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Interview with Tom Goldtooth
of the Indigenous Environmental Network

“First and foremost is our right to exist
and to make our own decisions ...”

Johannesburg, South Africa
Tom Goldtooth "is the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a network of over 250 indigenous communities in North America. That includes Canada, the U.S. and some in Mexico. We also network with the indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica as well as South America and some in Africa." This interview was conducted by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine, September 1, 2002 during the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.
  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.

Retain their autonomy

In Motion Magazine: Is the Indigenous Environmental Network made up of membership organizations?

Tom Goldtooth: We have affiliates. This is different from the concept of membership. We believe in the perspective that our indigenous communities we work with retain their autonomy. We have national meetings each year in various areas of North America that provide our network direction on issues ranging from agricultural food security, to mining, biodiversity, toxics, environmental health, and energy-related issues such as nuclear power, oil and gas, mega-dams and coal-fired power plants.

Our constituency are community-based indigenous groups. We are involved with helping our communities in organizing and skills-building, policy development, advocacy and training, and education on issues. Our board of directors and our staff are all indigenous, strong in their tribal identity and culture. We employ indigenous organizers that are trained and experienced in the environmental justice issues they are working on. We have technical resource persons that we recruit who are indigenous and non-indigenous. Our philosophy is that we speak for ourselves as indigenous peoples. Our work balances traditional indigenous knowledge, our culture, our cosmo-vision --- with the modern world. Our foundation is our traditional knowledge.

The North Woods

In Motion Magazine: Where are you based?

Tom Goldtooth: Our national office is based in northern Minnesota, what we call the North Woods in the Great Lakes region of the United States / Canada. Our office is about 30 miles from the headwaters of the great Mississippi River. It is a very pristine area with many golden eagles, deer, beaver and fish. We are near the Canadian border and easily go between Canada and the United States. We don't recognize the colonial political borders of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Prior to colonialization, we had tribal relatives living on both sides of these so-called borders. We have staff that work on campaigns in various parts of Canada and the U.S.

The SARD Initiative

In Motion Magazine: You are interested in the SARD initiative?

Tom Goldtooth: We have been involved in the promotion of Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) through the International Indian Treaty Council. The Treaty Council is one of our sister organizations that's been involved with the international arena and the U.N. system. They were one of the first indigenous NGOs (Non-Governemnetal Organizations) to get consultative status. Carol Kalifatic, whose been involved with the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) process for years, has been the person working with SARD. As you probably know, SARD was one of the titles of Chapter 14 of Agenda 21 of 1992. I've had meetings with Carol, FAO (the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization) and NGOs during the preparatory meetings on developing strategy for strengthening national and international commitments on SARD issues.

In Motion Magazine: Why are you interested in SARD?

Indigenous People's Caucus
Members of the Indigenous People's Caucus hold a press conference in Johannesburg. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Tom Goldtooth: We've been active in supporting our indigenous communities, in finding national and international mechanisms where we can get support for them on issues of rights to, and access to, our traditional lands, managing our resources, providing food security and applying traditional knowledge towards sustainable development.

The issues of agriculture and right-to-food are very important to us. It is important to have an indigenous perspective within the SARD process, as well as any other WSSD initiative that addresses agricultural issues. SARD multi-stake holder dialogues within the CSD and groups working on SARD in the WSSD process has been a vehicle to put issues of access to land, land tenure, agriculture and food security on the agenda of the WSSD.

Traditional agriculture

In Motion Magazine: Could you describe some of the issues of traditional agriculture?

Tom Goldtooth: Yes. I think I could look at them from two angles. One is more of a local, regional angle and the other a broader, global angle. Our network is familiar with both.

This summit is addressing sustainable development and many of our communities are already practicing sustainable methods of developing our lands and food systems. Indigenous peoples once fed a civilization without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or fossil fuels. Our traditional methods successfully addressed crop productivity, soil, erosion and weed control. Through our culture we are taught to have respect for our Earth that we call our Mother. Our Earth is sacred and we strive to maintain a harmonious relationship to the land in everything we do. Our farmers used seeds that had been handed down from generation to generation using ethical traditional knowledge in sophisticated, selective breeding techniques. On my mother's side, my grandfather was a farmer. My mother was a farmer before she went to school to get education.

These seeds have been developed by the Creator and through our traditional knowledge have been created to fit our environment and sustain us. But now, locally, nationally and globally, farming has become corporate industrialized complexes. These corporate farming practices have not been sustainable and have introduced hybrid seeds. Hybrid watermelons from these seeds are one-generation watermelons. They can't re-create.

We have a belief in our tribes in the North, especially those that are still following the traditional teachings, that we are concerned of these crops like watermelon that have no seeds because they don't have a creative spirit to give us strength. We recognize the creative power of Mother Earth and Father Sky. It's called the creative principle.

Our issue, right now, is the whole ideology of Western development imposed on our peoples. We have less and less land to work. Western development in the United States has been imposed on us through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal agencies indoctrinating our tribal leadership with boom-bust macroeconomic systems. For example, the idea that the more yield we can create the more money we can create. This has introduced industrialized farming on our land and a lot of the produce is exported off our land rather than kept on it, within our communities. With that comes chemical use, fertilizers, herbicides, and fungicides.


In Motion Magazine: Do you have a position on genetically modified organisms?

Tom Goldtooth: We had a conference up in British Columbia this past August 2001. We brought in indigenous peoples from all over the Americas, mostly Canada and the U.S., and we came up with a statement on indigenous peoples’ right-to-food and food security. We talked about genetically modified organisms. We are opposed to it. We feel that it is going to negatively affect our traditional crops. We don't trust the science behind it. We don't trust the review and environmental assessment process that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) utilizes to evaluate what effect the introduction of these GMOs may have on our local environment. GMOs within the agricultural industry are part of economic globalization. With this comes liberalization of national environmental and labor standards.

