Breaking Green

Carbon Colonialism and REDD with Photojournalist Orin Langelle

May 27, 2021 Global Justice Ecology Project / Host Steve Taylor Season 1 Episode 1
Breaking Green
Carbon Colonialism and REDD with Photojournalist Orin Langelle
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Breaking Green interviews Orin Langelle, photojournalist and Co-founder of Global Justice Ecology Project, about carbon colonialism and the UN's program, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).

REDD allows trading of the carbon stored in forests, mainly in the Global South, to offset emissions from polluters mainly in the Global North. It shifts the burden of these emissions from the polluters to Indigenous and rural communities that lose access to their forests due to REDD deals, and to the communities where the polluter is based who must endure unending pollution.

Langelle talks about his 2011 trip to Amador Hernandez, an Indigenous village in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas, Mexico. He traveled to the community to document resistance to a threatened forced relocation of the community due to a REDD deal between California and Chiapas, and to explore the deeper social and ecological impacts of unjust false solution schemes like REDD.

His reporting was central to the film, A Darker Shade of Green,  REDD Alert and the Future of Forests.

Breaking Green is produced by Global Justice Ecology Project.
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Steve Taylor   
Welcome to breaking green, a podcast by Global Justice Ecology Project. On Breaking Green, we will talk with activists and experts to examine the intertwined issues of social, ecological and economic injustice. We will also explore some of the more outrageous proposals to address climate and environmental crises that are falsely being sold as green. I am your host, Steve Taylor. A program known as REDD, also called reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation is promoted by the United Nations and the World Bank as a solution to climate change that uses forests to enable ongoing pollution. It is a scheme that fails to directly address the emission of greenhouse gases by polluters, but instead transfers that burden to indigenous peoples and rural communities, who have very little to do with global warming in the first place. In 2011,  Global Justice Ecology Project organized a documentary team to investigate a REDD scheme between the state of California and Chiapas, Mexico. The agreement included fencing off portions of the Lacadon Jungle and forcibly relocating the indigenous people of Amador Hernandez so California polluters could buy the carbon in their forests instead of cutting pollution. The film A Darker Shade of Green, Redd Alert and The Future of Forests, details the carbon colonialism of REDD and was produced from this investigation. The documentary team traveled for three days by bus, truck, on foot and horseback to reach Amador Hernandez. They documented the community's resistance to the planned relocation. And when the community heard that the Mexican military was about to invade, the team was asked to stay and document that as well. They agreed.  The Mexican military never came likely due to a promise of resistance by the people of Amador and the presence of international witnesses. Orin Langelle was part of that team that traveled to Amador in 2011. Langelle is a co founder of Global Justice Ecology Project and director of Langelle photography. He trained as a photojournalist at Manhattan's International Center of Photography, and has documented and taken part in campaigns for social and ecological justice for over five decades. His website is photolangelle.org. Mr. Langelle, thank you for joining us.

Orin Langelle   
Well thank you, Steve, for having me.

Steve Taylor   
Before we get into Amador, I wanted to ask you about your photography. How long have you been doing that? And how did you get into that?

Orin Langelle   
I guess I started in photography, uhm  wow, back in the back, back in the 70s, early 70s. My first photo assignment actually was to cover the Republican National Convention protests in Miami Beach, Florida in 1972 for an underground newspaper in St. Louis, called the St. Louis Outlaw. And from there, I did a lot of other work. I went from there to taking photographs in the Colorado Mountains to documenting all kinds of different things and finally went to Paris for a while and was kind of the kind of a n expat in  Paris and having that kind of a Moveable Feast life. And it was very exciting. And when I was over there, I was in a bookstore called Shakespeare and Company, very famous  bookstore on The Left Bank. And I saw a book about the International Center of photography and wrote about Robert Kappa, his brother Cornell, and other Magnum photographers. And I decided, when I get back to the States, I want to I want to study there, especially with with Cornell, and I did I went back and I had that opportunity to to do that. And my main assignment was in the latter 70s. And that was covering a wildlife photographer by the name of Peter Beard, he, he was under the impression that the people that live in the forests, and in the jungles should be the caretakers of the jungles, they should not be moved out to make pristine wilderness of pristine nature, because everything goes belly up after that.

Steve Taylor   
So what we want to talk to you about now is that you were part of a team that documented a community in Chiapas, Mexico, Amador Hernandez, that was faced with the threat of a coerced relocation in order to bring about a carbon trade deal with the state of California and Chiapas, Mexico. How did you hear about that deal?

