In December 2021, the month after the UN Climate Conference concluded in Glasgow, Al Jazeera featured Kumi Naidoo and Winona LaDuke in two inspiring conversations in London. Naidoo and LaDuke focused on the need and the potential for grassroots activists to step up when governments are failing to address the crisis.
The seven days beginning with the anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa on March 21, 1960 end Sunday with the anniversary of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814, in which future president Andrew Jackson led his troops against the Creek nation in what is now Alabama.
These dates make this a very appropriate time to be reminded of the central role of anti-racist and indigenous activists in global struggles for climate justice.
At Sharpeville the dead were peaceful demonstrators. At Horseshoe Bend they were elite Creek warriors.
In each case, however, they were mowed down mercilessly by superior firepower.
This post contains a transcript and the streaming video of the second conversation.
NAIDOO: This is a moment for us not to adjust to things that are so fundamentally unjust.
LaDUKE: Since fleeing South Africa’s apartheid, Kumi has scaled oil rigs and protested from the Arctic Ocean to the Alberta tar sands.
NAIDOO: The time of playing political poker with our planet has to be over right now.
LaDUKE: Everything is a toxic mess. What we want is a transition out. But what we have is an addicted society, and the fossil fuel industry continues to push those addictions.
NAIDOO: Winona has stood in opposition against coal and uranium mines, dam projects, and oil pipelines.
LaDUKE: It’s not like I’m standing here as a matter of choice. I’m standing here as a matter of necessity.
NAIDOO: One of the challenges we face is how do we keep engaged in struggle for such a long time, when quite often, we’re winning battles, but losing the overall war for justice? I draw my inspiration from a true story that I experienced as a young activist, when a friend of mine, Lenny Naidoo, was killed together with three young women from my home city, Durban. And I had to think about the last conversation I had with him when we were fleeing into exile in different directions, where he asked me the question, Kumi, what is the biggest contribution you can make to the cause of justice? I said giving your life. And he said, you mean going, getting shot and killed, and becoming a martyr? I said, I guess so. That was what was happening in South Africa in the ’80s when he asked me that question. And then he said, no, that’s the wrong answer. He said, it’s not giving your life, but giving the rest of your life.
When he died, I had to think about that. In that is a wisdom that says the struggle for justice is a marathon and not a sprint. People might forget that when Nelson Mandela was fighting the good fight, he was reviled. When Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, many others – at the time they stood up for justice, they were reviled. But history then records that in fact, they were precious assets that humanity created.
So I was curious to know, Winona, what gives you the courage to wake up day after day after day to say even though the cards are stacked against us, I’m still going to stand up for justice?
LaDUKE: First, I live in the most beautiful place the Creator could have been. So every day I look out and there was trumpeter swans before I left. The wild swans – they live with me. And I was like, that’s who I work for, you know? I work for the swans, and I work for the horses, and I work for Mother Earth. I don’t work for the state. I don’t work for the – you know? I think that that in itself is pretty much a good reward.
But I just spent the last eight years trying to protect my territory from a Canadian multinational named Enbridge that just put in a tar sands pipeline, Line 3. Now, a $9 billion tar sands pipeline at the end of the fossil fuel era – you don’t get a tiara for that one. You don’t get a crown. Everybody is divesting from oil. Even Harvard, my alma mater, finally started its divestment policy. The Saudi sovereign fund divested. So you’re at the end of the era, and this last dinosaur has got to shove a pipeline down your throat.
Every day, I stood up – I lived on the river. A thousand people were arrested fighting this pipeline, a lot of Indigenous women. They put the pipeline in during the pandemic. And I can see, as your brother who passed away in the 1990s can see, that the systems are not working. But the longer that you fight them, the more that things change.
As I look out there, I see that other pipelines did not get through. The Keystone XL pipeline was canceled. The Constitution pipeline was canceled.
NAIDOO: And many of those pipelines were spoken about as if it was a fait accompli, it was definitely going to go –
LaDUKE: That’s right.
NAIDOO: – and people stopped it.
LaDUKE: But the little people like us that keep standing up. And our battle is long from over with Enbridge. Time will tell how the deconstruction of this industrial system occurs. We hope it occurs in a way that provides a lot of jobs for a lot of people, because taking out pipelines is a lot of labor. The just transition, or however we call it – the rebuilding, the restoration economy, will take a lot of work. That opportunity is the opportunity to build an economy that makes sense.
