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Climate, land, andBIPOC leadership:Pursuing equity-centeredsolutions

On June 30, 2020, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released its final report to Congress, titled “Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy and Just America”. The report is the result of an inclusive process led by the Committee, which engaged BIPOC leadership, community-based organizations, and climate advocates, including Ecotrust.

The comprehensive report provides legislative recommendations to help address the climate crisis across all sectors of the economy, including agriculture, with a powerful orientation towards equity. Below is a summary of reflections Jamese Kwele, Ecotrust Director of Food Equity / Director of Equity, shared on the report in a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Rep. Earl Blumenauer.

The House Select Committee’s report on Solving the Climate Crisis is a powerful document, and its recommendations provide a clear roadmap for building resilient, equitable, regional food systems that will support mitigation and adaptation in the face of climate change. 

At Ecotrust, we recognize that Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) communities have the ability to be regional leaders in generating durable, creative, and equitable strategies that respond effectively to climate change. And yet systemic oppression continues to create barriers for our region’s frontline communities. We need significant social investment and bold economic policies that address inequality and ensure investment in the marginalized communities who bear the burden of climate change. The recommendations in the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’ report identify concrete actions we can take to remove barriers and invest in real change. 

As we lift up the climate stewardship practices referred to in the report as solutions, it is critical to also lift up the communities who have served as leaders in climate justice movements. We must acknowledge that climate stewardship practices mirror those that have long been used by people of color as a part of Indigenous and agroecological food production methods. In Farming While Black, farmer Leah Penniman writes about how George Washington Carver, an African American agricultural scientist and inventor born into enslavement in the 1860s, was a renaissance man when it comes to regenerative agriculture. And, globally, small farmers of color have long used growing practices that cool the planet while feeding most of the world. Today, these communities remain on the frontlines of climate change, but more importantly, the agroecological practices they developed are a crucial part of climate solutions. As we work collectively to advance research and development on climate-friendly practices, those who are leading these movements should be able to share in the knowledge, partake in these practices, and benefit equitably from policy change. 

Land access plays a critical role in this conversation. We know that who owns, manages, and accesses land is at the heart of the climate crisis, and a major driver of both wealth and inequality. Farmers of color face significant barriers to becoming land stewards, including structural socio-economic inequalities built by a history of discrimination and ongoing systemic racism. The symptoms of this unjust land ownership pattern manifest across our food system, disproportionately harming communities of color. Only 2 percent of private rural land and 4 percent of private agricultural lands are owned by people of color; in contrast, 80 percent of the farm workers who grow our food are Latinx. 

“As we work collectively to advance research and development on climate-friendly practices, those who are leading these movements should be able to share in the knowledge, partake in these practices, and benefit equitably from policy change.” — Jamese Kwele, Director of Food Equity / Director of Equity

Lack of land ownership hinders farmers of color from growing successful businesses and acting as leaders in the fight against climate change. Farmers of color across the Pacific Northwest, most of whom do not own the land they steward, are limited in their ability to take on long-term planning and farm infrastructure projects, including investing time and financial resources into implementing climate-smart farming methods. Yet, there is a window of opportunity to make change in this arena. In the coming two decades, a huge generational shift will result in almost two-thirds of Oregon and Washington’s agricultural land changing hands. We appreciate that the Select Committee’s Climate Action Plan accurately noted this, stating that, “This transition offers an opportunity to reshape the food system to prioritize climate stewardship in all communities; access to healthy, local, and culturally appropriate foods; and diversity among agricultural producers.”

Ecotrust works in collaboration with its partners to rebuild regional food systems that are equitable, resilient, and have the potential to play a significant role in repairing our ecosystems, advancing racial justice, building regenerative economies, and combating climate change. The Select Committee’s Climate Action plan not only provides a roadmap for turning agriculture into a climate solution, it does so using an approach that recognizes that climate solutions that do not center equity and justice are not solutions at all. The current health, economic, and climate crises in which we find ourselves, coupled with the clarion call for racial justice, make acting on the Select Committee’s recommendations all the more urgent.

Header photo of a new BIPOC-led farm on Wapato (Sauvie) Island, by Jamese Kwele