Podcast: Princess Esméralda of Belgium, journalist, documentary‐maker, environmental activist, and President of the King Leopold III Fund for Nature Exploration and Conservation

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Common Home Conversations Beyond UN75

March 24, 2021

Kimberly White
Hello and welcome to Common Home Conversations. Today we are joined by Princess Esméralda of Belgium, journalist, documentary‐maker, environmental activist, and President of the King Leopold III Fund for Nature Exploration and Conservation. Thank you so much for joining us today!

Princess Esméralda
Thank you for inviting me.

Kimberly White
So you’re the President of the King Leopold III Fund for Nature Exploration, and Conservation. Can you tell us more about the King Leopold Fund and what it aims to accomplish?

Princess Esméralda
Yeah, sure, it was created by my father in 1972. And I have to tell you that my father was a pioneer in the field of the environment because as a young, very young man in the 1930s, he was already very concerned about the state of nature and the way human beings were having an impact on biodiversity. And he made a speech in 1934, in London, saying that his generation had absolutely no excuse not to see all the damage that we were already doing on the natural world. So that’s pretty early in the time. And then, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he traveled extensively, especially in Latin America, in the Amazon. He spent several months with Indigenous communities there. And he decided to create this fund, not only to scientifically explore nature but also to protect it, and to protect the Indigenous communities that he had seen were the best custodians of our biodiversity. So he created this fund, and after his death in 1983, I became President, and we are very active. Actually, we finance probably between 10 and 20 missions a year all over the world, both in the field of exploration and in the field of conservation.

Kimberly White
That’s very impressive. So can you tell us about some of the most recent missions you’re funding?

Princess Esméralda
Yeah, sure. So we have done a lot of missions in Africa lately, related to the big apes. So you might know that there is a very important park in Africa called Virunga, which is a jewel of biodiversity and has also the famous gorillas, which at one point were on the brink of extinction. And luckily, now really, their population has grown again. And it’s really a big success, although it’s a part of Africa, which is extremely volatile because there’s a lot of violence and armed conflict. And so there are many problems. But we work also closely with the park, and we have done some missions there to scientifically study those species, and that’s only one example. But then we have also a lot of missions in South America, also sometimes in North America. Whether it is to study some new species of insects, so it’s very diverse, we have really a lot of different missions.

Kimberly White
That’s amazing. And I love the work that you’re doing in Virunga, it’s great because with mountain gorillas and with all gorillas, really, they are critically endangered. And right now, the conservation efforts have been extremely helpful. And currently, I think they’re the only great ape in the world with an increasing population.

Princess Esméralda
Yes, it’s fantastic.

Kimberly White
So, you and your daughter climbed Kilimanjaro in 2019 to raise funds for an NGO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hero Women Rising. Can you tell us more about this experience and what led you to do this?

Princess Esméralda
Ah, it was my meeting with an extraordinary woman, and this woman is named Neema Namadamu, she’s from the DRC. She’s from Kivu, which is a province of the South, which is extremely dangerous for locals, but especially for women. The violence against women is terrible. And I met Neema, and she told me about her life. And let me just tell you in a few minutes about her life. She got polio when she was very young. I think she was two. And immediately, her father said, “If I have a daughter who has polio, she will never be able to marry,”- which is something very important in the community there. And so he left his wife. And Neema’s mother said, “I want to give a chance to my daughter to go to school.” And because they lived in a village, and there was no way they could find a way to get to school, which was quite far, far away. She decided, yes, she would take her daughter to school, and she took her on her back every day. I think it was about five or six kilometers every day to go to the school. Until Neema became an adolescent, it was difficult at that time for her mother to carry her. So she sent her in the valley down where she could easily go to school. And Neema said, “For the love of my mother, I have to continue to go to school.”

She probably was the first of her community to go all the way to university, to graduate from university. All the time, because she said I have to do something for my mother who really sacrificed so much for me. And then Neema said, “I want to do the same for the girls of my community.” And a few years later, she decided to create a program for the girls to keep girls in school. Because what happens also in many regions of the world, and there particularly, is that when the girls have their first menstruation, they miss school for a few days because they don’t have all the necessary tools. And then the parents say, “Oh, their results are not so good, we should stop. Why do we pay for school if the girls have such bad marks?” So Neema decided to go to school to teach the girls to show them what you can do if you have an education. And she has been extremely successful with her program to keep girls at school. And I said, “Okay, she inspired me so much, because she, with so many handicaps, not only physical but also due to the violence and the situation in her country. And she managed to achieve so many things.” So I said, “Okay, I will do something which is not comparable, but it’s also an effort. I will climb Kilimanjaro with my daughter to raise funds for her organization.” And that’s what we did. It was a wonderful experience, first of all, because I was with my daughter, and because it’s a very beautiful place. So yes, it’s something very special for me, this memory.