NAIDOO: That’s very optimistic, in the sense that you’re saying the mountain is steep, and it has to be climbed, but we’re going to climb it, however difficult it is, right? This decade is the most consequential decade in humanity’s history. What in struggle we are able to achieve over the next 10 years will determine what kind of future we have, particularly for people in small island states, the least-developed countries, and so on.
So I believe that if we’re going to win right now in a short time space, there are far too many companies that are doing bad things in the front end, and we probably don’t have time to go after each of them separately. I think what we need to do is follow the money and shut the flow of capital at source so that as many bad, polluting projects that are taking us to the climate cliff is stopped. Does that resonate with you at all?
LaDUKE: No, I think that that is a strategy. I mean, I was arrested. I was charged with a thousand other people. I spent three days in jail fighting a Canadian multinational and watched Biden turn his back on us. What we need to do definitely is go to the financial institutions. We fight them on the ground, because $2 billion in cost overruns is not good for your investors. The longer you fight them, the more expensive the project gets. But what we need is the people – the 1% that are making all the money, they have children, too. They have grandchildren, too. And the divestment movement is growing. That is one thing that we are grateful for – to keep divesting. Don’t put your money there, but make the future instead.
NAIDOO: I feel that one of the challenges we have is we have to get better at communicating. How can we communicate in ways that much larger numbers of people can easily understand that we are destroying ourselves? We are shooting ourselves every day and killing the possibilities for our children to be able to prosper in the future.
I’m curious to know about – within Indigenous culture itself, what we can learn. Because what I feel is that right now, we need to use arts and culture, for example, much more as a way to communicate what is happening, rather than long documents and complicated policy statements.
LaDUKE: I agree. This month in my language is called Gashkadino-giizis, which means the freezing-over moon. It turns out that there is no moon in Ojibwe language that is named after a Roman emperor. We don’t have a July, don’t have an August, don’t have that. So if you have a worldview that doesn’t have to do with empire, which a lot of the world does, you can think a little differently than if you’re preoccupied with the maintaining of empire.
In our prophecies – Anishinaabe people, they talk about this as the time of the seventh fire. And in our prophecies, we’re told that we have a choice between two paths. A long time ago, they said one path is well worn, but scorched. The other path is not well worn, and it’s green. And it would be our choice upon which path to embark. That’s our instructions. Almost every Indigenous society has exactly the same teachings.
The other thing that my society or my Indigenous teachings don’t have is we don’t have armageddon. What we have is birth, death, and rebirth, just like a cyclical world. It is fall – dagwaagin. It is fall. The leaves are falling outside. Then they go down, we get snow, and it is quiet. It is quiet. Then we think, we remember, and then it is reborn in the spring. It is reborn.
In many of our teachings, we say this is the fourth world or the fifth world that we have to remake because humans make a mess. That’s what we do. And then we remake. This is our time to remake. Get over it. Change is inevitable. It’s a question of who controls the change. We want to be the ones that are the agents of change.
Now, we’ve got to put our minds together. A great leader, Sitting Bull – great political leader – he said, let us put our minds together to see what kind of future we can make for our children. The answers are people like you, me, many more, not some guy over there at COP – big guy in the government. The minds together is all of us.
NAIDOO: But the difficulty we have is while we need to put our minds together, colonialism’s biggest trait was divide and rule, right? So we are sitting with a situation right now, and you know this as well as I do, that people have been divided by false promises. Even Indigenous communities have been divided, as you know, where companies come in and sell a false prosperity and so on.
Because one of the things that we have to figure out right now, I think, is for example, people who work for oil, coal, and gas companies – they are our kin. They are our brothers and sisters. They didn’t say, we want to work in oil, coal, and gas, right? They were told that that’s the way you deliver energy. Now, when we say that we need to make the transition, there are people within those industries who feel threatened. That’s why you and I are advocates for a just transition, so that people will either be retrained for the renewable energy industry, or if they’re close to retirement, they should be able to retire with dignity and so on. But how do you think we deal with the challenge of winning people over who have been led to believe that the current system serves them, even though it certainly doesn’t?
LaDUKE: Well, I think the pandemic is a pretty good wake-up for everybody, and the fact that people don’t want to go back to business as usual is quite clear in the United States. So in that, there’s this opportunity to kind of liberate yourself from all of that other thinking and figure out what you want to do. I think a lot of people are doing that.
In North America, I see North Dakota – oil, oil, oil state. What are they training their people for? Wind turbines. Why? Because North Dakota is the windiest state. Why are you doing oil, North Dakota, when you could be doing wind? You could be doing hemp – hemp and linen. There’s talk about that. The solutions are there.
