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Why the Biggest Debt We Owe Has Nothing to Do with Money

It's time we looked at the creditor-borrower relationship that has created our climate debt.

Photo Credit: AFP


The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

On the heels of 40,000 people taking to the streets of DC in the largest climate change mobilization in US history, the pressure on President Obama is building to take decisive action to curb carbon emissions. However, what’s often missing from the US climate change movement are conversations about those people who are already most harmed by carbon emissions, and a historical understanding about how we got to this point. Along with Crystal Lameman (Beaver Lake Cree) and Ellen Dorsey, I was asked to give a keynote address at the Power Up! Divest Fossil Fuels: Student Convergence on February 23, 2013, at Swarthmore College. In my speech, I talked about why the climate justice movement would do well to also think about immigrant justice. The full transcript of my speech is below.

Aguyje pejuhaguere.
Che avy’a pejuhaguere ko ára pe.

I was talking with a friend recently, and when I mentioned that I was going to be speaking here, he suggested that I start out speaking in Guarani. And there’s a little bit of a problem with that. Because you see, I grew up with parents who didn’t want to teach me Guarani. And aside from some greetings, and some bad words, I know very little of it.

And my father, who’s certainly very proud of who he is, would never explain to me why. And so I asked over and over and over for years. And finally one day, we were talking about something seemingly unrelated, and he kept rubbing his knee. And almost out of nowhere, he says, “It’s hurt for so long.”

And he’s not a man who usually talks about his pain. And so I got real quiet, and I listened, while he told me about the nuns at his elementary school. This is a school in the northern region of Argentina, which is subtropical jungle. And my family has lived in or near for thousands of years. And decades ago, it turns out, that my father was punished every time he spoke Guarani in school. And this was a successive type of punishment: the more you spoke your language, the more you would be physically punished. And so, it started out light, it started out with slaps on the wrist. He said that that was fine to handle. And then there were spankings. But ultimately, it was the rock salt that really challenged him.

You see, in this escalation of punishment, making children sit on bent knees—sometimes for hours at a time—was what broke some of them. Subtropical jungle means that it’s hot, it’s real hot, it’s real humid. And so the salt rubs down on your sweating skin, and it stings the blood as it cuts you. And it leaves scars, it leaves physical scars. But it leaves other scars, too, because it severs the way that you speak. And as my father explained to me, once you have children you think twice about whether or not you want to teach them a language that can cut them.

But we’re at Swarthmore. This isn’t northern Argentina. We’re not in Guarani territory. It’s raining a little bit outside, but it’s not really humid in that way. There’s no jungle. And this is a conference not about language. It’s one about fossil fuel divestment.

But I’ll tell you that I think it’s related: The way some of us have lost our language is not unlike the way some of us have lost our land. And it’s not unlike the way some of us have lost our climate.

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