Filipino youth raise voices at COP21

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Katy Neusteter
Left: One Thousand pairs of shoes including those of the Pope were lined up in rows in Place de la Republique on Sunday Nov. 29. It was a show of protest after the French government banned the massive climate march expected to draw 200,000 participants. Right: Justeene Dammay is one of several youth delegates attending events at COP21 in Paris.

As part of our COP21 coverage from Paris, Boulder Weekly is partnering with the Boulder nonprofit Global Greengrants Fund to tell the stories of environmental youth activists from around the world.

Justeene Dammay and I are sitting in a Parisian cafe that feels like it’s right out of a Hemingway novel. On the walls, deliberately jumbled rows of gilded frames showcase everything from crinkly snake skins to pencil sketches of famous Europeans. Outside, it’s cold and misty. Every time the door opens, I see Justeene snuggle deeper into her red knit scarf, which appears brand new — bought especially for this trip, her first outside her native Philippines.

Indeed, France is a long way from home for the 20-year-old Kalinga-Ifugao woman from the mountainous Cordillera highlands, the bread basket of the Philippines. Justeene and her colleague Julius Caesar Daguitan, who is Kanakaey-Kalinga, are in Paris with other young and indigenous people to demand bold action on climate change.

Justeene and Julius are cultural organizers with Dap-ayan ti Kultura iti Kordilyera (The People’s Center for Cordillera Culture), which means they use traditional song, dance, painting and art to deepen indigenous identities and to continue the struggle for land, life and resources.

“We indigenous people believe land is life,” says Julius, 28, who on Nov. 25 participated in a roundtable information-sharing session with this year’s winners of the prestigious Equator Prize, given by the United Nations Development Programme to outstanding grassroots environmental and social justice activists. “If you strengthen art, you strengthen the message of your place.”

Justeene and Julius’ ancestral homeland is one of the places climate change, and the industries that contribute to it, is hitting the hardest.

“When I was a child, we had a spring where we got our water,” Justeene says. “Today we can’t drink from it because it’s so polluted. Too many people have moved to my place for opportunity in the mines. They hear there is gold but when they come, [there aren’t any jobs] so they become urban poor.”

The massive gold and copper mines in the Cordillera breed more problems than the population boom overwhelming water, housing and employment. They cause deforestation, stripping Cordillera’s steep hillsides bare and making the rain-soaked mountains vulnerable to landslides and sink holes. In 2009, after a series of consecutive typhoons, a devastating landslide killed hundreds of people and destroyed homes and farms.

Mining also consumes massive amounts of fossil fuel-sourced energy, which contributes to climate change. In turn, climate change causes more typhoons, and — ironically — droughts. It’s a particularly vicious cycle for Cordillera’s indigenous peoples, who for generations have relied on consistent weather patterns to farm vegetables and other crops.

“My father is a farmer but now he can’t plant any more — there is no rain,” Justeene says.

“The rainy season should start in June,” Julius says. “One year it started in July. Now it starts in August. They don’t know what to plant, when to plant. There’s also a new species of giant earthworm — we don’t know where it came from — that is infesting our rice steps and making them collapse.”

Mining activity is not new to the Cordillera. For more than 100 years, companies such as Manila-based Benguet Corporation have exploited the area’s vast mineral deposits. In addition to bringing empty promises of positive development, they have contributed to a culture of racism, started during Spanish colonization, against indigenous peoples. Justeene and Julius say many indigenous youth are now ashamed to identify with their communities, speak their native languages and to celebrate their traditions.

Justeene and Julius have traveled all the way to Paris to tell the world that indigenous youth demand action be taken to stop the industries that are plundering their lands and devastating their cultures. They are part of a delegation of grassroots activists from Kenya, Ecuador, Namibia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, who are already working in their communities to address climate change and its impacts. The group was organized by Global Greengrants Fund, the Boulderbased international nonprofit where I work.

Over the past ten months, as part of our #YouthOnClimate project, Global Greengrants and our partner 350.org have provided more than $475,000 in small grants to youth leaders like Justeene to raise awareness about climate change and mobilize action in their communities. We also produced a video series about the positive change these impressive young people are making possible in their communities. Together, we are in Paris to show the world that critically important climate solutions are coming from young people, women and indigenous peoples who work at the most grassroots level.

The UN process and the associated lingo is all new to Justeene. I pitch her a softball: “What do you think so far?”

She gazes down, shyly, already overwhelmed by the technical jargon and complexity of the negotiations and caucuses. And who wouldn’t be? The next two weeks will be a mad jumble of activity: from observing the official negotiations to meeting with other indigenous people in the space reserved for civil society groups to learning how her youth peers are mobilizing to defend land and resources. The array of activity and opportunity is dizzying.

But then I ask what Justeene, a young indigenous cultural organizer from the Filipino highlands, wants out of this experience in Paris. She smiles at me warmly and openly and says:

“I want to know what others are doing. I want to collaborate. I want to develop my skills as a performer and a leader. I want a better future for the next generation.”

And I see hope.

Katy Neusteter is the director of communications for Global Greengrants Fund. Global Greengrants envisions a world in which all people live with dignity and in harmony with the environment. As the leading environmental fund that supports grassroots action on a global scale, we create opportunities for you to invest in local leaders working to strengthen their communities and create an environmentally sustainable future. www.greengrants.org