Orin Langelle   
Well, our media coordinator at that time was Jeff Conant. And he was operating in our California office. And we went to the, actually the 2010 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was in Cancun, Mexico. And we went there and went to, you know, the normal meetings and listened to all the grandiose stuff that the UN was promoting that kind of only made no sense in the real world. And we heard that Schwarzenegger and the governor of Chiapas, Mexico, Juan Sabines, signed an agreement to do a deal under the REDD agreement and that the UN and the World Bank was pushing and what it boiled down to that the indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico, in a certain area in Chiapas, Mexico, in the Selva Lacadon, the jungle, a certain portion of those indigenous people would be moved off of the land that they've inhabited. And because of that, then polluting countries in California could have could use more pollution credits. And those credits happened to be we believe in Richmond, California, which is a refinery of oil, and all kinds of other nasty things. Gasoline.  And it's also a very large population of people of color, where the people of color we're going to be subjected to more chemical poisoning. And so you get on the one end, you get that on the other end, you get Indigenous people's self determination and livelihood being taken away from them. And so we found out about this scheme. And we decided we would go down and investigate it, we did end up getting press credentials are actually were accredited by the Mexican government to go down and do this as documentary photographers, which I don't think they were very happy giving us those credentials, but we went. And it was a tremendous, hard trip to make. We went to San Cristobal de las Casas, which was sort of the cultural capital of Chiapas, Mexico, made very famous in the Zapatista uprising. And at that time, the jungle was closed off to all NGOs, or media, and people, the indigenous people, including the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, did have a closure that no one could get in at this point, because the tensions were running high, over many different things, and REDD was one of them, this REDD scheme. So through a backdoor we got in. We were very very lucky. We found we had a good reputation anyway, which was good, Jeff and I had a great reputation in Mexico for our, you know, our work and our being truthful and working with indigenous people. And so some people actually found a way for us to get in. And we left San Cristobal, one morning took colectivos, like little buses went to one town  that night, then we took a pickup truck and, not a pickup, a 10 wheeler dump truck to get further into the jungle got to the big military compound and that was as far as you could go by road. So the next day we hiked in 15 kilometers 12 to 15 kilometers slog through the mud, horseback and also walking and and got in. And when we got there, we found we also brought two Spanish cinematographer videographers with us. And when we got there, we found out in the community meetings that the Mexican military was four kilometers or four days away from coming in. And you mentioned that we were asked to stay and it wasn't just us being there. I believe that there was a very, very volatile situation you had. There's always a possibility of a shooting war could erupt in Chiapas, Mexico, because of the discrepancies between the indigenous peoples and the Mexican government. And the it was proportionally, y es, we were there. It could have caused an international incident. But also the indigenous people felt that they were going to fight back they were not going to allow the Mexican military to go in and when they said that and they asked us to say of course we had no as a journalist I have with no have or as a human being I would  have no way to say heck no, I'm sorry we're out of here. So we stayed. And it was very tense, but exciting time and did a lot of the filming for the video.

Steve Taylor   
Right, A Darker shade of Green, your your your reporting was included in that and was a was a major part of it. How was this carbon trading scheme, and I believe it was under the auspices of REDD that this was being proposed, what was that to  do, and how is that going to affect the indigenous people?

Orin Langelle   
Right, well, there's going to be a forced relocation. It wasn't a voluntary relocation. I actually in believe it was 2003. I was in Chiapas, where there were some relocations, and they were voluntarily and what happened. People were basically thrown into what appeared to be concentration camps. And we've covered that were with a Global Exchange delegation many years ago. And so the Indigenous people kind of knew what would happen, the military would come in, and they would demand them to leave and they were not going to leave. And we knew that they were going to be relocated somewhere, we weren't really sure where exactly they were going to be relocated. But we did on the trip. After we got out of the jungle, we did go to one of the sites where they were going to be relocating indigenous peoples to to so to exist, and it was a prefabricated cities,  absolutely horrible.

Steve Taylor    
So in in a darker shade of green, there are some interviews with Indigenous people of Amador. And one of the things that they mentioned, is being forced to cultivate or the government wanting them to grow things that they're not even really aware of are they don't consider part of their lifestyle. Could you talk about that maybe other aspects of what people are calling carbon colonialism? You know, how was that seen in other ways in Amador?

Orin Langelle   
Well, one of the just one of the tricks that the military and the government was doing, they started preparing for these relocations, about a year or a year ahead of time, they cut off all medical supplies to Amador and like I said, before, you know, you there's no roads and to Amador Hernandez. So, you know, you have to either fly the man or come in by horseback and so that they cut off all Mexico all supplies to any kind of, of medicine. And that was a hard thing to see. But at the same time that they did that that's something that backfired because the Indigenous people, the healers started just producing medicine that they that they use all the time in the jungles. So it really didn't affect them that much. Because they were able to use their own traditional things. But you know, again, you take people out, you know how to do that and you take them out of that existence and put them into a relocation center. Then they're forced to do you know, big pharma or whatever, if they can ever get it.

Steve Taylor  
This is your host, Steve Taylor, and we will be back right after this.

