Fürs Klima kämpfen – von Deutschland bis Bangladesch

Bestimmt habt ihr schon von der großen Klimaklage gegen die deutsche Bundesregierung gehört: Insgesamt gab es vier Verfassungsbeschwerden, die das Bundesverfassungsgericht anhielten, die Klimapolitik der Bundesregierung zu prüfen. Die indigene Anwältin Yi Yi Prue hat gemeinsam mit anderen Organisationen und Personen geklagt. Und das Bundesverfassungsgericht hat ihnen bei- und Deutschland zu mehr Klimaschutz verpflichtet. Was das genau bedeutet und warum Klimaschutz in Deutschland auch heißt, in den globalen Süden zu schauen, erklärt Yi Yi Prue im .divers Interview.

What was your climate lawsuit before the ‚Bundesverfassungsgericht‘ about in detail? Which organisations and persons were involved?

What we submitted was a constitutional complaint for Germany’s failure to legislate on sufficient climate protection measures. We wanted to force Germany – as a state which is heavily responsible for global warming – to respect its commitment of the climate summit in Paris in 2015 to contribute its share to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees, preferably to 1.5 degrees. We see this as a strategy to protect our human rights to live safely and our survival.

In late summer of 2019 Prof. Dr. Remo Klinger, a human rights lawyer, and I sat together and discussed possible legal action on climate justice. To develop a constitutional complaint was what seemed realistic to us. Remo Klinger contacted Deutsche Umwelthilfe to support the case.

I went back to Bangladesh and contacted communities that feel the impacts of climate change already today. They are facing landslides because of heavy monsoon rains, more frequent and stronger storms including super cyclones, displacement because of river bank erosion, increasing salinity of ground water because of floods at the sea coast, heat waves during the summer. We wanted to include a number of young plaintiffs as well who will face the impacts of climate change much more in future.

I explained about our idea to develop this case. There were many affected persons who were ready to be part of this. We only could include a few of them and finally 15 persons were chosen to be plaintiffs. They were from different backgrounds:

The urban poor in Dhaka: already now many people in Bangladesh become climate refugees every day. They move to the big cities and live in the informal sector, for example as rikshaw drivers or house maids; Indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts; and Munda indigenous villages in the mangrove forests in the South West of Bangladesh.

What is your work about and what was your specific role in this lawsuit?

I am a lawyer and an indigenous woman. So my role was to contact communities in South Asia. Later we limited this to Bangladesh and Nepal, because we had to do the whole preparation of the constitutional complaint with our own money.

In the beginning it was not easy to talk to people who live in very difficult circumstances because we could not offer them anything to make their lives easier. For them a constitutional complaint in a country like Germany is very far away. But it was already not easy for them to understand that their suffering has a common cause: climate change. They only see the disasters that bring crisis to their lives. My role was to discuss with them, listen to them, explain our objectives, clarify that they do not have any material benefit from being involved in the case. They trusted me because they understood that I have a similar background. In one place they tested me if I really speak my indigenous mother language. In the end, many persons wanted to be part of this case as plaintiffs.

But there are comments in some news blogs in Germany that we perhaps offered them something to convince them to sign the “Power of attorney”. This is not true at all! They welcomed us in their villages, they were happy that somebody is listening to their situation.

Later I coordinated the group of plaintiffs. I stayed in touch with them, followed the development of their community lives. I also explained to them what happened about the case in Germany. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, some of them organised a group of volunteers who did a research on the situation of the community which we submitted to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People in Geneva. They see this work as part of their struggles to survive.

Although this lawsuit was against the german federal government, this whole campaign and this lawsuit is not only about Germany – it is concerning the world and its climate. Can you elaborate on this?

In the fight for climate justice there are law cases against governments and companies in different countries now. Even in Germany there were four constitutional cases and one private case against RWE energy company at the same time. In the Netherlands activists had already won a constitutional complaint against the government before us, and a case against Shell petrol company a few weeks after our case. Internationally there are more than 100 cases now taking up climate change issues.