Kimberly White
Her story is inspiring. I know with advancing gender equality and empowering women, we can deliver those cross-sectoral long-term solutions to climate change. In fact, in 2019, Project Drawdown had listed in their solutions to climate change that educating girls is the sixth most important solution to mitigate the climate crisis. So the work she’s doing in the DRC is amazing.

Princess Esméralda
Yeah, absolutely. Because you educate girls as we just said, first of all, they continue being educated. So they don’t marry too early, they don’t have children too early, they learn about the environment, they become really interested, they have solutions on the ground, there are so many advantages to that.

Kimberly White
Absolutely, and women are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. I think the latest statistic was 80 percent of those people who have been displaced by the major weather events caused by climate change are women and girls. So it’s imperative that we not only focus our solutions on them, but we need to include them in the decision-making process as well.

Princess Esméralda
Absolutely, because as you say, they are very much impacted. Because first of all, they are among the poorest in society in the developing countries. And also because they are the ones in charge of water collection, of food collection, for heating, and for cooking. So they are impacted by extreme weather events. But they are not only victims, as you rightly said; they are also agents of change and of solutions because they know so well the situation on the ground.

Kimberly White
Absolutely. And another initiative that you’ve been an ardent supporter of has been the Stop Ecocide initiative. Now, ecocide is defined as the vast destruction of nature resulting from human activities. Can you elaborate on this, what the initiative hopes to accomplish, and what are some of the challenges of getting ecocide recognized as a crime?

Princess Esméralda
Well, the idea that companies and institutions can damage the earth, Mother Earth, as they are doing right now, whether it is by oil spilling or by mining and poisoning the rivers, I mean, the fact that nobody is accountable for that is something terrible, because they are really killing our life support system. So it would be something really fantastic if it could be declared as a crime against peace, a crime against humanity, like genocide is. And actually, it is very often linked because when you have a major accident in the Amazon or burning forests because of timber exploitation, they often, or actually, every time the human rights of the local populations are threatened. So I think it would be a major, major step, and I hope it will be recognized by the international tribunals’ court. But of course, now, what they are trying to do, the campaign of Stop Ecocide, is to find the right formulation, the right description of the crime, and this will take probably a few months, and then hopefully we will have a chance to succeed. I should add that what it would do, it would make them accountable because you cannot make a company accountable in this kind of action. But you can make the CEO or the President of the company accountable. And that would have a major impact probably.

Kimberly White
That was actually one of the things I found interesting about the Stop Ecocide initiative. What they proposed is that by making ecocide a criminal offense, it goes beyond just a slap on the wrist, such as fines, which the companies often budget for. So it would actually bring forth real consequences for the offenders, which could include being arrested. That could cause some change.

Princess Esméralda
Yeah, really, it would be something important, and I think more and more countries are beginning to understand the value of that.

Kimberly White
And I believe Belgium recently introduced a bill to make ecocide a crime. Is that correct?

Princess Esméralda
Yes, absolutely.

Kimberly White
That’s great. We really need to see more countries taking action on this.

Princess Esméralda
And of course, there are some very famous supporters because Pope Francis has spoken already many times about the notion of ecocide.

Kimberly White
Getting that high-level support is great. Ecocide should be recognized as a crime, so I think the work that they’re doing is fantastic and very much needed, especially as we’re dealing with the converging climate and biodiversity crises.

Princess Esméralda
Yes, absolutely.

Kimberly White
So we were touching on the Amazon just a few minutes ago. And I want to dive into that a little bit further. Last month, you took part in a very special event called Protect the Amazon, which sought to amplify Amazonian Indigenous voices. Could you share with us some of the key takeaways and calls to action from this event?

