An interview with Dipti Bhatnagar by Kiyoka Tokumasu and Kohei Usuda
Global awareness of climate change has reached critical mass in recent times, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of young activists at the grassroots level. A feminist perspective, however, has been conspiciously absent from the public discourse on the climate crisis, even though it disproportionally affects women’s livelihoods across developing countries from Asia to Africa. Voice Up Japan recently caught up with Dipti Bhatnagar, a visiting climate justice and energy coordinator at Friends of the Earth, to learn about the connection between gender and climate issues. In our extensive interview, she walked us through concepts such as gender justice, the importance of building solidarity across “different struggles,” and difficulties women are facing in Japan as well as the rest of the world.
Can you tell us about Friends of the Earth?
Friends of the Earth is one of the biggest environmental grassroots federations in the world. We have member groups in 73 countries ー including North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia Pacific ー and we work on different environmental justice issues. Our member groups are independent organizations and each group works with the local communities.
What do you do at Friends of the Earth?
My job is to coordinate the climate justice and energy program for Friends of the Earth International. I’m based in Mozambique, and I also support work on local climate and energy issues that our country is facing. My local organization is called Justiça Ambiental, which means environmental justice in Portuguese and we are Friends of the Earth Mozambique. One such project we are working on at the moment is the “stop the gas project” in northern Mozambique. Ten years ago, a big liquefied natural gas reserve was discovered off the coast of northern Mozambique, and now the government wants to develop it and extract the gas. This decision affects the environment and the local population the most: lots of fishermen have been displaced, lost their land and their access to the sea, and it will completely destroy the biodiverse fishing area, which is one of the UNESCO reserve areas. Major companies ー including Japan’s Sumitomo Mitsui bank, Tokyo Gas, and the JBIC ー are considering funding this project, and we are fighting to stop their efforts. In this age of climate change, we need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground and look for alternative sources of energy.
What does climate justice mean?
Climate change is, by definition, unjust. The people who caused the climate crisis and the people who are facing the impacts are different. The people who are facing the impacts did not create the crisis, so there is an inherent injustice to this. For example, if I spill water on the floor and you are the one who has to clean it up, that is not just. Since the climate crisis is unjust, we need to fight for justice within it. The climate justice philosophy means addressing the climate crisis in a holistic way, so that we also help to deal with other crises such as gender inequality, and other pressing issues at the same time.
What is the connection between climate justice and gender justice?
It’s the same power relations that caused the climate crisis and women to be hired less by companies, so we see the narrative as connected. The system that created the climate crisis is the capitalist system, but it is also a racist and patriarchal system. It has always ignored the needs of black and brown bodies, as well as the needs of women. When we look through this approach, we also look at gender justice and racial justice. We must look at how this is impacting people who have been ignored all these years by the system and give power to those people as part of moving forward with climate justice. Our approach needs to start from understanding these structural injustices, understanding how racism and patriarchy work, and how capitalism concentrates power. When we understand these issues from the base and bring solutions that will change those power relations, that’s when we see that all these things are connected and we move ahead to be able to create a different type of world. That can also be a way to start building the linkages between the organizations, between the different struggles, so that we don’t see our work as completely separate.
Why did you decide to base your activities in Mozambique?
I am originally from India, and I moved to Mozambique. My partner is Mozambican and we are both activists and we support each other’s work. Mozambique is a place that is already heavily affected by the forces of climate change. As you may know, we had two big cyclones last year (Cyclone Idai and Kenneth), which devastated our country. The situation is very unjust because those affected did not create the climate crisis. It’s the rich countries that have created the climate crisis and you have the poor countries paying the price. So for me to be in Mozambique and look at the climate crisis from their perspective is really important, because Africa is going to be the one most affected.
Why do you think the bushfires in Australia and Brazil gained so much attention from the media when similar effects of climate change are being seen in central Africa?
I think the scale of the fires in the Amazon and Australia were bigger, so that could be one reason. But at the same time, in Africa, so many stories go completely unnoticed because there’s much less media presence there, and there is much less focus of the world on the continent. People forget that we are all connected. They don’t realize that we are all on the same Earth, and if something happens to Africa it’s inevitably going to happen somewhere else. Africa is already facing very horrible climate impacts and we need to raise our voice, and so I try to bring those stories to the international level.