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Steve Taylor    
Welcome back to breaking green. So there's quite a history of resistance in that region. Is that not where some of the original EZLN resistance was initiated? 

Orin Langelle    
Yeah, I guess in 1994 on New Year's Day, is one of the North American Free Trade agreement went into effect and that the Indigenous people there call it a death sentence for Indigenous peoples, because already the Indigenous peoples in through it with a large population of Indigenous peoples throughout Mexico anyway, but they're the poorest of the poor people and so they knew that they were going to get ripped off with this free trade agreement and I and the morning of January the first 1994 there was an uprising where the Indigenous people led by the EZLN or the Zapatista Army of National Liberation took over the San Cristobal de las Casas say free political prisoners all over Chiapas they took over other positions and and there was there was fighting for about 11 days. And the Zapatistas did not they they said we do not want to form really, you know, we don't want to conquer Mexico's territory, we just want our territory back. That's all we're asking. We want to take care of we want to be in control of our own lives. Well, that went on for a long time. And it's still going on there. There's still conflict. It's not as serious as it was then it. At this time two people were starting to understand what corporate globalization was throughout the world. And this was like a shot in the arm for all kinds of people who were trying trying to expose what globalization really was. And that was like free trade agreements, all kinds of neoliberal trade deals, it was doing nothing good taking away private, they are taking away public services and putting them in the private sector. And when the uprising there was just a big shot in the arm for people working on that, because they had something really concrete to show and to show that there is resistance. And it's coming from a band of small band of Indigenous people and who, you know, we're fighting back. And it was also one of the one of the most interesting revolutions in that time because it was about the environment. It had a lot to do with extraction of minerals extraction to forest products, and things of that nature. So it brought a lot of lot of things out in the open that were going on in the world. People have Amador  Hernandez that at this point, they were sort of half Zapatista community I think and um, maybe a half, you know, of other communities there's all kinds of different communities in the end the Selva Lacadon and the Lacadon Jungle. But this was one of the groups that were you know, was basically pledged to I, I would say to non violence, but they were surely the the group that that was responsible for the Amador Hernandez resistance when we were there, surely believe in self defense, and there's a big difference that people don't understand sometimes. So.

Steve Taylor    
Does anything stick out to you about how the people Amadore communicated what they thought about this to you? Was there anything that was said or anyone you interviewed or talked to that really stands out?

Orin Langelle   
They issued a statement that I think because of our trip, and I can just briefly read read their communique. And it said we the residents of the Amador Hernandez region and Chiapas, which forms the core of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve well known for its extraordinary biological richness, and the sight of historic resistance by Indigenous peoples denounced the legal stress by the bad government to expel us culturally and physically from our territories have moved from words to deeds to deeds, our opposition  to the theft of our territory, rejection or rejection of the unilateral delimiting of the green border of the Lacadon community demanded by investors in projects associated with the REDD plus reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation project, our refusal to accept the conservationist program of payment for environmental services and productive land reconversion and our decision to re to reinitiate a process of self determined community health, based on traditional medicine together have aroused the arrogance of the bad government, moaning that motivating them to advance the new counterinsurgency strategy to undermine our resistance. It is a strategy that doles out sickness, death dose dose by dose. And I think that sums up a lot. Also, when interviewing the people they asked them, you know, well, what's going on, you know, you're being accused of destroying the land, and they're going, why would we want to do this is where we get our sustenance, we love, you know, we're not destroying the rainforest. We're not doing anything to this except living in a, you know, as a communally as we can on the land. And, you know, everybody in the community shares and what we do, and those are things, I believe that also that, you know, there's a deeper thing, mindset to when you get into dealing with the Indigenous cultures and the basic other cultures that are out there non Indigenous cultures, where that that that culture of sharing that culture of working with the land and loving the land, it scares people. Because it's a threat, it's a it is a threat, then if everybody could, you know, start understanding this, ah it might be neater than going to work at Chrysler or something like that, if we could do that.

Steve Taylor  
In your perspective, from your perspective, who's pushing this carbon colonialism?

