Esméralda / Martina transcript
Susannah Birkwood: Welcome to Forces of Nature, the podcast from WWF International where we celebrate our 60th anniversary by bringing together trailblazing environmental activists from different generations to discover how we can learn from the past and achieve even more in the future. I’m Susannah Birkwood.
This episode we’re bringing together Princess Esméralda of Belgium and Indigenous climate activist Martina Fjällberg.
As well as being a member of the Belgium royal family, Esméralda has had a successful career as a journalist, writer, and documentary maker and is a passionate campaigner for the environment and indigenous rights. Perhaps unusually for a princess, Esméralda was arrested after taking part in the Extinction Rebellion climate protests in London in 2019 - but thankfully she was later released without charge.
Martina Fjällberg is a 22-year-old Saami reindeer herder from a village in northern Sweden. The indigenous community she’s from has seen its whole way of life threatened by climate change so Martina is determined to help put an end to the climate crisis and fight for her culture. She’s currently studying for a degree in biology and geoscience with a hope of devoting her career to safeguarding the survival of both nature and the Saami culture.
Together, Esméralda and Martina discuss the challenges many indigenous people face in getting their views on environmental matters heard, the mental health impacts of climate change and what it was like to be a princess ending up on the wrong side of the law. I hope you enjoy the episode and you’ll hear more from me at the end.
Esméralda Hello Martina, it’s so nice to be able to talk to you. There’s so many questions I want to ask. So today, I guess we are going to speak a lot about weather patterns and climate and the situation, but first, I would like to know a bit more about yourself, and I would like to know what it is to be a reindeer herder.
Martina Yeah. So reindeer herding is a big part of the Saami culture. But it's only, I think, about 10 percent of the Saami people are reindeer herders. But it's still a really key part of our culture and a lot of things revolve around it. And I grew up in a reindeer herding family, my father and my two sisters are also reindeer herders and it's quite different from anything else. Like when you have cattle, for example, they are in an enclosure, but reindeers are free roaming animals. So you can say they're semi-domesticated because they're still wild, but they are still in some ways used to humans.
So most of the year they just roam around free and we as reindeer herders just try to kind of keep them in our designated areas that we have used for thousands and thousands of years. And these areas are really huge; they cover a really large area.
Oh but for me, for example, there's this big gathering and one of the big gatherings is in the summer when we mark the new reindeer calves because the reindeer calves are born in May. So during the middle, the beginning of summer, we mark the reindeer calves. Then we gather the whole reindeer herd and put them in this huge fenced area. And then we take them out into smaller groups and more of the reindeer calves. And that is like the best part of the whole year and it's something that you look forward to. It really is my favourite part of the whole year.
Esméralda I can see it's really important for you. And you mentioned it's part of your culture, too. So I was wondering, did you notice a change in the climate change affecting especially this reindeer herding?
Because of climate change now, because of it getting cold in the summer, we actually have seen that we have the need for another reindeer calf marking area because now the reindeer don’t move as far up the mountains because it's not warm enough during the summer, because the reindeers move up the mountains when it's warm because they want to escape from the heat. And so they go up to this snowy, windy patches up on the treeless areas of the mountains. And now because of climate change, the reindeer doesn't move as far up the mountain. And one of the other things that my father had said - is the thing that he noticed the most about what's changed - is that now you can't plan the reindeer herding as you used to. Because back in the day you could see in the weather, you could see from the nature that tomorrow is going to be like this and the next week it's going to be like that so we can plan in advance what we are going to do. But now because the weather is shifting so much because of climate change, we can't plan in the same way that we used to be able to do - we don't know how it’s going to look the next week. And that’s something you could do before, but now you can't do that anymore.
Esméralda Do you think that the Indigenous people who are really on the ground and see and so much in contact with nature and with the animals’ behaviour, do you think that they have notions, observations that are different from non-Indigenous people?