What motivates you to continue your activism?
I’ve been an activist for 20 years. In the beginning, I worked in a movement in India that was fighting against constructing dams. The dam struggle, “Save the Narmada River,” is still ongoing, and this year will mark their 35th year of struggle.
When you work directly with people who are impacted, that’s when you get the strength to keep going because you see people struggling first hand. Seeing the direct impacts that an issue has on people and the anger I feel from their injustice is what motivates me to keep going. The world is so unjust, and if I can do my small part to reduce this injustice, it means everything to me. This is what drives me everyday.
What is one important lesson you have learned through your activism?
When I decided to be an activist, I had no idea if I’d ever earn my livelihood from it. I spent years as a volunteer, because it was important for me to learn that money isn’t everything in life. The satisfaction I got from that work was much more than I would’ve got sitting in an office in a corporation. Before that, I was only used to school education, which was book education based on memorization. When I went to live in the villages of India for the anti-dam cause, I learned that people who have lived their entire lives facing all these struggles had so much to teach us.
Was there a specific turning point for you to become an activist?
One moment that I can think of is the September 11 attacks. At the time it happened, I was in the U.S. studying environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley. Seeing the reactions of the U.S. government following the terrorist attacks awoke something inside me, and I started off as an activist for anti-racism and anti-war causes. I read up on the history of racism in the United States, such as the mass killings of Native Americans, the slaves brought from Africa, and the Japanese internment camps during World War II. This is when I started to see the big structural aspects and was able to make connections between these structural injustices. I think this discovery really started me on the road to understanding what money and power do. It completely changed my worldview.
How do you think grassroots activism and bottom-up approach can effectively influence the government?
When I first started being an activist, I thought the U.S. government was the problem. Then I was talking to some American people, and they said, “Well, isn’t the government a reflection of us? So if the U.S. government is doing it, doesn’t it reflect on us?” What I started to understand – and the many years since then – is that in a democracy, we need to hold our governments accountable. Because of power relations and money, our governments listen to corporations more than they listen to people. In the U.S., for example, corporations give a large amount of money to individual politicians for their political campaigns. A lot of politicians get money from the fossil fuel lobby and they can’t speak against them. Once we start to lose our democracy, it’s going to get a lot harder to fight for anything. Getting people to vote, and changing the power in that way, is still possible. This is the work of democracy rebuilding that we need to do right now, everywhere in the world.
How do you think we can get more people engaged politically in Japan?
We need to connect on a more human level with people. I know that Japan culturally is much more formal. But within that, we have to find a way of connecting people. There are so many people here who face depression, because everyone is hiding their feelings. And I think this is the culture that we need to change. We can have formality and continue to operate in the way that Japanese society operates. But within that, do we have some spaces where we can actually show our emotion and process our traumas?
If I have to be a strong activist, it’s not because I’m stone-faced. It’s because I know how to show my emotions so it doesn’t kill me inside. I came to a realization that there’s so much big injustice to deal with that I have to make myself strong. That doesn’t mean I have to put on a mask; it’s quite the opposite. To make myself strong is to show my vulnerability, because the world the way it is has affected me too. How many times have I been sexually harassed? I need to use that to make me stronger instead of breaking me down. We need to take care of ourselves as activists in order to be strong as a collective. A table is not going to stand if its legs are weak. So we need to make each of those legs strong, and build this strong table together.
What is one message that you want to convey to young activists?
We have to allow ourselves to feel emotional about the reality that the world is in a very deep crisis on many levels. That there are people who are facing personal and societal traumas. We cannot fight alone, and we should not be fighting alone, because these problems are really big. So we need to find ways to build community, sisterhood, brotherhood, to come together with people, to educate ourselves, and to keep taking steps forward. Maybe not everyone can become an activist, but there’s a space for everyone to engage in personal actions, and to think about your own consumption and reduce it. But at the same time, always remember: we need to change the power relations. How do we do that? It’s building power for many, instead of the power for the few. I think that’s the big message.
So that’s what each individual can do?
Individual and collective. Because collective action is really important when you want to change power relations. Individual actions will not change power relations – or not so easily.