, the environmental crisis, and the imperialist policies that are oppressing the people. Their work is broad, they spend their time educating visiting groups, welcoming visiting activists (like Noam Chomsky), demonstrating and marching against imperialist and colonizing multinational corporation presence, holding public forums on anti-colonial/imperialist issues, and hosting huge bi-annual conventions (Convención Popular del Agua). They have had real success because of their efforts and we have a lot to learn from their model of popular education and community connection and involvement in widespread demonstration against corporate exploitation.
All of this being said, I have come to understand that the only way in which we can see and feel liberation from a system that creates and fosters the climate crisis is through the marriage of individual AND collective actions. Here are some ways in which you can step beyond your current individual-action approach to environmentalism toward an approach that doesn’t leave you, and you alone, with responsibility for our failing socio-economic-environmental systems:
Find some like-minded buddies and start a club or collective that fights for environmental justice, locally, nationally, or globally; or join already-established groups like the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, etc.
Look into local, state, or national policy (like H.R. 1945 or others found here) that would have an effect on environmental justice and make some calls to your representatives imploring them to vote with their constituents - rather than corporate greed - in mind
If you don’t know who your elected representatives are, look here for national, here for state, and unfortunately there is no database for local council members but simply google “[your city] council members” and you should find it pretty easily!
Start a reading club that focuses on the stories of environmental leaders as a way of fostering a connection to the global struggle for environmental justice, you may need to do some digging but it is worth it - feel the community, individuals together!
Research and write about the links between capitalism, colonialism, and the climate crisis, share freely with your friends, family, Facebook, and local newspapers
Organize a talk in your community, either in your home, congregation, or through a virtual platform
Divest in corporations that contribute to extractive industry presence in resource-rich areas both domestic and abroad - think pipelines, mining, fracking, mono-cropping (the worst “carbon majors”, 4 different indexes exploring the worst corporate polluters, top banks funding fossil fuels, largest multinational mining companies)
I hope you encourage someone to switch to reusable grocery bags. I hope that you do a little happy dance every time a restaurant gives out paper straws instead of plastic ones. I hope that you feel proud of the many ways in which you try to make conscious decisions to reduce your impact on the planet, and I hope you know that I am grateful for what you have done so far. Further, I hope you commit to these individual actions and begin the collective work where change lies. Together I think we can challenge ourselves to go farther.