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Priestess Beatriz Schulthess speaking in a panel at the Interfaith Summit on Climate Change in New York. © WCC/Melissa Engle Hess

Priestess Beatriz Schulthess speaking in a panel at the Interfaith Summit on Climate Change in New York. © WCC/Melissa Engle Hess


Indigenous peoples have a role to play in the struggle against climate change, indigenous faith leaders said during a panel at the Interfaith Summit on Climate Change held at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York City.

As those gathered at the Church Center listened to the words of three indigenous leaders, the General Assembly of the UN was holding the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples at the UN headquarters across the street.

“It’s the first time ever we've had a high level conference at the UN on indigenous peoples,” said Tore Johnsen, general secretary of the Sami Church Council in Norway. “And I think when I’m leaving there: this is a space where politics and spirituality come together in a very powerful way.”

The panel discussion formed part of the Interfaith Summit on Climate Change jointly hosted by the World Council of Churches and Religions for Peace in advance of the UN Climate Summit held on 23 September.

“Indigenous people are important climate witnesses,” Johnsen said. “In living close to the natural environment, indigenous people have said for a long time that change is going on.”

Few of those gathered knew the effects of climate change firsthand as well as Rev. Tafue Lusama from Tuvalu, a small island nation made up of islands and atolls in the South Pacific Ocean.

The problem of climate change “is far too big”, Lusama said. “Our lands can no longer sustain us because traditionally we depend on the underground water table for our plantations.” Salt water has been intruding into the fresh water table, which means “we can no longer plant,” he said. “The sea can no longer supply us with adequate protein supply.” And rising sea levels mean the low-lying islands are in danger of being lost beneath the waves.

“You can migrate anywhere if you can say ‘I am from Tuvalu.’ But you cannot do that if your country has vanished from the face of the earth.”

Indigenous communities have been known for overcoming great adversity, said Priestess Beatriz Schulthess, president of the Indigenous Peoples Ancestral Spiritual Council and a member of the Kolla Nation in northern Argentina.

“When you overcome adversity you come out much stronger.” Yet, she said, “resilience is not only a matter of individuals. It is a matter for all people on this planet at this time.”

Individuals and communities to promote “reconciliation between people and the natural world,” Johnsen said. “Part of indigenous resilience is to resist ideologies that compartmentalize reality in a way that makes the earth an object and a resource for our own development. There will be no peace as long as we are waging war against the earth.”

“We had yesterday lots of messages of hope,” Schulthess said. “And also messages of love. Nature needs our love, too. Mother Earth needs our love, too.”

The panel was one of four discussion panels held on Monday. The summit began on Sunday 21 September with the signing of a joint statement on climate change by some 30 interfaith leaders from around the world.

WCC news release written by Connie Wardle, senior writer and online editor at the Presbyterian Record, Canada.

Interfaith declaration on climate change (WCC news release of 22 September 2014)

Website of the Interfaith Summit on Climate Change

WCC’s work on climate justice and care for creation