Martina Yeah, I definitely think so, because like it's so real to us in a way that it isn’t to a lot of other people because most indigenous people, our culture and our lives and everything is so deeply connected to nature. So when nature is changing, we, our culture is something that's so connected with it also changes in some ways. As an example in Saami culture is we have over 200 words for snow, and…
Martina Yeah, it's a lot of words for snow because as the language is part of a culture and language in itself is also then connected to nature and so we have over 200 words for snow. And with the changing climate, we could say maybe 50 types of these types of snow doesn't exist anymore. It doesn't fall or something like that. Then in that way, we also lose language because of climate change. And then in that way we then lose culture. So it's like it's so much more than just losing ice. It's so much more that's connected to it as well. And reindeer herding is one of the big things that because I’m, as a reindeer herder, is really affected by it. So I can see a lot of examples of how reindeer herding is affected in smaller ways. But in the future, it's going to be even more affected than it already is.
Esméralda Despite that, we might say that science has not recognised that indigenous knowledge. And you? Did you have the feeling you had to go to university to become, let’s say, legitimate in your action for nature and for climate?
Martina In Sweden, at least, how I have seen it is you have to be a professor or you have to be a researcher or scientist to be able to say this is a fact or this is something that's changing. We as indigenous people in Sweden, we... I don't think we're... I don't feel that we are being taken as seriously as scientists or professors because we are not educated in the same way that they are. So I made a choice to go to university and get a degree so I can be more respected in Sweden. So when I say “I can see this change in our culture. I can see this change in reindeer herding. This is real.” I will be taken seriously.
Esméralda And did it change your perspective and your voice also?
Martina I hope so. When I get my bachelor's degree, I can kind of connect my background of being a reindeer herder and being indigenous people and the more science world. That I can be like kind of a bridge between those two and kind of, at least in Sweden, bring them together so that more people understand the link that is between what knowledge that we have and the nature, and some things that are actually the more science. And that indigenous people have known these things for centuries because when you live with nature, you kind of understand it in a different way. And that knowledge is something that really should be taken seriously and be taken into account when you do all of these different reports and all of these different studies and such.
Esméralda I think it's slowly starting to be part of the conversation, and for example, there is a scientist in Brazil, you may have heard of him, he's called Carlos Nobre, he's a meteorologist. And he said many times that he was impressed by the knowledge of the indigenous people in the Amazon because they had understood the link between plants and the water cycle. And he said that's something they have understood probably long before us, for generations. And we are studying it now: The fact that the reduction in forest causes a reduction in the rain and the water cycle. So I think it's something really that is so complementary, the modern science and the indigenous knowledge. So hopefully that will be part, now, of really the conversation.
What about conservation, because conservation has not always worked (together) with indigenous people and sometimes there has been confrontation. And I would like to know what is your point of view? How do you feel would be the best way to work on conservation projects?
Martina I think the biggest point you should take when doing conservation work is to include the indigenous people that live there and also that they are the ones that should be leading the work in a way, because we are the ones who know the nature the best. So I think the biggest thing when doing conservation work is to include the indigenous people in a way that isn't just listening to them, but also letting us lead and actually make decisions about what should be done, because otherwise we're still left on the side.
We know that maybe this area is really important for when the reindeers have their reindeer calves, for example, so we know how important that is and how important it is for that area to be totally left alone during a certain period of the year. But I know that it's really hard, especially in Sweden. So it's really hard for us to kind of get a say in what's happening because we don't have the rights to our own land in Sweden which is something that I'm really hoping that we get in the future because we have the rights to our land, but still in Sweden the Saami people... we don't have a right as an indigenous people, so we don't have a right to our land. So every decision that is made isn't by us. We have a say in the matter, but we don't have the final decision of what is going to happen with our area.
But now, Esméralda, I'd like to ask you some questions. I'm really interested in why you got involved in environmental work and what inspired you to get involved in the environmental movement?
Esméralda Well, you have to go back to a long time ago when I was a child, because my father had a passion for nature and he really travelled the world. And at the time, nobody was talking about climate change, but biodiversity was already threatened in many places. So he was talking to me about his trips, about the importance of nature, about the importance of conservation. And, always, he said to me, the best custodians of Mother Nature are the indigenous people. So I really was brought up with this notion and I was following, from far away, his trips. I was looking at the pictures he would bring back and the stories he would tell me about indigenous culture in the Amazon, but also in Africa and also in Asia. So I guess it's something I always had in my mind, those stories and those principles that we had to respect the knowledge and the rights of indigenous people.
