Fiona Watson, advocacy director for Survival International, has worked for more than 35 years to help Indigenous peoples across the world defend their lives and territories from land theft, forced development, and genocidal violence. As the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference draws to a close, and in the wake of this year’s UN report on climate change signaling a “code red for humanity, ” I spoke with Watson about what she has learned from decades of campaigning against seemingly impossible odds—and the importance of not losing hope.
When we first met in 2017, I was feeling despondent after years of reporting on environmental injustice in the Amazon rainforest, and you somehow convinced me that not all is lost. Given the environmental catastrophes we’ve seen in the last four years, are you still feeling hopeful?
All is not lost until all is lost. That’s not to underestimate the gravity of the situation. It’s a very bleak scenario, no doubt about that. But one of the things that really encourages me, still, is the phenomenal growth in the Indigenous movement in many countries. It’s thanks to them that we still have forests standing in places like Maranhão [Brazil], which has been so devastated in the last 50 years.
We know Indigenous people are the best defenders of their land, but they need us to stand by them. They need our moral support. They need our financial support. When we’re talking about the climate crisis, we’re also talking about a crisis of human diversity.
Why is that human diversity so vital?
Indigenous and tribal peoples show us other ways of being and thinking, different ways of thinking about life, about the planet, about the resources and how we use them. Whether through their technologies or science, or their expert botanists or herbalists or zoologists, they understand these very profound connections between human beings and nature, and how these things interconnect. And they are self-sufficient peoples. They can show us how to live within our means.
They are also warning voices. Long before Western people had woken up to climate change, I traveled for many years with the Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa when he left Brazil for the first time. His prophetic voice was telling us this years ago: “We’re all in the same boat. You don’t know it yet, but we know it already. You’re going to burn. You’re going to suffer unless the materialism and the consumption of industrialized society changes.”
What they have to show us is this extraordinary knowledge, but also this tenacity to stand up in the face of massive violence and greed, and challenging this perception that we can carry on consuming.
When you reflect on a 20-year campaign like that effort to demarcate the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in Brazil—the largest area of protected rainforest in the world—what have you learned about balancing a sense of urgency with the stamina necessary to make lasting change?
We need both. The public may feel despair and helpless in situations like this, and the only thing I can say is that all the campaigns that I’ve been involved in at Survival, and more widely, have been long campaigns.
Look at the campaign against slavery. That was a long campaign, and many people thought it was entrenched. But slavery was abolished eventually.
We should never think that we can’t change things. It’s easy to get depressed and defeatist. But when people and groups stand up, collectively, and are counted, and do whatever they can in whatever way, change can coalesce. And that’s why I hold onto some form of optimism.
And how do you hold onto that optimism in the face of setbacks like we’re seeing with the spread of industrial mining in the Yanomami Territory?
When I started, there were no Yanomami political organizations. And there were only a handful of Yanomami like Davi who spoke Portuguese and were speaking out. Now there are many more. So that’s another difference that gives me hope. The way they use technology to communicate their messages, the way that they’re lobbying the Brazilian government, and the United Nations, and the Organization of American States. That’s a complete change.
I know the times are very bleak. But people shouldn’t lose hope. When you lose hope, then you lose everything. The Bolsonaros of the world are not going to be in power forever.
How can non-Indigenous people learn from and stand by Indigenous groups and uplift Indigenous voices in a non-colonial way?
First of all, what we can do is educate ourselves by reading and becoming aware of things that may look like solutions to climate change that are not necessary. So for example, carbon emissions. The fundamental thing about offsetting your carbon emissions is completely wrong, because the message is, “Carry on polluting, but pay your way out.”
A lot of these proposals are very flawed—and colonial because they’re coming at the cost of Indigenous peoples. Much of the creation of national parks is done in this extremely colonial, fortress conversation way, kicking Indigenous people off their land with no attempt to obtain their free prior or informed consent. Why are they not working with the very people who could make conservation work with their eyes and ears on the ground?
There’s this arrogance that the Westerner or the scientist knows best. That has to be challenged.
What have you learned from Indigenous people about challenging these power structures?
I have seen extraordinary resilience in so many Indigenous peoples. Like the Guarani in Brazil. I’ve visited them in encampments where they are living on the side of the road between a massive highway and a barbed wire fence. And they’re still performing their rituals, absolutely single-minded about getting back to their ancestral land.
One of the most despairing conclusions of the United Nations report on climate change is that a certain degree of catastrophe is inevitable at this point—and that the new goal should be to avoid even worse disaster. What has your work taught you about inevitability?
The trouble with inevitabilities is that it becomes shorthand for “cross my arms and do nothing.” I don’t think anything is really inevitable. I’d rather turn it round and say it’s not inevitable. I mean, it’s extremely serious. It’s very grave. But there is still some time.
In the 1950s, you had people predicting that there would be no Indigenous peoples left in Brazil by 1980. That hasn’t happened. People in Brazil, the Indigenous movement, and certain sectors internationally didn’t let that happen.
They could easily, easily have said, “You know, it’s all inevitable. Indigenous people can die out or become integrated.”
Neither has happened. We have to be very careful about using the word inevitable.
What advice would you give a young activist who’s looking at the world right now and feeling despondent?
You as an individual have a whole load of possibilities. Always be prepared to go with your gut instinct and your values. And try not to get sucked in by the commercialism in the mainstream.
They have youth on their side. And youth is a fantastic thing. Youth refuses. They’re saying, “This is our future, and we don’t want this.”
We’ve done a terrible thing, our mistakes, and generations before us, and now we are putting it all on the young people, and it’s a very heavy burden. But at the same time, the young people are up for a fight. Without a doubt, the young people, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, north, south, east, west, are the hope for the future. My message would be never, ever give up. Nothing is ended until it’s ended.
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