Why Indigenous Youth Were 2019's Climate Warriors

Photo: Photo 1: Courtesy of Bernadette Demientieff, Photo 2: Allison Hanes, Photo 3: Courtesy of Jeffry Torres

If there was any year to honour the youth, 2019 sure as hell would be it. Around the world this year, young people took to the streets and demanded their governments take action to address climate change. Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg has been held up as the face of the new youth movement, but even she’s admitted she’s new to this fight. You know who aren’t? Indigenous youth.

In the harsh climate of Alaska, the people of the Gwich’in Nation are doing all they can to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the Trump administration and oil companies looking to exploit it. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Kichwa peoples are at the forefront of efforts to protect the world’s largest rainforest from further deforestation. In Central America, the Cabécar people are gaining access to power through solar, turning away from fossil fuel energy that powered the last century.

And at the heart of all this are youth. Earther spoke with three young adults leading the new wave of the climate movement. This what they’re doing and why they’re in this fight, in their own words.

These interviews have been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Photo: Courtesy of Bernadette Demientieff

Isaiah Horace, 20, Alaska

Gwich’in Nation

Why do you fight for the planet?

I fight to protect the wildlife and people in Alaska from drilling and oil and gas exploration because, in doing so, they will hurt the environment, the animals, and the caribou. It’ll be really bad for the Native lifestyle.

Why should indigenous youth be at the centre of this fight?

I think we should be at the centre of the fight because we’re the next generation of Native leaders who are going to continue to fight for the cause. The elders, who also fight for the cause, help the youth learn more about the land, the animals, the lifestyle, and how to protect it.

What was the biggest victory you saw in 2019?

The biggest victory is that some youth have joined together to hold governments accountable and make drilling companies realise how going out to drill gas and oil can hurt the environment, especially with climate change. A bill was introduced in Congress to stop drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

What do you want to see happen in 2020?

I’d like to continue seeing no drilling in the refuge, as well as less oil and gas drilling exploration in Alaska. Doing so is going to cause more harm than good.

What role will you play in ensuring that happens?

I’ll help voice the mission and get more support and followers with the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

Photo: Courtesy of Helena Gualinga

Helena Gualinga, 17, Ecuadorian Amazon

Kichwa People of Sarayaku

Why do you fight for the planet?

What got me involved was that an oil company began to target my community. They wanted to come there and drill without my community’s consent. The Ecuadorian government supported that. That got me involved in climate issues because I felt connected to how these industries are in our territories but, at the same time, contributing to climate change. I just don’t want my children growing up like that.

Why should indigenous youth be at the centre of this fight?

The thing is that indigenous people and, well, indigenous youth are the future. We’re the ones protecting our forest. Indigenous peoples, in general, have been protecting the forests and oceans. It’s pretty simple: We should be in charge of what we have been protecting, and it’s wrong and unfair that companies are trying to take that from us.

What was the biggest victory you saw in 2019?

The awakening of the world. Even if it’s a slow process, people are finally waking up to what is happening with climate change and indigenous people’s rights being violated.

What do you want to see in 2020?

I want to see more people waking up, but I also want to see concrete decisions by politicians and government so that there are actually results. People are talking, talking, talking, and they’re not getting anything done.

What role will you play in ensuring that happens?

I come from the Amazon, so my role is to make people aware of what is going on in the Amazon and what impacts climate change is having there.

Photo: Courtesy Jeffry Torres

Jeffry Eduardo Torres Cortes, 24, Costa Rica

Cabécar People

Why do you fight for the planet?

I fight for my home, for where I live, for the lands our ancestors have left us. I fight for the place my ancestors lived all their life. That’s because it’s something that’s mine, that belongs to me, that’s always belonged to my family. If I don’t fight for that, my kids one day won’t have anything. So I fight to ensure they have a future.

Why should indigenous youth be at the centre of this fight?

We are an example of how people need to be. Indigenous youth have the capacity to take care of and respect the land they live on. We use technology, the items of the outside world without destroying our home.

I think that we should not be at the centre of this fight, though, because we can’t go solve all the world’s problems. But we can say “look, this is what we do in our territories to protect and conserve our territories.” And that’s something that comes from our fathers, ancestors, and it’s a wisdom others can appreciate.

What was the biggest victory you saw in 2019?

For me, personally, 2019 has been a really important year. We created a solar energy program. That’s a major victory because we’re helping give power to remote indigenous families. The last community we went to on December 21 said they could finally enjoy the new year with light and without worry about candles burning down their home. I’m ending this year with a victory for my pueblo, my home, and for those who are waiting with open hands for something good

What do you want to see in 2020?

I want to continue this program, but this is a fight without end. We can do something good for our lands, but there’s always going to be a fight to fight, and we’re always going to have to be ready for anything. 

What role will you play in ensuring that happens?

My role is the commitment to the indigenous youth internationally—with my home, my land, the responsibility to fight for those who don’t know what’s coming. I’m able to fight for them as long as I’m alive and heathy do it. That’s my commitment to this fight—to give the best fight I can. 

Trending Stories Right Now