‘We were wrong to think the environment could wait’
Lidy Nacpil grew up in Metro Manila in the Philippines. A passionate environmentalist, she started out as a student protester in the early 1980s, part of the movement against the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and now heads up anti-debt campaign Jubilee South Asia.
Amy Hall spoke to Nacpil at the Friends of the Earth conference in London on Saturday 15 September where the 52-year-old veteran campaigner spoke on economics, building a global climate movement and appeared in the closing rally with fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and MP Caroline Lucas.
Do you think more needs to be done to link environmental and economic justice?
Yes, in the South especially because we already have a lot of people involved with some of the big economic justice questions, especially because it really impacts on the day-to-day survival, but somehow we haven’t established that quite as clearly as far as climate is concerned. It’s very important to talk about the atmosphere, greenhouse gases and so on because that’s the science, but if you start talking about those things to people on the street they’re really not going to understand and it’s very hard for them to be passionate and to care. We need to be able to translate what climate change is in terms of the economic and social problems that people are facing.
As a passionate climate campaigner, do you think we should be focusing on adaptation or prevention?
If the image of climate change for Africa is Africa burning, the image for us is of drowning
We have no choice, we have to do both. Globally the task is really about preventing it because we have very little time, the impacts are really profound and already we are feeling it. Whatever we are experiencing is going to be worse even if we reduce emissions to zero by tomorrow. Of course, especially for people who are impoverished and not just in the South, also here, the impacts are going to be greater and therefore there’s going to be a huge need for people to learn how to adapt and to deal with the loss and the damage that it will create. For many parts of the global population they have no choice.
How do you think campaigners can communicate this urgency to other people and to governments?
I think the answers are not new; it’s still the same painstaking kind of education work. Most people don’t know or don’t understand it and whatever information that they happen to get from mainstream media or from government may not be the right kind. I was surprised when I went to an island [in the Philippines] and spoke to the community. They knew about climate change because they said the local government did a seminar and the solution is to plant trees. It’s totally depoliticized.
We need to do that groundwork in order to galvanise people because unless there’s millions of people on the streets, or on radio, or clamouring for governments to do something about it they’re not going to move. If it was just a matter of really good studies, information, pictures in order to convince the policy makers, then we would have realised our objectives long time ago. It’s not enough because they have a lot of vested interests.
You were in Manila recently during the flooding, is that a normal occurrence for the area?
No. Actually the first of such huge floods that we’d never witnessed before happened in September 2009. Metro Manila is one of the largest cities in the word. It has a population during day time of about 16 million people, so we have our share of huge roads – they just turned into these rivers of swirling waters and large areas like lakes with only tiny spots of roof tops. It’s something that we’ve never seen before – even our parents and grandparents have never seen it.
The following year it happened again in another part of the country, on the island of Mindanao [in the southeast of the Philippines]. The same images of devastation were there. Then a few weeks ago it happened again. Now I don’t think anyone can dare say that climate change doesn’t have anything to do with it. So if the image of climate change for Africa is Africa burning, the image for us is of drowning.
How did you first get involved in anti-poverty campaigning?
The dictatorship in the Philippines didn’t just mean violence and suppression of rights but also worsening poverty because of [Ferdinand Marcos] keeping the political power to himself. He was using that power to amass greater and greater wealth to control the economy. So for us the struggle against the dictatorship was not just about the human rights and freedoms; it was about the peoples’ survival in the face of robbery of the means to live.
It’s not just the North being in solidarity with the South any more, it’s a common fight
I think we were wrong in thinking at that time that environmental issues could wait. I think we should have integrated it so we would already be in a far stronger place today to wage the fight on climate change.
How important do you think cross border coalitions like debt-cancellation campaign Jubilee South are?
We used to think that global solidarity is important because we need people to be in solidarity with us in our national struggles, which is still true. But now I think there is an understanding that it’s a global system that’s responsible.
In our earlier fights we were saying we just need to break free from the political stranglehold; we just need to build an independent and democratic government that is not controlled by big business or these northern countries and so on. But you can’t say this any more because you need to change the system here [in the North] too. Solidarity has to be understood like that now. It’s not just the North being in solidarity with the South any more, it’s a common fight.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to global equality?
The first problem us ourselves. I think the biggest challenge is this idea that ‘it’s too difficult so let’s settle for the achievable goals.’ I cringe every time people say we have to be realistic; to be realistic is to have good plans but it doesn’t need to mean you have to settle for less. We need to be able to move people to aim big because no less is required.
Lidy Nacpil is currently the coordinator of Jubilee South Asia and vice president of Freedom from Debt Coalition in the Philippines.
Lidy Nacpil will be back in Britain in October as part of the Christian Aid Tax Justice Tour.