As the United Nations General Assembly opens this week in New York, Indigenous people are taking to the streets, and waters, of New York to protest for climate justice and call on world leaders to recognize Indigenous rights. Starting Saturday, activists have protested in front of consulates, projected images of deforestation on buildings in midtown, sailed down the Hudson and East Rivers, and held a die-in in front of the New York Stock Exchange.
“Every day we see violence increasing, Indigenous Peoples being murdered and the destruction of our territories happening at an accelerated rate,” said Dinaman Tuxá, Executive Coordinator at Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), a national organization that unites Indigenous communities in support of their rights. “We demand the immediate demarcation of our lands and full protection of our rights and lives, as this is the only way in which we can continue to contribute to the fight against the climate crisis.”
APIB members focused their attention on President Jair Bolsonaro, who is in New York to make an address before the General Assembly and has pushed for development of the Amazon at the expense of Indigenous people. From 2019, when Bolsonaro took office, to 2021, Brazil lost over 13,000 square miles of Amazon forest. In just the first six months of this year, 1,500 square miles of forest were destroyed, the highest ever for that time period. Bolsonaro’s policies have also led to increasing violence against Indigenous land defenders–last year at least 27 people were killed protecting their territories. “Further allowing deforestation puts biodiversity, the lives of Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities, and the global climate at risk,” said Carol Pasquali, Executive Director at Greenpeace Brazil, which helped organize the protest. “World leaders must be accountable and put people and the planet first always.”
Filipino groups, including the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, gathered in front of the Philippine Consulate to protest President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. ahead of his speech at the U.N. Indigenous leaders are concerned that Marcos Jr.’s government will continue the nation’s history of directing violence toward Indigenous people. The protest also marked the 50th anniversary of Marcos Sr. declaring martial law and starting a years-long campaign during which over 3,000 people were killed, 70,000 imprisoned, and 34,000 tortured.
Indigenous activists are also using this week to push world leaders on concrete climate actions. Led by the Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), boats filled with activists sailed down the Hudson and East Rivers in New York to call on world leaders to support their calls for climate justice.
Indigenous people from Pacific Islands are often the most affected by rising sea levels and other climate impacts despite minimal contributions to the crisis, but have limited influence on the international level. “Our traditional knowledge is interrelated with our lands and this climate change is threatening to take this away, but we in Vanuatu will not be passive victims,” said Arnold Kiel Loughman, Attorney General of the Republic of Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. “We will do everything we can to defend the human rights of our people.”
Vanuatu and PISFCC are calling for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on climate change – non-binding legal advice provided to the United Nations which carries significant weight internationally. As of 2017, only 28 advisory opinions have been requested, on subjects ranging from use of nuclear weapons to United Nations expenses. To date, the International Court has never heard a case on climate change.
Advocates say the issuing of an opinion would put pressure on member states to review their policies and commitments, including strengthening the Paris Agreement by clarifying state’s obligations toward climate goals, and affirming Indigenous rights in the fight against climate change. For that to happen, the General Assembly must vote to send the case to the ICJ, which organizers believe is likely. Vanuatu and PSIFCC are calling for that vote and rallying support among countries through both diplomatic channels and public campaigning.
“The [International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion] campaign was born out of this sense of urgency,”said Vishal Prasad, a campaigner with PSIFCC. “We are campaigning for an advisory opinion that seeks to bring together human rights and impacts of climate change on future generations.”
International financing for projects like oil pipelines and deforestation that harm the environment and violate Indigenous rights are also the target of activists this week. Indigenous groups, including the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, staged a die-in in front of the New York Stock Exchange on Monday. “We start the week in Wall Street to ask decision makers what kind of projects they are supporting. We don’t want continued investment into the destruction of the Earth,” said Gustavo Sanchez, from Alianza Bosques. “We will all die if we continue like this.”
A coalition of Indigenous groups from Peru, including the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation, are calling on banks to divest from companies that destroy the Amazon, including Petroperú, a company they say is trying to build an oil pipeline on Indigenous land. The coalition presented a risk assessment to bank representatives that shows the environmental, financial, and moral cost to continuing with these investments.
“We all know global action has been significantly lacking,” Vishal Prasad said. “We are not just fighting for the rights of people now, but those that come after us.”