Art Inspires Action at COP27

Words by Leo Cerda (as told to Daphne Chouliaraki Milner)

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALICE AEDY

Leo Cerda, cofounder of Black Indigenous Liberation Movement, explains why culture spaces are crucial in the fight for climate and racial justice.

I’ve been working on advocacy issues since I was very young. As an Indigenous person, you don’t have any other choice but to protect your territory, your land, and your resources. This has been our baggage since time immemorial: to defend our territories. And now even more so as the systems that dominate the world take advantage of and impoverish our communities. We’re not given a choice but to be part of the equation in whatever way we can—whether that’s through writing and speaking policy, going to the streets and being at the forefront of the fight, or through the arts.

 

To start, it’s important to recognize that colonization and capitalism are the root of our problems. Colonization was—and continues to be—about dispossessing Indigenous territories, dispossessing Indigenous resources, and dispossessing our bodies. And these same systems are what keep us apart. We live in a racialized society that has put Black and Indigenous people aside; that puts us apart even though we are facing similar issues. Our lands have been dispossessed, our communities have been dispossessed, we don’t have access to basic resources. Why are we not working together? For me, that was the main question when cofounding the Black Indigenous Liberation Movement, a coalition among collectives, peoples, grassroots organizations, and social movements from all over the Americas founded in 2020 to fight racism, discrimination, violence, and colonialism.

The anti-racism protests of 2020 were a clear example of this: Why are we divided? What are we doing, as Indigenous people, to stay in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are going through struggles not unlike those facing our own communities? How can we support each other? Mutual solidarity is not about who is suffering the most. It’s about what we are doing to support each other as a collective. Among ourselves, there are so many things that we talk about—not least, about resilience. But we’re done speaking out to those who aren’t listening. There are no platforms for us. There are no safe spaces. People don’t want to talk about racism and how it affects our people. Black Indigenous Liberation Movement offers this necessary space for us to speak with one another about our respective struggles.

 

Until we feel safe, until we feel that we have accomplished racial justice, there won’t be climate justice. We are the ones who are at the forefront of the fight against climate change—our bodies, our people. And we need our systems to change so that we can be at the forefront of the decision-making processes that impact our ecosystems. If we don’t have equity and fairness for our people, we accomplish nothing. We want to disrupt the system. We want to create a world that takes down inequality. Because the system is killing us not only by shooting us, but by poisoning our communities, by extracting from our communities, by not allowing us to be in the spaces where policies are being made.

Art is intrinsic to our culture—and conversations about our future should be carried out through an intersectional lens that extends to cultural preservation of art and language.

Leo Cerda
Co-Founder, Black Indigenous Liberation Movement

That’s why we’re going to COP27. And that’s why we organized Culture-COP, a gathering of culture-makers from all over the world unified by our vision of a climate-just future. Art is intrinsic to our culture, it is intrinsic to our communities. And these conversations about our future should be carried out through an intersectional lens, one that extends to cultural preservation of art and language.

 

These spaces are very important. Art is how we express ourselves—we talk about important topics like medicine or healing through our creativity. With the Black Indigenous Liberation Movement, we are creating a safer space for us to start talking cathartically about the things that are happening to us. That’s why, as part of the Coalition Congress, which gathered Black and Indigenous peoples together in Ecuador to discuss how to push forward the movement for liberation, we hosted a concert and we invited artists to perform. Over the years we’ve also done murals that represent the fight we have ahead of us. We are not about violence. We’re about dancing and expressing ourselves; about making signs, writing poetry, and creating music.

At meetings like the ones that take place at COP, there’s a misconception that, when you talk about policy, you need to be only serious. They put the arts aside, by insisting culture doesn’t belong in official spaces. For us, this is not the case. Art elevates the conversation. Art deepens the conversation, and helps us build a safer space by allowing us to speak through poetry or music. These are the spaces that promote radical self-inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical inclusivity as well as racial justice and climate justice. In this way, art also brings in a new generation of people to the conversations we are having about the future; about their futures. That’s why spaces like Culture-COP matter. We’re done with the official spaces.

 

Art helps build movements, ones that can lead to a global civil society where the changes we want to make are possible. We need to learn from each other because our respective lived experiences mean that our stories are both similar and different at the same time. We have to listen and learn from each other in order to mobilize our communities to act in solidarity and seek justice. And art is what fosters empathy and inspires us to activate our communities, to activate our soul and our mind. Only when we activate our mind and soul, and commit to a bigger purpose, are we ready to take action.

Correction, November 16, 2022 11:55 am ET
The original version stated COP27 was the first COP to be held in Africa. This is not correct. In 2016, COP22 took place in Morocco.


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