Martina Have you ever visited indigenous people and seen their way of life or something like that?
Esméralda Yeah, I met many, many communities. Sometimes in their countries, sometimes in Europe when they were travelling to different conferences. And I was always struck by exactly what you said before, that the message is the same. Whether you speak to someone in the Amazon or in Congo or in, I'm talking to you right now, in Sweden, it's the same message, that deep connection with nature, that knowledge, the fact that everything is connected and that you cannot do something to break the balance. Everything is so beautifully balanced in nature and you have to know about that. And especially you have to know that we are part of nature and not the master trying to dominate. That's the most difficult, I think, for us.
Martina: What's one of your, like, strongest memories that you have from meeting with indigenous people?
Esméralda: One based on memory and I also want to ask you this question was with a young woman from Ecuador who was telling me about the problem in their lands, once again about the mining companies coming and destroying all the environment, poisoning the rivers and the earth but also attacking the women. Because when a company comes, there's a lot of workers, they stay for months, usually they bring alcohol to the villages and it goes with sexual violence against the indigenous women. And I was so touched because she said that it was terrible to see that Mother Earth was violated and at the same time the women and they had that so strong connection between the two. So I want to ask you a question, which is, do you think that there is a special link for women and indigenous women, especially to protect Mother Earth?
Martina: Yeah, I still think that indigenous people overall have this huge urge to protect the land and protect Mother Nature more than maybe an ordinary person from Sweden, because our lives are more connected with nature than most other peoples’ are. So that's why indigenous people overall tend to have a stronger feeling to be involved in the environmental movement, for example.
Esméralda: And now yourself? You have been several times in conferences and in meetings with different organisations. Do you feel that you are being taken seriously, that people are listening now to your voice and to the voice of your community?
Martina When I do stuff like that, I think I get more listened to, but I still get a lot of... I don't want to call questions stupid, but some questions really are stupid and kind of ignorant in some ways. So a lot of the time I have to answer questions that really could just be Googled or something like that. And I feel like that in some ways isn't their fault because especially in Sweden, you don't get to learn anything about Saami people in school. It's ridiculous how little you learn about Saami people in the Swedish schools. I think that because of this lack of knowledge, there's a lot more racism towards Saami people in Sweden and if we just got to learn more about Saami people in school, there's a lot of problems that would be easier to solve in the future if we started in the school.
Esméralda Have you yourself suffered from discrimination?
Martina In different ways and different occasions. Racism towards Saami people is a big problem in Sweden. And I think reindeer herders are one of the groups from the Saami people that are more, they are in some ways, easier to target because we have the reindeer as a certain symbol.
So there's for example, I know there's a lot of poaching of reindeers in Sweden because there's a lot of people that hate Saami people. And then because the reindeer’s such an iconic symbol for reindeer herders and Saami people, they kill the reindeer to make a statement that they don't like the Saami people.
And so for reindeer herders, there's a lot of mental health issues because of this. And I also know that the suicide rate for Saami people is a lot higher than it is for national average because of the fact that we are so easily targeted and because of the fact that we have so many obstacles that we have to overcome to be a Saami people and especially reindeer herders. And the reindeer herders also have the big weight of climate change affecting our lives and our culture as well. So mental health is something that's really important as well to discuss when you talk about climate change because climate change is affecting not only in that way, not only in culture, is also affecting our well-being, because it's just another problem to add on the long list of problems that we have to deal with on a daily basis as reindeer herders.
Esméralda Yes, it's so true. I mean, climate change affects so many things. I mean, mental health, of course, is something very important and the basic human rights of so many indigenous people. So, Esméralda, you were arrested as a part of the Extinction Rebellion protest in London in 2019. And what was that like? Was it something that you were prepared for or…?
Esméralda Yeah, absolutely, we were well, we were thousands in London protesting for a whole week, two weeks, actually. Because we were sitting on the pavement in a big square in London and so we were stopping the traffic, literally. So the police said, you have a few minutes to get up and if you don't, you risk an arrest. So we knew what was coming and we were absolutely convinced that we should go until the end, which is, be ready to be arrested so our message was stronger.