Indigenous peoples are concerned with how national, regional and international trade regimes are being controlled by corporations. Through these corporations, pressure is put on national states to subsidize various agricultural products. We have heard about what happened in Mexico when subsidies were created that allowed the invasion of U. S. corn into Mexico. That devastated indigenous and local farmers in Mexico. It drove them out of the market and many are now living in poverty. They can't sell their crop, let alone export it out of Mexico.

They have been railroaded out of business by this free trade agreement that is supposed to help people. There are many layers of issues with GMOs and the mechanisms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the WTO (World Trade Organization) when it comes to agriculture that many of our grassroots people don’t know about. Even the general population of white people in America don’t know the issues I am raising here, let alone our own indigenous peoples, local communities. This is a complete blackout. When we tell them, they often respond with disbelief. Some react in denial and don't want to believe that it is real.

Organic farming

In Motion Magazine: Do you have a position on organic farming?

Tom Goldtooth
Tom Goldtooth looks on while members of the Indigenous People's Caucus hold a press conference in Johannesburg. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Tom Goldtooth: Indigenous peoples have always embraced organic farming. Our organization promotes the application of our traditional knowledge in organic farming. Our thinking is that all people throughout the world should re-identify with what our relationship is with this planet that we call Mother Earth. We must re-evaluate our own spiritual relationship. We feel that this world is out of balance. We feel that human beings throughout the world have lost a sustainable ethic to the land. Industrialized man has given up our power as human beings. Industrialized man believes in this false belief that technology is going to save us when it is not. The belief in technology is a belief that has been indoctrinated into us by the corporations through the media, and by big corporate public relations campaigns. And now it's been imposed on us behind our backs at an international level through the World Trade Organization, and through financial institutions. There's a push from financial institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization to have the U.N. system conform to their mandate for economic globalization. They need to have a U.N. system that is molded to support this big globalization push and that's why governance is on the table here.

A human rights-based approach

We need to push for a human rights-based agenda in this WSSD and the efforts from industrialized countries of the North pushing economic globalization. There's been a strong resistance from the United States and other umbrellas countries like the U.K., Australia and Canada that are resistant to a human rights-based approach to these issues.

They are saying that human rights have nothing to do with the issues here. As indigenous peoples we are trying to raise an agenda of the rights of indigenous peoples. We have something in common with other members of civil society that are pushing for a human rights agenda within the WSSD discussions on sustainable development and poverty eradication. But the same umbrella group has been in resistance.

We need to address this issue. For the Indigenous Peoples Caucus here, our lobbying point right now is to get the sentence "that we affirm the role of indigenous peoples in sustainable development". But there are countries that are opposed to that because we have to ask for the "s" in "peoples".

We have collective rights. We are one of the few groups in the world that doesn't have collective rights of self-determination as peoples. There seems to be a push, all the way from the Holy See which has a seat here in the U.N. and does not support the "s" on "peoples", to the countries, especially industrialized countries, that don't support the collective rights of indigenous peoples.

This is one of the priorities we are fighting here at this summit as indigenous peoples.

First and foremost is our right to exist and to make our own decisions, to have self-determination wherever indigenous peoples exist. That is the pre-condition if we are ever going to address sustainable development, whether we are farmers at the local level, whether we are addressing water issues, or trying to eradicate poverty.

Food sovereignty

In Motion Magazine: Do you think the phrase "food sovereignty" has taken on a political significance?

Tom Goldtooth: Food sovereignty does take on a political front here because we haven't really had any constructive debate on what the definition of food sovereignty is. It's been politicized out of the framework of the participation of civil society, of the public and those people who are most impacted. It has to do with money again. Food sovereignty has to do with money. It has to do with who owns the seed, who owns the land and even who owns the water.

Who owns the crops? In the United States, we have Cargill and that's a big money operation. We've got Monsanto now not only producing the chemicals but they own the seeds. We are losing more local farmers whether it's indigenous peoples or non-indigenous people in the United States. We are losing lands to corporate farming. Foreign investors are buying up lands. Corporations are buying up land. This issue seems to be a corporate issue that needs to be addressed.

We are concerned there's no mechanism at the international level that is established to hold corporations accountable. That's why I think we are still at the same place as we were ten years ago. There has been some progress but not that much. In some countries indigenous peoples are not recognized. If an indigenous person stands up and says, "I demand a voice" in whatever issue it is, they could be shot or killed. In some regions, government leaders don't want to recognize indigenous peoples. They feel that we don't exist.

We even have a struggle with getting recognition in the United States where we do have treaty rights that we negotiated during the past couple hundred years. In America, indigenous peoples have some recognized rights through the legislative congressional process of the United States, however every year that goes by the U.S. government continues to erode our sovereignty and take away those rights. That's why we are concerned about other countries where indigenous peoples have no rights. That's why in our network we build linkages to keep our people informed and to develop strategies of how to address these issues.

The creative principle

In Motion Magazine: Is there anything else you about that you would like to talk about?

Tom Goldtooth: We are really concerned about what we eat. We feel that all humans have a right to know what they are consuming. Our tribal elders tell us the food that is created in laboratories has no spirit. If we keep on eating food with no spirit we are going to lose our spirit. That means that we won't be able to think for ourselves. There's an energy force when we consume that creative principle of our Mother Earth. When civil society can't think for ourselves, then perhaps that is a time when industrialized corporate leaders and technology will take over and be thinking for us.

Published in In Motion Magazine, March 15, 2003