When a Guna baby is born, the community hosts a tree ceremony. Midwives take the umbilical cord and the placenta, and together with the elders, they plant a cacao, banana, or coconut tree — a native tree. And as they plant it, they pronounce that this is the day the baby is joined with the Earth, with the community where the tree is planted, and with the ancestors who have passed through that land. We recognize ourselves as people who emerge from the land, whom we call “Mother” because we come from her just like we come from our mother’s womb. As we grow, we recognize that we are growing because Mother Earth feeds us. In Guna songs, we sing about drinking the milk of Mother Earth, and when we die, we are cultivated back in the soil. Throughout our lives, as we grow and the tree grows, the community speaks to the tree and expresses good wishes to it. As the tree grows, it gives fruit. When it does, we come back and share a drink made from its fruit and we remember how interlaced we are.
Jocabed Reina Solano Miselis, director of Memoria Indígena, shared this story with me while we were both at COP26, the annual U.N. global climate conference, held earlier this month in Glasgow, Scotland. Solano is a Guna woman from Panama whose climate justice advocacy begins from a place of kinship.
That sense of kinship was noticeably absent from COP26 as countries gathered to make progress reports on the Paris Agreement and to update each country’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The conference came on the heels of the 2021 climate report that U.N. Secretary General António Guterres declared “a code red for humanity.” The conference aims to brainstorm and implement solutions — but what Jacobed’s words taught me is that they’re solving for the wrong problem with the wrong approach. We’re experiencing a crisis of embodiment and they’re suggesting solutions born of colonial logic.
Colonial logic, when applied to political systems, protects power and controls the public narrative. When world leaders use generic terms like “humanity” or phrases like “all humans are responsible for the crisis,” it conceals the responsibility of governments and large corporations. By pointing to humanity in general, they imply that we are all equally responsible for the climate crisis and invisibilize the efforts of Indigenous leaders in the fight for climate justice.
It's true that all humans should care for the earth. We know human-caused climate change is a major driver of the earth’s natural disasters. The problem with the current political discourse at the highest levels is that it fails to address the role colonialism has played in exploiting the earth for the sake of so-called “development.” Many Western nations are infatuated with the idea of “first world” development in which a nation’s success is measured by its gross domestic product alone.
Colonial logic seeks to separate peoples from their lands and in doing so, severs our kinship with Mother Earth. Colonial logic shows up in the types of solutions that countries propose. For example, the United States’ recent AIM for Climate initiative seeks to address the climate crisis by accelerating investment in climate-smart agriculture and food systems innovation. The premise is that through technological innovation, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural industry — which the initiative's leaders claim account for 25 percent of all greenhouse emissions — while increasing food production to tackle the global hunger crisis. In marketing photos for the initiative, robots cultivate the land and pick its fruits.
But substituting robots for humans is not the way to solve a crisis of embodiment. Jacobed told me that the Guna people have food sovereignty — they cultivate their own food in their own way. In her eyes, one is poor when one must depend on another to obtain food, like going to the market to buy food. Solutions created through a colonial logic keep us in bondage to a supply chain and a market economy. AIM for Climate, for example, wants to tackle our crises by further alienating us from the land — from Mother Earth.
If we treat climate as a distant disembodied concept — a collection of weather patterns in a region — rather than as the interactions we have with our relatives in nature, we will continue to fail to address the right problem. We will continue to buy into the logic of coloniality that separates us from land. Guna rituals, like many Indigenous rituals, remind people that we belong to the earth, that we come from the earth, and we exist in relationship with it. The U.N. seeks to mitigate our impact on the earth and adapt to the changes that we are causing, but it does not go far enough to investigate the causes for impact: our worldview.
If we do not question the logic of coloniality, we will keep proposing disembodied solutions to an embodied crisis. We are failing to recognize the crisis is at the most visceral level a crisis of the body, the mind, and the soul. It is a crisis that has bought into the logic of coloniality that sees the earth as a resource and takes from it without any relationship.
Indigenous people like Solano are leading the way in addressing climate change, and we can follow. From protecting the forests to practicing sustainable agricultural practices, Indigenous people have for centuries ensured that we can literally breathe today. My question leaving COP26 was: “How do we indigenize our solutions?” But the more I think about it, the more I think a better question to ask is: “How do we indigenize our worldview?” Because in doing so, we will move away from coloniality and create measures of success that vastly differ from our current visions of development.