You have to be able to go to the end of your beliefs. And if you really believe that the climate breakdown is an existential crisis, that the loss of biodiversity is a catastrophe, well, you have to raise that awareness and you have to be ready to go to the end of the protests. And that was my aim. I have to say that it's much easier to be arrested in London than to be arrested in other countries in the world where the system is not so democratic and also if you risk losing a job or many other things. So I'm privileged because I could do it, but I was absolutely decided to make the point.
Martina Was there anything you would have done differently when you think about it in retrospect?
Esméralda No, nothing. I think it had a big impact, not specifically my arrest, but the fact that thousands of people were arrested because it was constantly on the news. And I suppose that people who had no interest in the climate crisis got in the attention. And I remember speaking to a taxi driver one day who said to me, “I had never realised that it was so, so bad. The climate crisis.” Why? Because he read in the newspaper that he reads every day about this big movement and so I think it had an impact.
Martina Yeah, I think so as well, because I remember when I saw it on the news as well and I was thinking those people are really cool because it's something that made a big impact. And even though you should never say being arrested was cool, but I thought it was because I was like, these people are really, really felt a lot for this movement and really felt like it was worth being arrested for years to make a statement. And so I really respect you for doing that.
Esméralda Civil disobedience all through history has had a big impact. If it's non-violent but determined, it has a big impact and it has changed things throughout history. Because I always say to people who say, how can you be against a law? I said, if the law is not right, of course you have to denounce it. That was the case for slavery; it was the case for the fact that women didn't have the right to vote; it was the case in South Africa with apartheid. All those cases were legal, but they were wrong. And you have to be able to denounce it.
Martina I totally agree with you, and I think the people that have done the most change in the world aren't the people who have done what everyone else did. It's the people who have done something different that have made the biggest change.
What do you think is the most urgent thing that we should tackle for the moment that the young people should mobilise for? And everybody, not only the young people.
Martina That's a really good question. And for me, I would like to see that more people actually start taking this seriously. And it's not some abstract concept; climate change is not an abstract concept. It's a fact that nature is changing and that should be taken seriously because especially for indigenous people, when you see it so like right now in your life you can see a change. But we are a minority and the majority of people doesn't see this change right now, this real change. So for a lot of people, it's more of an abstract thing that is going to affect them in the future. It's not a problem that they should be worried about today.
But I think that a lot of young people, for them, it's more real in the fact that even though they personally don't see it today, they know that it's going to be a future problem. And the future is for us. There's a lot of older people that are saying, “no, it's not a problem, it's a problem for the future”. So they don't think about it because they are not going to be here in the future. But we young people are. And that's why I think there's still a lot of young people joining the environmental movement today because they have realised and they know that this is going to be catastrophic if we don't fix it now, because otherwise the future will be paying the price.
Esméralda Yeah, and the leaders don't seem to - our governments or leaders in the world - don't seem to treat that as an emergency.
Martina No, they don't. But I think, because you have been a part of the environmental movement for a long time and have the environmental movement changed a lot the past few decades or it's something that just happened overnight? How do you see that?
Esméralda No, obviously there were people fighting already in the 60s and the 70s and the 80s. I mean, it's a long marathon. What has really changed, I think, is that in the last 10 years, because of the young people, especially because of the young, it has become much more in the news. But I still think that it's going too slowly. You just said it. It's happening. So when people talk about 2050, my God, it's too far away. We have to act now. People are already dying all over the world and especially in the global south. So that's what I see. And sometimes it makes me very, very sad, I have to say.
Martina Yeah, is there some things that you think the environmental movement has gotten wrong the past few decades? Is there something that we should have done differently? Or maybe something we got right so it's having a positive impact?
Esméralda I think we had a lot of people against us, they are still there. I mean, the lobbyists of the big fossil fuel companies are enormously powerful and they were so powerful that they managed to stop the news, to stop the real effect of urgency. And they are still trying hard to block many things. Also, I think that probably there was too much emphasis on the fact that the nature was dying, that the animals were disappearing, which is true and the extinction is very serious. But there was not enough emphasis on the fact that we as a species are probably very threatened because of this order and balance and because of climate breakdown. So I think maybe in the way it was talked about, it was not enough on the human part, the human rights, the human cost of this crisis. That's what I think. But now the discourse is much more inclusive and we see all the problems.