NAIDOO: Talk a little bit about hemp.
LaDUKE: This is the thing. I’ve been growing hemp for six years. I have a permit from the State of Minnesota and a permit from the federal government. I grow fiber hemp. I call this the new green revolution, because you could replace the materials economy with hemp. You could sequester carbon with hemp. All that cement out there, if it was a country, it would the third-largest country in terms of CO2 emissions in the world would be cement. If you went to hempcrete – what if you used building systems that stored carbon instead of were carbon-intensive, like the landscape or the cityscape that we have? So I’m saying the answers are there, and it is not necessarily new. It’s the good thinking that we need.
Oh, I see a question that looks as if –
Q: Hi, my name is Sara (sp?). I’m calling in from Wiyot territory in northern California. My question has to do with youth. A recent survey of 10,000 youth across the globe reported that 77% feel that the future is frightening. Kumi talked about the next 10 years being very important. I’m thinking about the youth climate movement. I’m curious what advice you have for them, given that the burden has been handed down to them?
NAIDOO: Firstly, I would say young people and the youth movement have kept people like me going over the past couple of years. It’s been a source of tremendous inspiration. In fact, I did a tweet after the declaration of COP26 came out. I said, it’s OK. Take the night and cry that we have been criminally betrayed by the climate negotiators. But on Monday, the fight continues.
The other thing I would say to young people is they have to resist this so-called wisdom when we say young people are the leaders of tomorrow. Because if young people wait until they take leadership tomorrow, there might not be a tomorrow for young people to be able to exercise that leadership. The one thing young people have is freshness of perspective. Their lenses can look at old problems and look at it in a different way. I think that is what is critically needed right now. We need a new sense of imagination.
But the most important message I have for young people is do not let those who have been climate denialists, those that are speaking lies, those that have driven us to this point of distraction have the benefit of thinking that they have destroyed your spirit. The way we do our activism should be a source of energy, because we’re going to need a lot of inspiration and energy on a daily basis if we’re going to turn things around.
Q: Hi. I’m currently in South Africa. I am South African. And I always wonder about how environmentalism is a space of privilege at the moment. So my question is are there current examples of how marginalized populations are included and informed on the conversation and in actioning climate justice?
LaDUKE: From my perspective, I live on a reservation in northern Minnesota called White Earth. I’m Ojibwe or Anishinaabe. And we’re looking out there and looking like, looks like you all don’t have it together, so we’re going to rebuild our local food system, because your food system doesn’t work. And then we’re going to make solar thermal panels so that poor people who live in a cold place can get heat in a really efficient way. So making sure that what the changes that are needed are accessible to the people who need them the most has to be paramount in a just transition. It’s not about just making sure that the top guys get everything. The justice is in the rest of us who are feeling the impacts of climate change also have that. And the thing is – is that the next economy is not about competition. It’s about cooperation.
NAIDOO: The one only thing I’d add to it is the question of how do those with privilege handle their privilege? And I think that it’s important that even within civil society, within our movement, we need to address the questions of power imbalances that exist. So I just put up my hand and say that even – it’s not just a question of government and business shutting out the most marginalized, but even those of us that seek to serve, and that work needs to be done.
LaDUKE: The other thing I just want to say is the 1% got to do their part. If you’re in the 1%, stand up for the rest of us, because your kids are with us. There’s privilege and then there’s the responsibility of privilege. So stand up for your responsibility.
Hello, my friend.
Q: Thank you so much for this enlightened discussion. What lessons could the youth climate movement take from the anti-apartheid movement, and how could those lessons then help us pressure the governments to stick to their 1.5 Celsius pledge? Thank you.
NAIDOO: By the way, where are you speaking from?
Q: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – Caribbean.
NAIDOO: Oh, wonderful. Right now, we’ve got a crazy situation. There are even foundations and universities and even some religious institutions who say they’re all opposed to climate change, but actually, some of their own investments are still sitting in fossil fuels. It’s changing fast. But I think one of the things that helped us in South Africa to make the system delegitimized was by people who had money – and that’s why Winona is so right. The people at the top who have serious money – if they were to step forward and say we’re shifting every cent of ours away from dirty energy investment, but then make sure you shift it into something positive. Because also, I think the people who have made money from an unjust system that has driven us to this point of destruction also have an obligation now to use their money and resources in ways that are genuinely positive. So investing in innovation, in young people, and so on – that’s one.
The second lesson, I think, that we can draw on is the importance of civil disobedience. If history has taught us anything, when humanity has faced a major injustice or a major struggle or major challenge, those struggles only move forward when decent women and men step up and say enough is enough and no more. We’re prepared to put our life on the line if necessary. We’re prepared to go to prison is necessary.
But I think the other thing that we can learn from the anti-apartheid movement, which Mandela taught us, is always to be clear that we are fighting a system, and we’re not fighting people. Mandela always was clear about saying we’re not fighting white people. We are fighting a system that perpetuates white domination, which is very different. That’s why we need to convince the people who are benefiting from the current system that in fact, it is in their interest to change, because both the rich and poor children’s lives are threatened by climate change. And hopefully that is a message we can communicate.
Winona, you might have some perspectives on this as well.
LaDUKE: I would agree. As a young student at Harvard, I was involved in a Harvard divestment campaign. We were trying for a long time. And the other thing you learned from that struggle is it takes a while. It doesn’t happen overnight. You have to keep building the pressure, and you have to keep transforming it. But my alma mater, Harvard, did divest in fossil fuels or is beginning that process. No such luck for a long time on South Africa. So you see changes happening. I have taken a lot of good heart from the privilege of my experience with South African ANC and the movement there. So take heart. It takes a while.
NAIDOO: Maybe the one last thing I want to add is the critical importance of ensuring that our resistance to the fossil fuel industry and other industries that are driving us to climate destruction needs to be peaceful. I think that there are people in certain governments and in certain industries that are banking on that the anger and the disappointment that young people and others are feeling will manifest themselves in violent resistance activities. I think that if we play into that, we will be doing a disservice to the struggle. Right now, while I can completely understand especially young people feeling an absolute sense of betrayal, I urge and appeal to young people to ensure that our resistance is bold, it’s strong, it’s courageous, but we ensure that we remain peaceful. Because if we cross that line, we will give those that want to prevent our voices from being heard an excuse to come down and crush us.
And just to be clear, they are crushing resistance to injustices of all kinds at the moment, and that’s what we are up against. But I think adhering to peaceful ways is critically important. Sorry, over to you.
Q: My question is about the changing face of colonialism. We’re seeing the fossil fuel industry, the Western states increasingly look towards things like nickel, cobalt, lithium as materials that they can extract whilst pretending to be green. So what can we as the 21st century environmental movement do to effectively fight against that?
LaDUKE: Yeah, thank you for saying that, because I just had a pipeline shoved down my throat by Canada. It was a very colonial experience. (laughter) Didn’t have anything to do with any UN declarations on the rights of Indigenous people. That’s the way it is with late-state addiction. They’re going to keep trying to push these things and push these things. The latest is the green mining projects for the electric cars.
I see that, one, the first thing you got to do is stop your level of consumption. We got to cut back and cut back how we behave, because we behave like a bunch of T. rexes, quite frankly.
Then the other thing we got to do is go for the easy answer. Don’t ask me to fill your energy needs in the United States with renewables when you waste 60% of your power between point of origin and point of consumption.
LaDUKE: So get efficient and be responsible. That’s what we do. And that generates a tremendous amount of jobs – insulating, rebuilding grid systems, building local energy. That is more efficient, and it really fundamentally is also about how we relate to each other and how we relate to Mother Earth or our planet.
So the decolonizing involves letting go of your bad behavior and getting back into being the responsible people and societies that we’re supposed to be. It’s this moment of transformation. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We’re sitting here in the bastion of colonialism itself. And I think what we’re saying is time to move on. Time to rebuild relationships that are far more just and fair. I’m optimistic, because I believe and I see the change has been made, and I see our prophecies that say which way to go, and I’m all ready. I’m all ready to move on the green path, and I think a lot of us are.
NAIDOO: I’m optimistic even at a time when a lot of the resistance to injustice is being met with force and repression, because as was said many decades ago, first, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win. The good news is the resistance to injustice is not being ignored, is not being laughed at. It’s being fought very hard by those in power. Let’s hope that if this wisdom is right, then people are just one step away from winning economic justice, social justice, climate justice, gender justice, Indigenous justice, and so on.
LaDUKE: Yes. In our hearts, I know that our ancestors are with us and that we are ancestors for those who are not yet here. And I want them to look on me and say you did a good job, sister. So that’s this time, which is a good opportunity to do the right thing.
NAIDOO: That’s beautiful, and I think it’s good to leave it there.