WCC 11th Assembly, Karlsruhe Report
Indigenous youth underscore the need for balance
By Catherine Ferguson SNJM
During the ecumenical youth gathering pre-Assembly to the World Council of Churches (WCC) 11th Assembly, a panel of indigenous youth challenged the churches with issues integral to their lives and communities.
Brenda Rumwaropen from West Papua in Indonesia expressed her challenge from the theme of the assembly, "Christ's Love Moves the World to Reconciliation and Unity," using a saying from her people: "Love will move the world to reconciliation, but you can't love something if you don't know something about it. So how can you love me if you don't know something about me and my culture?"
She underlined the importance of restoring the wholeness of creation decrying that, for indigenous Papuans, the connection between nature and the source of the land has been broken. The Papuans are on the brink of losing their own culture and language and, with it, their identity. In part, this is because of an education system which causes the disconnection of the Papuan indigenous from the land.
"We cannot let the system change us. We need to change the system. To do this the Papuan youth need to believe in themselves," Brenda explained.
For this to happen, she recommended that leaders enforce customary laws especially regarding selling of the land. She also urged leaders to set up indigenous education. For this, they have already created the Papuan Indigenous University and need to create more indigenous village programs.
Sara Keränen, an Inari Sámi youth from the Evangelical Lutheran Church on the Finnish side of Sápmi, highlighted her people's wisdom in caring for creation as they have done successfully for centuries.
"Sami do not take more than what we need. We don't take more berries than we need nor fish. Everything we take we use. We don't waste anything. We know how to live sustainably. We see the news every day of the climate crisis. It is terrifying for us—especially our youth because we see our future being taken away."
Sara also condemned what she named as "green colonialism," a practice of taking away indigenous rights, particularly land rights, in the name of sustainability—and with that also taking indigenous lands for solar, wind, water and other renewable sources of energy.
"Our land is being taken away because it is considered as empty land, but," she questioned, "can it really be sustainable if the land is taken away from the indigenous people who have taken care of it for many years?"
Kerio Wetsah from the Nagas tribes in India, described himself as having become a foreigner in his own land and emphasized the indigenous people's loss of identity and culture as they are displaced and discriminated against.
"As indigenous, no matter who or where we are, we are a land-centered people. The land gives us our identity and sense of belonging. Displaced tribal people are forced to migrate to neighboring areas where they are exploited by non-indigenous people."
Eleazar Perez Encino from Mexico repeated some of the same themes as the other speakers: denial of land rights, loss of identity, loss of culture and language, but from the perspective of a Mayan from Chiapas.
Related to climate change, he speaks in defense of the land.
The native peoples were dispossessed of their land beginning over 500 years ago when the Europeans arrived and brought Christianity with them.
"The church played a role in the dispossession of the people's identity and spirituality by teaching that native people and their religion were diabolical, that what is important is heaven and not what is here on earth."
He also decried an education system that dispossesses native people's identities in favor of the economic system of capitalism.
"In primary school they taught us that water was a resource. They put in our heads that the beauty and gifts in nature were natural resources, but for native peoples these aren't resources, they are graces, gifts, living beings."
For him, it is impossible to talk about reconciliation with creation without talking about capitalism. He does not see climate change as the crux of the problem but rather the exploitation caused by mining and the pollution of water and lands by transnational companies. These companies are now talking about sustainable mining, but, for him, there can be no such thing as sustainable mining. To use this phrase is a lie because in mining everything is destroyed.
Cindy Kobei, a young lawyer from Kenya, served on the committee that was responsible for preparing the Ecumenical International Youth Day 2022 Event Toolkit publication.
Cindy noted that even the United Nations, which has a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, has not agreed on a definition of what makes an indigenous person.
Informally, an indigenous person belongs to a group of native people who were the original inhabitants of a particular region of the world. She belongs to the Ogiek people who traditionally lived in the Mau Forest of Kenya.
"We need to understand the meaning of the indigenous experience from the African perspective," she said.
"Since I was born, I have seen my community members and family members evicted from the lands," she added. "I used to go to my grandmother's house, and she taught me, so there was a transfer of traditional knowledge from her generation to ours. Now I have lost my language, culture and the land. Everything is connected to the land."
Concluding the panel, Cindy shared with the participants an educational tool that she and other members of the ecumenical youth network worked on for three months and launched during the Assembly: Ecumenical International Youth Day 2022 Event Toolkit: Indigenous Youth and Land Rights Activism 2022. It is at oikoumene.org/resources/publications/2022-ecumenical-international-youth-day-toolkit.
For information, visit youtube.com/watch?v=XkOaY6GXjeQ and oikoumene.org/about-the-wcc/organizational-structure/assembly.