Orin Langelle  
Right? Well, it's being pushed by entities like the World Bank, being pushed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And from what we could tell when I first went to my first climate meeting in 2004, in Buenos Aires, I thought it resembled a trade show more than everything else, with big business all over the place. And it's not what I expected. I mean, maybe I was naive. But what I did see was big business is all throughout the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Some of the countries which you know, from many countries are run out run by corporations, of course, you're gonna have corporations running the you know, a lot of a lot of stuff in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And the World Bank definitely was very, is very, very involved, I had the pleasure of being asked in 2009, by the Indigenous Environmental Network to go to Anchorage, Alaska, Alaska, and be a media person for the first North American - no the first Global Indigenous Conference on Climate Change.  And the World Bank was all over the place. And they were trying to explain it to all the Indigenous people, elders and everything, how wonderful this was and how good it was going to be. But fortunately, the Indigenous Environmental Network and other people knew better and they were trying to explain it and the traditional way that this is not a traditional practice that indigenous people need to be thinking about. What we're seeing now is the payment for environmental services or business for nature. All of these things, further commodification of life is going to be pushed in Glasgow in the the the UN Conference on climate change. In November this year, if it does happen, it did not happen last year, because of COVID. In 2019, in the fall of 2019, the UN Conference was supposed to be in Santiago, Chile. A couple of months prior to that conference, people in people all over the state, or the state, I'm sorry, throughout the country of Chile started protesting some of the neoliberal schemes that were going on, and it just went into this really huge popular uprising. And we saw prior to that even happening, we were going to go back to Chile, for a couple of reasons. One, we thought that this is where the UN was going to really push through the whole commodification of life where everything has a price tag on it, everything has a price tag. And we wanted to be there to you know, to witness this and try to report it try to explain what was going on. And so we were and also we prove we had been to Chile many times. And we know the toy and people are really cool and they know how to have a good, they know how to have a good street fight when they want to. I was accredited again as a journalist to go down and then they conference was switch to Madrid because of the turmoil that was going on in Chile. So things got screwed up there so they weren't able to get the the commodification of life really passed like I think they wanted to do, then they couldn't do it the last year because of COVID. So we think this is going to be the year it's really going to be pushed. And a lot of people are not going to get it. Because there's so many things out there like The Paris Agreement, which I don't want to get into a long talk about how screwed up. But we oppose The Paris Agreement for many different things. It's a lot of people believe what the UN says, they say, Okay, we have these targets, we're gonna do this, and we're gonna do that. Almost everything you see is just, you know, it's as great to green scam. And I think that's one of the things that GJEP is trying to do right now is to bring out those, those scams that are going on. And also I believe that there's a  group of people and GJEP is involved in that too, it just produced a new book called Hoodwinked in the Hot House, and it's all about false solutions to climate change. And that's what scares me is people are going to be they're so afraid that, you know, the planet is going to be destroyed. So we have to do something. And I that's, that's, that's common sense that you wouldn't want to be able to do something, but you have to look into what they want to do. All things that they're saying that are good, you open up enough doors, and you find out it's about money. And it's not about saving the environment. And it's it's green capitalism, or the, and it's it's scary. And I think we're headed toward that more and more as we go along.

Steve Taylor   
Have you seen an evolution within the environmental movement? Is there hope there? What's what, how would you look at the how things have been going within the environmental movement over these decades,

Orin Langelle    
I think the environmental movement needs to come to terms with a little bit more of reality than that they, they work in that and that not for all environmentalists. But I don't think there's a really a holistic understanding of how the world works. A lot of people when they they look at the world as Okay, have the environment and not the way that the things make up the environment. Sometimes they can look to how everything is interconnected. But they forget about how everything is connected on a social and, and social and economic level. And when we were in Chile, when they pulled  the convention to Madrid, most of the NGOs that were down there flocked to Madrid, without trying to realize that this is where the people in Chile, were saying that this is where one of the a lot of neoliberalism began. And this is where it's going to end. And if some of us who see neoliberalism being a threat to life on Earth, and to freedom and to, you know, ecological sustainability, to have people flock away there, they should have stayed and joined the, you know, people in the street and started making  making a call about this is about money. This is all about money. And a lot of environmental groups just don't do that. They just don't understand that there's, there's something higher. People need, in my opinion, to consider system change. It's not going to be easy. People right now, I know in the United States, most environmental groups want to make it sound like everything's gonna be okay. If we put this band aid here we do that band aid there is gonna just be okay. It's not going to be okay because it never has been one that's like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. People need to realize that we need one very deep systemic change in this country, we need to be looking at things much differently. We need to be looking at life itself much differently and you know, in respecting it and respecting what nature really is and respect the people that are living in nature right now.

Steve Taylor  
Well, thank you so much for joining us and and talking about your trip to Amador and how it contributed to A Darker Shade of Green a video that is receiving more interest now as the 10th anniversary has rolled around. So thank you, Mr. Langelle. 

Orin Langelle    
Thank you, Steve

Steve Taylor    
You have been listening to Breaking Green. A Global Justice Ecology Project podcast. Find us at globaljusticeecology.org Visit to find more interviews, podcasts, organizations, and ideas for addressing climate change.

Introduction to Breaking Green
Introduction to REDD and Amador Hernandez
Photojournalist Orin Langelle
Proposed Relocation of Amador Hernandez
Break/North American Mega Dam Resistance Alliance
History of Resistance in Lacandon Jungle
Statement by the People of Amador
The World Bank and Carbon Colonialism
Protests in Chile and the 2019 UN Climate Conference
Promotion of Green Scams in the UN
Environmental Movement and System Change
Close of Breaking Green