Our constitutional complaint was observed by many governments and organisations around the world. I think it shows that states cannot continue as before. The time has come for change. Climate justice is on the international agenda!

It is important that not only governments negotiate. The government of Bangladesh is very active about climate justice on the international level. But inside the country the discussion has been very limited, mainly focussing on climate adaptation. Therefore, it is important that marginalised communities raise their voice. They are living in crisis today.

How did the idea arise to file a lawsuit going out from Bangladesh against Germany? Can you explain the relationship and the connections? If you like, you can go into capitalist, racist and imperialist dynamics as this is a complex topic.

I belong to Marma indigenous community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in south-eastern Bangladesh. We are a small ethnic group living on the border to Myanmar. My home town is Bandarban. When I grew up there was a civil war in the Chittagong Hill Tracts because indigenous communities demanded the rights over their lands and forests. Many of the 11 peoples in the region had lost their homes and lands when Kaptai dam, a river dam was built in the 1960s and many people were displaced by the artificial lake several times. So people suffered from discrimination and destruction of environment already.

When I was a young woman I have been affected by landslides myself. In the monsoon rains a landslide took away the houses of our neighbours in front of my eyes. Then also one wall of our house fell. We were saved, but I remember the situation very well until today. Later I studied to become a lawyer and got accredited to Dhaka Judge Court. I thought about how I could use my knowledge as a lawyer to support my community and other people suffering from discrimination.

In 2017 again the monsoon was very strong. This time in two districts more than 100 people were killed by landslides, many lost their houses and became displaced in my home region, the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I went to visit the victims of these landslides. Then I wrote a study on the effects of landslides on indigenous communities. Obviously the situation was not only a natural disaster, but at least partly human made: deforestation on the hills, people displaced by the Kaptai lake and settling higher on the hills, but also human made climate change.

With this report I contacted organisations and lawyers in many countries, in Australia, USA, France, Netherlands, Nepal, India and Germany. Because of this in 2019 Prof. Remo Klinger, a human rights lawyer from Berlin and I met in order to discuss how we could develop legal action in this situation.

For me as an indigenous woman, it is important to understand why things happen. We are suffering from multiple crises. One part of it is discrimination. Germany only this year, in April 2021 ratified the International Labour Organisation Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO C169) which was written in 1989. Norway and Mexico did this already in 1990, Nepal in 2007. However Bangladesh has not yet accepted it. We have to struggle for our rights. But we have to understand that there are also other marginalised people who are suffering. We can work together. Maybe, the ILO C169 will give us new opportunities to make our issues heard.

Climate change is not only regarding the future and the climate goals until 2050, it is also about the present: Today, climate change already affects the planet and humans deeply and even deathly. Can you tell us about the situation in Bangladesh and Nepal and can you tell us why it is so important to act today? 

I want to tell you about one experience that touched me a lot. In October 2019 I visited a Munda village in the south west of Bangladesh. The Munda are an extremely marginalised community who moved into that region about 200 years ago from some places in India. They settled in the mangrove forests, developed the land and are living from agriculture and fishery.

When I asked for a glass of water, they first hesitated to give me water. The quality of the water was very bad. It was dirty and tasted bitter. The drinking water for humans and their animals is of poor quality and dangerous for them. Their villages are so close to the sea that the salty sea water is contaminating the ground water already. Salinity is increasing.

They already are living under very difficult circumstances. In May 2020 super cyclone Amphan hit their villages. People were evacuated into shelters. In normal days these shelters are schools. So children missed their classes. When the cyclone was gone, more than 100 villages were destroyed. The land was under water because the sea had moved over the land for many kilometres. A few weeks later monsoon rains started and flooded the region more. Over six months the villages were under water. Much property was lost, people went away as migrant workers to earn some money because agriculture was not possible on the land contaminated by sea water.

Here in the capital Dhaka as also in other big towns, every week people arrive as climate refugees because they cannot resettle anywhere else. They work in the informal sector or in garment factories. They often have to move away from where they build simple huts, because investors want to use the plots for house construction.

