September 29, 2022

AMADOR | Earth, Activists and Machetes: What’s in a Name? 

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How do they expect us to swallow this fear? Not the fear of being silenced in a quiet, crumbling world, but rather the fear of being taken from that world before you can see it change?

My home of Honduras was yet another victim in the attacks against climate activists.

This upcoming November will be the 27th climate change summit. World leaders will come together to continue deliberating the transcendence of climate change from a marginal concern to a global priority.

Each summit is defined by new ambitions and pledges which world leaders hope to achieve — expectations that (hopefully) deter countries from unsustainable and harmful emissions for our environment. Ever since COP21, countries have confined themselves to follow a ‘yellow brick road’ of climate change agreements that require individualized social, economic and industrial transformations. Through the Paris Agreement, leaders believe these agreements will inherently limit greenhouse gas emissions and communally establish a climate-neutral world by mid-century — if acted upon strategically, that is. 

Last year’s COP26 summit fell on the most detrimental year for environmental protection — not solely for the cause, but rather for those who fight for it. Amidst the policies and issues contingent to environmental protections, delegates discussed the human rights violations which activists face every day. 

2020 was the deadliest year ever for land and environmental activists around the globe. 

I truly grasped the extent of the problems which activists face world-wide early on in March of 2016. The assassination of Berta Cáceres, winner of The Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, sent a tumultuous roar — a message — through the ever-growing industrialized forests and deteriorating indigenous lands of Honduras. One that I felt here in Ithaca, thousands of miles away. 

Albeit, these offenses against activists are not confined to the southern wetlands of the Americas. “STOP THE KILLINGS,” a sign held by climate activists in Quezon City, Philippines, yelled bright in hope. In heartache. 

Closer to home, we find those who threaten the freedoms of environmental activists breathing down the necks of our very own, here at Cornell. 

The calendar hits 2018. Before her time at Cornell, Alejandra Plaza Limón MPA ’22 and her peers headed to protest outside the Mexican Senate house to work towards a cleaner energy transition. They fought with all but one weapon that could be used against them: their names. 

“We feared individually naming ourselves.” said Limón, an activist and MPA candidate studying environmental policy. “Individual activists are targets of violence. There is an unbearable level of corruption, of impunity, of violence. However, that does not exempt the governments, these institutions, from their duty to guarantee their safety and to empower other leaders and communities to do the same.” 

Many activists in regions of higher rates of homicide have resorted to finding security in communal activism, as many believe a group is safer, if not stronger, than the sum of its parts. 

They fight, hoping to cling onto nothing but their names. Names they hope will declare the change they stand for. 

The supporting research is evident. Claims of potentially catastrophic environmental and humanitarian implications from an increase in global carbon emissions are well known.

With repeated warnings that if global heating were to surpass 1.5 degrees, it could pose a disproportionately higher risk to indigenous groups and other vulnerable communities, activists have found reason to go to the streets, stages and front doors of politicians and corporations. 

The controversy behind climate change is not entirely a discussion between scientists and climate deniers: it’s an issue teetering between the have and have-nots. 

“A lot of the pushback against climate change activists stems from a concern about peoples’ individual livelihoods. They feel as if allowing the discussion of climate change threatens their livelihood, especially for those relying on the economic growth brought by these industries as a means to escape poverty,” said Connor Tamor ’22. “It is possible though. We can solve climate change. And we can lift people out of poverty, but that does not mean it is easy.” 

Tamor, who participated in the COP26 conference and who studied Environment & Sustainability at Cornell, claimed that the issue regarding climate change and the targeting of activists is equally a concern of science and equity. 

But will gunshots and beheadings make our society any richer? Is a pipeline, a mine or a plantation worth more than my life? Than yours? These are questions that environmental defenders march with.

Roughly 30 percent of the individuals guilty of crimes against climate activists are associated with the corporations and industries that eco-activists are currently trying to dismantle. 

Activists are forced to tear down their only possession: their name. In being public about their identity and their activism against climate change, activists are at risk of being targeted and killed. Pure and thin like air, there may be a triviality behind a name. To most activists, however, a name can be a bullseye as much as it can be a weapon. What do you do when the difference between life and death, change and complacency, lies in a name?

The only remaining question is whether world leaders are willing to not only discuss, but create, the proper protections for activists and prosecute those guilty of crimes against them. The controversy behind climate change is an ongoing global discussion, but the infrastructure and livelihood of activism, with regards to safety alone, is one that governing bodies have yet to address. 

“We are so free here [at Cornell]. I sometimes wish societies beyond were as open to discuss scientific and humanitarian controversy as much as we do here. I’ve realized that this world [Cornell] is beautiful for letting us safely fight on such a high pedestal for the things we love. But the reality of the world beyond is a crude awakening that it’s not like this,” said Limón.

Is our liberty, our fear, our name, defined by the policies of the grounds we stand on, or by those who oppose us with the same ears we surrender our wails to? The year 2023 is around the corner — we’ll just have to see how many names are added to the list of targeted climate activists next December. Perhaps it is then, and only then, when their names send a single message.

Hugo Amador (he/him) is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Caged Birds Always Sing runs every other Monday this semester.