Last month in the same building where scientists, such as James Watt claimed, ‘Nature can be conquered’ and that humans can be masters of the Earth, indigenous people from around the world gathered in these very rooms to demand that we protect nature from humans and give indigenous people their rights to continue to be guardians of the forest.
This event at Royal Society in London was where Indigenous people from Indonesia, Congo, South and Central America, as part of their journey to the international Climate Change Talks in Bonn, Germany, spoke of their demands for legal rights to their forest land. They demanded an end to violence against them and for a voice in climate change strategies so that indigenous people can continue to be the guardians of the forest in the fight to combat climate change.
In the 17th century, these very rooms of the Royal Society were filled with voices of scientists who prided themselves in the pursuit of knowledge to conquer the earth and its resources, to bend the earth to their will and in doing so supported expeditions to enslave and annihilate indigenous populations around the world all in the name of scientific progress.
This contrast made me reflect on humanity’s efforts so far to combat climate change and climate injustice.
A very small part of me felt relief in the fact that the accepted thought in the UK has moved on from thinking we are better than those already living in forest lands and that we can take their land and teach them the ‘right way’ of doing things. And yes, in this day and age, these brutal ideas are not supported and I shouldn’t need to mention it – however, these ideals still linger on and manifest themselves in other ways.
Why is it that in many countries, indigenous people do not have legal rights to their land?
Why is it that that there have been close to no convictions for the murder of indigenous people?
Why has it taken over 20 years before the voices of those living in the forests have been heard (at unfortunately not yet listened to by politicians) at Climate change talks?
Why is it that politicians talk about the need to protect these people whilst also doing very little to stop the destruction of their land?
Looking around me, I wondered whether the Royal Society had given any thought to this marrying of conflicting thoughts and practice that were taking place at this event. This event was arguing for forest preservation as part of the solution to climate change, and for the preservation and management of these forests to be in the hands of those who live there. For centuries, and even more recently, events held in this building triumphed the mining and extracting of the wealth of natural resources found in forests and held forth that ‘Westerners’ should have control over this land to tame.
To be honest, the Royal Society probably hadn’t thought of this at all. The Guardians of the Forest was just an external conference guest like any other.
However, what I was thinking about was how this dichotomy, although historic but not yet only historic, represented the wider issues at play within the debate around the best solutions to the climate crisis.
In Naomi’s Klein book ‘This Changes Everything’, she writes how the Royal Society discuss the technological plan B for the climate, if we can’t reduce our emissions. This includes geo-engineering, how to ‘fertilise the oceans with iron to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, covering deserts with vast white sheets in order to reflect sunlight back to space; and building fleets on machines…that would suck carbon out of the air’ (p.257).
This common thread of thought that science and humankind can conquer any natural threat continues. Rather than focusing on what we know works, stopping emissions and preserving forests, the Royal Society with political support has been and is burying its’ head in sands of scientific equations to, in effect, put a massive plaster over the damage we have caused to our eco-systems, weather, atmosphere, land and seas.
Or maybe, just maybe, this Guardians of the Forest event is a pinprick in a changing of ideas from the Royal Society, that they will no longer continue to search for pure technological solutions to our climate problems and instead listen to those most affected by climate change who are also doing so much of the work to control the climate crisis, by protecting the forests.
If it’s not, then I wish that the Royal Society would listen to the Guardians of the Forest and change. And that the Royal Society hadn’t been paid for their room hire and expensive lunches.
You can also read this and other articles on Annie’s blog, What I Do and Think