We do not have to wait for global warming to increase by 1.5 degrees. It is today and now that we can see what is the impact of climate change.

Villagers in Shyamnagar Subdistrict of Bangladesh are demanding a dike against floods. After cyclone Yaas on 26 May 2021, the area was flooded again by the sea.

Who exactly is affected the most? Who has to be heard? Which groups are the most vulnerable and why? How can they be supported? 

There are many people who are affected by climate change. But some are affected in several ways. Last year the people displaced by super cyclone Amphan were evacuated into shelters in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Health services are weak in the rural areas.

When humanitarian aid is distributed, often indigenous villages are reached last, because they are in remote areas. Women and girls also suffer additionally because they have to stay in the place while their men are going away for work. One woman, also a plaintiff in the constitutional complaint, told me that her house was destroyed twice by cyclones.

People do not wait for help. They have to continue to live. In my home region Chittagong Hill Tracts a few days ago, in May 2021, an indigenous village burnt down, probably because a kitchen fire got out of control. After many years of development projects, fire services did not function well, roads were in a bad situation. There was no solution for the case of fire in the village, although such situations happen regularly.

People had lost everything. But the next day they started to build new houses themselves. They work together. It is important to recognise that indigenous people are community oriented. They share all they have. Development projects like Kaptai dam and lake destroy these communities and make people become displaced.

It is important to listen to people. It is important to give them their voice. It is important that people get their rights. That is why the German Constitutional Court judgement is so important: it recognises our right to freedom, our right to a future.

How are you now, after the verdict? How did the people in Bangladesh react?

When I heard about the judgement, I was happy, because our rights were recognised as were the rights of young people in Germany belonging to Fridays for Future.

But soon we are back in our situation. We are not good now. Here we have heat waves and recently on 26 May 2021, cyclone Yaas has attacked the coastal areas. There were many flooded villages again.

At the same time the governments have to make serious decisions to protect life. That is why we will watch closely what will happen in Germany and other countries after this court decision. That is why we want and need to continue to raise our voices because for us it is about our human rights, our rights to live safely and our survival.

What does this decision mean? Do you think that it was a „one time only“ thing or did it get something going, juridically and politically? What does it mean for german and international politics? 

The decision of the German Constitutional Court changed the game in favour of our objectives. The Court recognised our rights to freedom as well as that of future generations. So now we have to watch closely how Germany and other countries are implementing new legislation and taking climate change serious.

But we know also that in many countries environmental activists are threatened because investors want to take their lands and forests. Especially indigenous peoples are very vulnerable. In the Philippines, in December 2020 a group of indigenous leaders who met to discuss how to protect their lands were killed. People need to be protected in order to observe if decisions by courts are implemented.

How do you look into the future? Are you hopefully looking towards drastic changes and radical shifts? How much latitude do politics have left after this legal decision? 

Political decision makers in the states that are responsible for the largest part of CO2 emissions need to make clear and specific decisions to stop this. Only clear rules will make it possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees as agreed in Paris. It is good if individuals take care about their life styles themselves, but they cannot make the rules for energy companies, car companies, airlines and other large emitters. That is why we submitted the Constitutional complaint to force Germany to tighten its climate protection laws.

What can we do now, after the verdict? What has to be done next?  Which role can international movements, campaigns and alliances play in putting pressure on politicians?

We have to know about each other and must work together to confront the climate crisis. What is our situation today will become your situation tomorrow. What lessons we learn from our struggles for survival can become important for your survival tomorrow. We do not want to beg for your help. We want you to understand that this is a common struggle and we can learn from one another.

Time is running. The question is if governments will act today or tomorrow. If they waste time, it will be too late. It could be too late for many people.

Do you want to add something?

One old man in the Munda community in the south west of Bangladesh told me that „we always lived in crisis, but maybe now we have to leave this place soon“. For him this is reality now, for people in other places the same can happen in future, if we do not act together to stop global warming.

Interview: Jule Waizenegger
Bilder mit freundlicher Genehmigung von Hagen Berndt
und Ranjit Barman

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