Princess Esméralda
Yes, we wanted to really amplify the voices of the Indigenous communities in the Amazon, which are suffering so much at the moment. First of all, with the pandemic, because they really have a second wave there, which is very frightening. And they don’t have access to vaccines. And they have been, really if we can say forgotten, whether it is voluntarily or not by the government. So we wanted to hear about that, but also about the crisis, the biodiversity loss, which is happening because the forest is burning, has been burning in 2019, in 2020, more and more, and most of those fires were, of course, criminal. And it is all the time increasing, because there are invasions of their lands by farmers, by miners, and loggers. And so we wanted to hear from them what is the message. And the message is, “We are the best custodians of the forest.”

The Amazon, if it’s burning at the rate as it is now, may get to a tipping point where it becomes a savannah, which will be a disaster for the climate of the whole world actually, and for the cycle of water especially. And because those communities are the best guardians, they say, “Please help us. We need to have our lands demarcated. We need more lands demarcated. And you have to denounce all the products which are coming to Europe and to the US and to China, from illegal deforestation.” In a way, we are complicit when we consume all those products, whether it’s wood or meat. And that was their message, “Please, we are saving biodiversity for the whole of the world. Please help us. We cannot do that alone.”

Kimberly White
Yeah, and on the Amazon fires, we touched on this a little bit in an interview with Maria Antonia Tigre, with the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment, which was, the 2019 Amazon fires made global headlines, but the 2020 fire season set new records, and that didn’t receive as much coverage, probably due to everything going on with COVID. But it was an area equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom that burned across Brazil up until September.

Princess Esméralda
Yeah, exactly. And as you say, because there was the pandemic, everybody was a bit focused on that. And that was probably one of the reasons that all the illegal farmers and loggers had some more, you know, the possibility of doing so because the whole world was not watching.

Kimberly White
Absolutely, and there were some instances where the authorities were kept from going out because fieldwork was deemed unsafe. So it gave the illegal loggers, the illegal miners, and ranchers this kind of free rein to do whatever they wanted. And it was detrimental.

Princess Esméralda
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Besides, they were bringing also the disease with them very often because the communities were so vulnerable to those contacts, and they were the vector of the virus several times.

Kimberly White
Yeah, it’s been heartbreaking to see because it is something we need to talk about, and with COVID, a lot of these messages have, unfortunately, been lost in the midst of news coverage. It’s been tragic everywhere, but especially in those Indigenous communities who have been hit harder, not just in the Amazon, but everywhere. Indigenous communities in the United States were hit much harder than other communities.

Princess Esméralda
Yeah, you’re right to say that because also, we can talk about the second-largest rainforest in the world, which is in the middle of Africa. And the Congo Basin forest, which is also very much under threat from loggers and many big corporations there, and obviously doesn’t make as many headlines as the Amazon. So it’s a message really, which is global, the Indigenous communities all over the world, in all the countries, and the US, are threatened. Their rights are threatened, and their very livelihood also.

Kimberly White
And for our listeners at home, is there a place that you recommend that they go to learn more from the event, such as a website, or is there an initiative that you would like to point them to?

Princess Esméralda
Well, the program is now on-demand on EarthX TV. So it can be seen the two parts, we made it in four parts, and they are being added every week. So it’s possible to see. And, of course, it’s really nice to hear and informative to hear all what the Indigenous leaders had to say on the program.

Kimberly White
Globally, there has been a lot of concern regarding the destruction of the Amazon, especially in recent years, as we just discussed with the spike in fires. However, despite this growing concern, there are no incentives in place for the conservation or restoration of the Amazon. A key theme of last month’s special was highlighting our common future and responsibility to work with Indigenous peoples and to help preserve one of the natural world’s most vital resources, the Amazon. How can the legal recognition and protection of the earth system, as proposed by the Common Home of Humanity, help preserve this critical ecosystem?

Princess Esméralda
I think it’s a very important concept. To just realize that we live on the same planet, we breathe the same air, we depend so much on nature, and on everything that it gives us, not only for our physical needs but for our mental needs. And we have to treat this planet, this environment, the way it deserves, and not continue to destroy it with impunity. We are already at a point which is catastrophic for biodiversity and for the climate. So we have to realize that it is our responsibility, of each one of us.

Kimberly White
Absolutely. And to dive in a little bit further, do you think the common heritage concept for the earth system would better enable us to manage the climate and biodiversity crises?

Princess Esméralda
Yes, it would certainly bring a complete change of spirit, a change of mind.

Kimberly White
My next question is regarding the NDC Synthesis Report that came out in February. The UNFCCC recently released that report which measures the progress of National Climate Action Plans. However, despite current NDCs, we are falling far short of the level of action needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. So we’re really at a make-or-break moment with the climate emergency, and business as usual is not getting us there. In your opinion, where do we go from here? How can we raise our collective ambition and garner the political will necessary to address this existential threat?

