OPINION: Fighting for the climate means upholding Indigenous sovereignty

Dozens of student protestors stand behind a banner that reads "Wet'suwet'en are stronger than CGL; KKR's Investment = 0""
(Courtesy: Ethan Vitaz)

Indigenous Wet’suwet’en water defenders are currently occupying their sovereign territory in British Columbia, Canada to resist construction of the illegal Coastal Gaslink Pipeline. Despite many attempts at invasion by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Wet’suwet’en have continued to protect their land. Last year, the RCMP made a military-style raid on the unceded territory, arresting matriarchs while they performed a ceremony to honor missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. More recently, the RCMP made an assault on the Gidimt’en Checkpoint where they violently removed a protester attached to a blockade to protect the sacred headwaters of the Wet’suwet’en.

Simultaneously, Indigeous Yaquì people in the town of Loma de Bàcum in Sonora, Mexico face wrongful imprisonment, kidnapping and murder. This violence is directly tied to the construction of the Sonoran Pipeline, a liquid natural gas pipeline being pushed through Loma de Bàcum without prior, free or informed consent of the communities. Despite both these communities having title to their land, states and corporations are conspiring to exploit their land for short-term profit. These stories are not unique. Indigenous communities all over the world are experiencing violence related to the extraction and transportation of natural resources.

These two examples, however, are specifically projects sponsored by members of the Claremont Colleges community. Henry Kravis and George Roberts sit on the board of Claremont McKenna College and also own Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), the third largest private equity firm in the world. KKR has invested billions into these pipelines and similar fossil fuel projects that violate Indigenous sovereignty. The Claremont Colleges each have an endowment, a sum of money meant to support the colleges in perpetuity. To accumulate wealth the endowments are invested in all sorts of assets; however exact details are unknown since the colleges refuse to disclose where their investments lie.  

People on the frontlines face the brunt of the violence associated with resource extraction, but these projects impact us all. Climate change is global in scale and has already begun to affect every aspect of life on Earth. We must halt the development of all new fossil fuel projects to avoid the most catastrophic climate scenarios.

These projects have other implications that are just as far-reaching. The institutions that profit from fossil fuel megaprojects also support systems that destroy our capacity to build healthy communities capable of adapting to the climate crisis. The same financial institutions that fund the climate crisis prioritize profit over the health and safety of communities in which they operate. These investment practices support industries that harm all of us, including militarization of police forces, expansion of the for-profit prison system and corporatization of residential real estate. Institutions that seek profit at the expense of human life and well-being have no place in our society, especially when we are attempting to address catastrophic climate collapse. 

Our colleges’ endowments are actively funding the assault against systems of life. The only hope for transitioning to a world that can deal with the disastrous implications of global climate change is to address the values that underlie our actions. To address these issues in our communities, we must parse out the ways the colleges are implicated in the history and perpetuation of settler colonialism, resource extractivism, white supremacy and other ideologies that subjugate human and non-human life. 

The Claremont Colleges, specifically, were founded on the removal and erasure of Indigenous Tongva communities. The colleges have largely failed to take meaningful steps to rectify this history. The colleges’ endowments collectively exceed $4 billion in assets, much of which is likely invested in the systems most aggressively destroying life on Earth. On top of this, the colleges are a cesspool for the corporate elite looking to clear their names by becoming trustees of ‘socially responsible’ liberal arts colleges. Billionaires like Kravis and Roberts use their positions as trustees to greenwash their reputations, which allows them to be perceived as responsible leaders, despite investing billions of dollars in climate destruction and human rights violations. 

Our community, especially students, have a responsibility to expose the contradictions within our schools and hold them accountable for perpetuating and preserving systems of violence and destruction. Supporting the people experiencing the worst of this violence is not only an act of solidarity, but also an act of self-preservation and an attempt to strengthen community resilience. Divesting from institutions that destroy our capacity to support life is not another accolade. Rather, it is just the first of many necessary steps the colleges must take if they are to permanently sustain themselves. 

Transitioning to a just and ecological society requires participation from everyone. Personal consumption habits play a small role in decreasing our collective impact on our environment. Changing society materially requires that we democratize the institutions that for centuries have concentrated wealth and power in the hands of the few. We need to directly confront these systems in our own communities if we want to see progressive change. 

Restoring and honoring Indigenous sovereignty is the most effective way to address the climate crisis, and there isn’t much time. The stakes are as high as they can get. This is not just some social issue that you should support because it is right. This is a war in defense of the forces that produce and sustain life on Earth. 

It is not a question of whether or not you want to get involved. You are already involved. It is a matter of taking action to stop the destruction of life before it is too late. Organizing our communities to expose and address the contradictions that exist in our lives is the most effective way to liberate all of us. Tons of organizations are already doing this work, like KKRKills, Divest Claremont Colleges, 5C Student & Worker Alliance, 5C Prison Abolition Collective and Claremont SJP.

Guest columnist Ethan Vitaz PZ ’22 is from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a member of Divest Claremont Colleges and believes that climate organizing is more important than doing your homework.

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