And you know to communicate the urgency to different people, it's not always easy because some people say, “oh, yes, I know it's terrible, but I don't want to hear it” or “no, I don't believe, it's not so important”. So you have to have a conversation. You have to talk to people even if they don't share your perspective and try to convince them. Do you feel that, too, when you speak to some of your friends, sometimes they're not as convinced as you are?
Martina: Uh, no, I think I've been lucky with my surroundings especially now when I study at the university, my classmates and my friends are really understanding and they actually understand quite more than I thought they would about how important it is for me as an indigenous people, and how linked my culture and my life is to nature.
But I have come across a lot of people that I feel like don't take me seriously just based on the fact that I am a Saami, because they still have this way of thinking that we as Saami people we are not as smart or not as educated as normal people, which is something that's still here because of when we were colonised. And the way that you saw Saami people a couple of decades ago it's not even that long ago. But I still try to calmly talk to these people and try to make them understand how that's not the case and how we as Saami people is being affected by climate change and a lot of the other different things. So I think the hard part is not going to be talking to people that understand and trying to make them take action on climate change, the hard part is going to be talking to people that profit off destroying nature like big mining companies and other exploiters. That's the hard part, going to be how we can convince them that nature is more important than money. And how saving nature is the hardest part.
Esméralda So I think it's possible if people, enough people, rally and work together and act together. We can have an impact.
Martina Yeah, we have a power in numbers. And if more people start to openly take action and take a stand, then we are going to be able to make more change because governments won't listen to a couple hundred people, but they will listen to a couple thousand people. And so I think we have the power in standing up with each other and supporting each other globally as well. And that's one of the things that I have and I feel really happy about because between indigenous people, we have this connection with each other, it's like we are sisters and brothers. So when there’s this community, another indigenous community that's having to deal with maybe a mining company or something like that, we all will feel this connection together. So it's equally as important for me how their lives are being affected because I feel it's like a brother and sister relationship. I feel because my brother is hurting, I want to help him, I want to be there and support him as well. And so I really feel that when there is something that's happening for me, my community, the Saami people are sweet and I feel like my brothers and sisters from other indigenous communities will back back me up as well, because we have this understanding of how deeply we are connected to nature. So they understand how important it is for us to have the support and have this help because they have the same values as we do.
Esméralda: Is it what gives you hope for the future?
Martina: It's one of the things I would say, and I think when I meet with other people and we get to have these conversations about how the environment is changing and how we value nature, that's when I feel like I have the most energy to fight this fight because then I feel renewed in some way. I get this fighter energy when I have these meetings because then I'm like “yes, it's not only me, it's us”. And I feel like I have my indigenous sisters and brothers behind my back when I do this because they support me and I support them.
Esméralda That's a beautiful message. It gives me hope to listen to you and to see your passion and your determination. Wonderful.
Well, thank you so much, Martina. That was an inspiring conversation. Was lovely to meet you. And I hope we can meet face to face one day. And I wish you all the best for you and for your whole community and for indigenous rights to be fully recognised.
Martina I am really happy to have had this conversation with you. It was really nice. And I also want to say thank you for being an indigenous ally and listening to us and helping us get heard. I really appreciate it. And I feel like you are really a really nice person to have behind my back as well. So thank you so much for this conversation.
Susannah Birkwood: Thanks so much to Martina Fjallberg and Princess Esméralda of Belgium – how fascinating was it to hear about Princess Esméralda’s experience of being arrested? And I’ve always thought it was amazing that certain communities have so many different words for snow – but how terrible and worrying to hear that this is yet another impact of climate change, the fact that many of those words are now disappearing.
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This was a Fresh Air production for WWF. Thank you very much for listening, this is the third and final episode for the time being but we hope to be back with more episodes for you to enjoy very soon. Until then, remember – we can all be forces of nature. Goodbye for now!