Princess Esméralda
I think it’s quite disheartening to see that we are in 2021, six years after the Paris Accord and that we have had so many fantastic words and speeches and promises, as you just mentioned, not much action. So I think we have very little time left. So the scientists tell us that this is the decade that we have to act, and we have to go much faster. So the politics don’t seem to be at the same pace as we need. So I really very much think that it is our responsibility, each of us, all the citizens, to put maximum pressure on our leaders for them to act now. And this is at every level, I mean, the local level, the national level, and the global level. It’s only if we, all the citizens, all the people who can vote, all the young people who are really afraid and shouting in the street. I mean, we have to support them, the young people. We have to support the Indigenous people. We have to make the biggest coalition. We can do something. This is our common future. And it’s not so much in the future, actually, because so many people are already suffering today. If you see all that happened in the US last year, the fires, the hurricanes, if you see what happened in the Amazon, if you see what’s happening in Africa, in Asia, it’s everywhere, people are already dying and suffering. And this is only going to get worse unless we all become activists in our own way. I don’t mean that everybody has to go in the street, no, but everybody has to do something for it. Whether it is to speak to our local politician or our banker, all of that is useful to put the maximum pressure on the people who decide.

Kimberly White
Absolutely, and as individuals, we really do have that power to make a difference as well. And going back to what we were discussing about the Amazon, a lot of that is consumer-driven. So we can make those choices to support companies that are doing things responsibly, ethically, and sustainably, instead of supporting companies that are funding the deforestation happening in the Amazon or funding all of this environmental degradation. When it comes down to it, well, we vote with our dollars essentially.

Princess Esméralda
Yes, it’s, it’s something we can do every day. We can choose the products which are not coming from deforestation. Make a little bit of research about the companies and also do some research about the banks, because the financial institution, of course, is a big part in all that funding, sometimes projects which are really destroying the environment. So we can talk to the people in our bank and say that we don’t like when they finance this or that project, we have as a citizen, a lot of power.

Kimberly White
And with the finance, we’ve been seeing this shift from several of the big banks where they’re starting to recognize to ensure their own survival, they’re going to have to get on board with climate action, whether they like it or not. We’ve seen several commitments to stop funding for oil exploration and drilling out in the Arctic as well, and that came from pressure from citizens. It came from people standing up and saying, “We’re not going to support you if you keep doing this.”

Princess Esméralda
Yes, it’s essential that the citizens take that in their hands and put pressure. And it’s, as you said, it’s the financial institutions, it’s also the universities. When students say to their university, “We don’t want you to have investments in fossil fuels or in industries that are polluting and destroying the environment.” Well, it has an effect, several universities have already, and several in the US and the UK, and elsewhere have already decided to divest. And that was the pressure from all the students.

Kimberly White
That’s fantastic. And it just continues to show that we are capable of doing this, we are capable of moving the needle and, you know, with our elected officials, we elect them, so we have to make sure that they’re standing up for the values that we believe in, protecting our planet and protecting our global community.

Princess Esméralda
Of course, it’s not always easy because there are a lot of very powerful lobbies against us. But if we are many, many, many, we can make a difference.

Kimberly White
Absolutely. Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience?

Princess Esméralda
I really want to give a message of hope because I know that it can make an enormous difference. If as many people as possible take a stand and really try to do something to save, I won’t say our planet because the planet can survive, but to save ourselves, our species, and so many other animal species around us, which are on the brink of extinction. So we really have to do something all together.

Kimberly White
Alright, and there you have it. We all live on the same planet, and we breathe the same air. We depend on nature and everything that it gives us. When it comes to the existential threats that we are currently facing, whether it’s the climate crisis or biodiversity loss, it’s up to us to put pressure at every level of government and society to ensure our common future. That is all for today, and thank you for joining us for this episode of Common Home Conversations Beyond UN75. Please subscribe, share, and be sure to tune in on April 7th to continue the conversation with our special guest, Frank Biermann, Professor of Global Sustainability Governance at Utrecht University, Director of the ERC GlobalGoals project, Founder of the Earth System Governance Project, and Editor of the Earth System Governance journal. And visit us at www.ThePlanetaryPress.com for more episodes and the latest news in sustainability, climate change, and the environment.

 

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