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Political Engagement Is Key to “Climate Justice”

“Engaging with domestic politics is crucial to our collective response to global environmental change and other social justice issues.”

Like many social justice issues of our time, effective environmental protection requires an active engagement with domestic political processes. Yet many environmental policy experts and advocates continue to ignore them.

Reforming our understanding of environmental and climate governance includes reforming the way we look at the role of politics. The announcement by President Trump that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement reminded us of the importance of domestic politics in influencing the success of international environmental agreements. Yet, the effects of domestic politics on global and international efforts against environmental change are both deeper and more extensive.

One prominent strand of policy responses to global environmental change relies on the rights of the indigenous and other resource-dependent peoples. Indigenous governance and stewardship of the planet’s land, waters, and forest resources presents a powerful alternative to the largely failed system of market-based environmentalism. However, the statutory recognition and successful realization of indigenous rights vary significantly across countries and continents but such variation has received surprisingly little attention in the scholarship on indigenous rights. To leverage the role of indigenous and other local actors, environmentalists and policymakers must understand how national political systems influence the effectiveness of grassroots efforts directed to the goals of nature conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

To appreciate the importance of political context, consider the following data about the population of indigenous people in different regions: India (110 million); China (115 million); and Latin America (30 million). Yet, a survey of the indigenous rights-related reports published in globally influential media outlets shows that the success of indigenous peoples’ movements in Latin American countries is often generalized without proper contextualization. By this, I do not mean only the long history of peasant and indigenous rights mobilization in Latin America, which is an important part of the context.

As I demonstrate in Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico (Oxford University Press 2017), the strong protections of indigenous and peasant forestland rights in Mexico (and, other Latin American countries) cannot be explained without accounting for the nature of Mexican politics in the decades following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917).

The elite-peasant social contract at the culmination of the Mexican Revolution led to the constitutional provision that obliged the Mexican state to implement wide-ranging land reforms and other programs of peasant empowerment. Even so, my research shows that the revolutionary pact did not ensure the implementation of land reforms in the post-revolutionary Mexico. Inter-elite competition and sustained mobilization of peasant collectives—ejidos and comunidades – forced the ruling elites to recognize the rights of peasant and indigenous collective.

With the intention of entrenching political power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), President Cárdenas instructed his administration to constitute peasant leagues at the regional and state level. Such grassroots mobilization created the foundations necessary for the emergence and consolidation of the National Peasant Confederation (CNC), which existed as a semi-autonomous party-affiliated organization.

The CNC linked peasant groups to more than a dozen state agencies in charge of rural development and social welfare programs. While the politicians may have meant to exploit peasant federations for the purposes of electoral politics, Mexican peasant leagues and indigenous federations continued to mobilize with support from semi-autonomous and autonomous federations. Social science research from Mexico and other Latin American countries, which I survey in Democracy in the Woods, shows that grassroots groups mobilized the power of indigenous identity and discourses strategically to pressurize national governments and international agencies to protect their rights to land, water, forest, and other natural resources.

International institutions, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, also play an important role in the protection of indigenous rights in Latin America. In a nutshell, the success of indigenous rights movements in Latin America cannot be understood without a recognizing of the confluence of the region’s historical and political context, the strength of well-established indigenous groups, and the working relationships that indigenous rights groups have forged with national governments and international agencies.

None of the other major regions in the global south – the continents of Africa and Asia – bear witness to the social and political coalitions that propelled the successes in Latin America.

While India and other Asian countries are homes to longstanding social movements, including those of groups that are clearly identifiable as ‘indigenous,’ none of these countries have seen the emergence of sustained political coalitions that help social movements represent their interests within the political and policy processes. This is not to underplay the importance of grassroots mobilization. On the contrary, the argument is to find strategies for grassroots mobilization that are effective within specific regional and national political contexts. Creative strategies that bolster the political power of grassroots groups, especially through the mobilization of electorally salient majorities of marginalized groups, are even more important. The main goal would be to ensure that marginalized groups are able to represent their interests in the political and policy processes.

The international community can assist indigenous and other forest-dependent people by providing support for building and strengthening regional and national federations. Such federations foster social mobilization and act as civil society watchdogs, without which governments and government agencies tend to become centers of local despotism. A long litany of failed environmental interventions and forestland conflicts in the global south, especial on the continents of Asia and Africa, suggest that sustainable environmental protections cannot be achieved without popular democratic mobilization.

Well-structured and enduring mechanisms of political intermediation, that enable citizen groups to articulate their interests in the political and policy processes, will be necessary to achieve a more environmentally resilient and socially just world.

Prakash Kashwan is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of the book Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico.