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At Davos, Activist Helena Gualinga urges corporations to break from fossil fuels

A 20-year-old indigenous climate activist says the World Economic Forum is the perfect time for corporations to 'show their commitment' to breaking up with fossil fuels.

Polluters Out cofounder Helena Gualinga. Photo courtesy of Alice Aedy.
  • Helena Gualinga is an Indigenous youth climate advocate from Ecuador.

  • She cofounded Polluters Out and has previously spoken at the COP15 and COP27 climate conferences.

  • Gualinga wants to bring Indigenous and youth perspectives to climate conversations at Davos.

  • Insider's reporting from WEF is part of our company-wide One Planet initiative.

Helena Gualinga has a busy week ahead.

The 20-year-old Indigenous youth climate advocate is speaking on several panels at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, sharing the stage with the likes of John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, and IKEA CEO Jesper Brodin.

She's aware that she doesn't fit with the typical Davos attendee: "I'm a young, Indigenous woman in a very middle-aged, male-dominated space," she told Insider.

But Gualinga, who gave several speeches at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt last year, isn't phased by standing alongside major political and business figures. "It's about learning to speak their language and see how our interests intersect," she said.

Indigenous voices at Davos and beyond

Gualinga said that she finds confidence in the knowledge that her attendance, as well as the attendance of other youth advocates, brings new perspectives to gatherings like the World Economic Forum. When Gualinga attended Davos last year, as a youth ambassador for science advocacy group Arctic Base Camp, she was struck by the lack of Indigenous voices at the meeting.

"There are so many decisions that are having an impact on Indigenous communities that are happening," Gualinga told Insider. "When we're talking about climate change and the protection of biodiversity, we cannot exclude Indigenous peoples' rights."

Gualinga has been advocating for Indigenous rights for several years. Born to an Ecuadorian mother and a Finnish father, she is from the Kichwa Sarayaku community, located in the Amazon region of Ecuador. The community has long resisted efforts from oil companies to extract resources from their territories.

"Our worldview is based on something called the 'Kawsak Sacha,' the living forest, where we recognize everything in the forest as a living being," Gualinga said. "And that is crucial to us; that needs to be taken into account."

For Gualinga, it's vital that Indigenous people are a part of the kind of decision-making that happens at Davos. "Meaningful is participation from the beginning to the end. It's not when decisions are already being made. It's not just having a small consultation with Indigenous people," she said.

She added that Indigenous ways of decision-making and governance need to be taken into account "because we have a different worldview, and because we have different experiences in our territories."

Gualinga said: "Many times, we've not had access to these spaces. So we need to create a process that is adapted to our communities."

Gualinga said that the green transition, i.e. the transition across industries to more sustainable practices — which is set to be a major topic at the World Economic Forum this year — is a key example of why collaboration with Indigenous communities is needed. Much of the green transition is about electrification — for instance, switching from gas cars to electric ones. To do this, we need to mine for minerals like lithium and cobalt.

"Most mines that are being planned in the next couple of years are on Indigenous territories," said Gualinga. "We have to look at how this actually impacts our environment and the natural world. Again, how does this impact indigenous peoples' rights?"

According to Gualinga, the areas that Indigenous communities have protected and preserved for hundreds of years are now threatened by the need for a green transition. "I think it's a really difficult battle, I think it's something that we need to recognize that we don't have answers for right now," she said.

Corporations must commit to making a change

At Davos this year, Gualinga wants to see "a real commitment to climate action."

"There's big oil and big mining attending, and I think they really need to commit to phase out from fossil fuels," she said.

"It's not like COP, where they can sign something," Gualinga said. "But I think it's an opportunity for the private sector to show their commitment without the pressure of the binding commitments that governments have."

Gualinga added that taking action on climate is not as easy as making a campaign about sustainability or supporting a handful of small projects.

"I think, unfortunately, we're just seeing more and more and more greenwashing. In one way or another, every company now has had a campaign that is green or sustainable, or, you know, something that makes them look like they care about the planet."

Gualinga said that greenwashing is "just an excuse to not take real climate action."

"It's also our responsibility to call that out and to demand better and more from companies, because they can — they have the tools, they have the information."

Gualinga added that corporations need to face up to their role in contributing to the climate crisis.

"[It is] their responsibility to make sure that the communities that are now being impacted by climate change, but also that have been impacted by their activities, are compensated," she said. "It's a debt that they owe to these people and it's a responsibility that they cannot escape."


(c) 2023, Business Insider


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